Wildlife Photographer Buys Illegal Cocaine Plantation

By John Lavitt 04/21/14

In an effort to help save the Peruvian rainforest, Charlie Hamilton James unwittingly bought dense forest used for cultivating cocaine.


When a friend asked a wildlife photographer to help save the Peruvian rainforest by buying a 100 acre parcel, Charlie Hamilton James thought it sounded like a good idea.

A Peruvian forest ranger from Manú National Park was desperately trying to gain control over a key piece of the Amazon, an easy access point for illegal loggers to gain entrance into the park. The only way to stop them would be to purchase the land. Afterwards, the ranger promised to legally build a guard station in order to prevent illegal access to the park.

The plan seemed quite straightforward to James – buy the land, stop the loggers, and thus do your part in saving the rain forest. After forking over $10,000, James decided to visit his sliver of Eden in the jungle. Following a tough journey, he arrived to find that he had bought, “an impenetrable tangle of dense scrub” that looked nothing like the idyllic rain forests he had shot for magazines.

But that was only the beginning of his nightmare; he soon discovered that the land was being used as an illegal cocaine plantation. Cocaine thrives on the slopes of the Andes. Although a small crop of only 3,000 plants in a cleared area, it was still a scene of high crime. Isolated in a lawless part of the country, James was caught in a bind. A local farmer told him, "You have bought the most dangerous piece of land, off the most dangerous family, in the most dangerous area of southern Peru.”

When harvest time came, there were no Colombians and no Uzis. The female pickers of the coca crop were amazed when told the value of their harvest abroad. They didn’t even know cocaine was illegal. After all, what does illegal mean in the ‘Wild West’ of Peru?

After the harvest, the threat of the cocaine crop for James passed into the challenge of preventing more illegal logging by the locals. It turned out the cocaine was a side business with a small profit margin when compared to the logging. James is doing his best to maintain the integrity of his so-called piece of paradise, but it’s an uphill battle against poverty. The future does not look very bright.

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Growing up in Manhattan as a stutterer, John Lavitt discovered that writing was the best way to express himself when the words would not come. After graduating with honors from Brown University, he lived on the Greek island of Patmos, studying with his mentor, the late American poet Robert Lax. As a writer, John’s published work includes three articles in Chicken Soup For The Soul volumes and poems in multiple poetry journals and compilations. Active in recovery, John has been the Treatment Professional News Editor for The Fix. Since 2015, he has published over 500 articles on the addiction and recovery news website. Today, he lives in Los Angeles, trying his best to be happy and creative. Find John on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.