Growers Bear Brunt of Plan Colombia

Growers Bear Brunt of Plan Colombia
Posted by FoM on March 11, 2002 at 08:12:02 PT
By Tim Collie, Foreign Correspondent 
Source: Orlando Sentinel
Arriving in tandem and trailing a fine white mist on a clear morning, the crop-dusters and military helicopters made nearly a dozen swooping passes over Gilma Ortiz's small mountain of coca.The Andean shrub -- whose oval leaves provide the raw ingredient for cocaine -- covers her 5-acre farm in neat rows running right to her porch and continuing up the slope behind her sagging wooden house.
During the next few weeks, the 3-foot-high shrubs will grow brittle from exposure to the chemical spray. The lime-green coca leaves will yellow and curl. The Ortiz family will lose a few hundred dollars and, for a while, a few less acres will be adding to the tons of cocaine produced by the southern Colombian state of Putumayo each year."What can you do?" said Ortiz, 48, as she surveyed plants stained and sticky with the herbicide glyphosate. "We'll either sell out and move on, or plant more. I just don't know right now."The same dilemma confronts thousands of other poor farmers in this remote province on the front lines of the war on drugs in Latin America. For just more than a year, a U.S.-backed effort known as Plan Colombia has been attempting to drive campesinos away from the illicit crop through a pay-or-spray strategy -- offering substitute food, crops and tools for their agreements to rip up their coca plants.Under the $7.5 billion Plan Colombia -- which includes $1.3 billion from the U.S. government -- each family is given 2 million pesos' (about $900) worth of goods after signing a contract agreeing to stop growing coca. Families can choose between cattle -- usually one or two head -- chickens, seeds and fertilizer. After receiving the assistance, they have six months to stop growing coca or risk being sprayed.If farmers don't sign on to the plan, their fields are sprayed with chemicals containing the weedkiller Roundup. The fumigation has angered farmers here and prompted criticism from European allies. Meanwhile, Colombia and the United States have produced wildly different estimates of how much of the coca crop has been eradicated.But simply letting coca grow in Putumayo may no longer be an alternative. If it has brought money to poor farmers, cocaine also has become the currency of Colombia's conflict. The coca leaf earns huge sums of money for rebel armies on both ends of the political spectrum.That cash -- estimated at hundreds of millions of dollars each year for irregular armies totaling only 35,000 soldiers -- has skewed a decades-old war, allowing guerrillas to buy sophisticated arms while terrorizing small towns and rural states. In Putumayo alone, scores of local leaders, development workers and farmers have been kidnapped and killed because of the dangerous mix of politics, narcotics and crime.Colombia says spraying is working, citing figures that show coca cultivation decreased last year for the first time on record. Between August 2000 and November 2001, acreage dropped 16.8 percent, from 403,487 acres to 357,818, the country's Justice Ministry estimated. But their numbers also show that four-fifths of the acreage that was sprayed has been replanted with coca.U.S. officials say Colombia's coca acreage has actually increased -- though at a slower rate than previous years -- even as trafficking organizations move back into previously cleared zones in Peru and Bolivia.Caught in the middle are the peasant farmers of this lawless region, who say the spraying is sickening families and killing acres of crops such as rice, plantains and potatoes.Many replant coca after the spraying. Others hack their way farther into the jungle to avoid the planes. What little has been paid in subsidies to replace their illicit crops is often late in arriving and isn't nearly enough to dismantle a coca-based economy that's as much a part of life here as tobacco in North Carolina or tourism in Florida."The coca produces jobs; it raises the standard of living," said Miguel Alirio Rosero, the mayor of Orito, a town of 45,000 people. "People can eat. They can buy land. They can educate their children. Even with coca, we have serious problems with poverty here."Now with the fumigation, we're seeing displaced people showing up in town looking for work and food," Rosero said. "This was a plan devised in Bogota and Washington, and I don't think they understand how fragile the system is here. Coca dominates everything."And Putumayo dominates coca. This Massachusetts-sized state produces nearly half the coca grown in Colombia, which accounts for 80 percent of the world's supply of cocaine. Thus, on just 140,000 acres are concentrated the very roots of a multibillion-dollar global narcotics industry. Most of that is comprised of small family farms averaging about 5 acres."You can grow yuca, rice, something else here, but you're not able to sell it -- you're just going to have to eat it," said Ortiz, walking in bare feet among her damaged crops. "You smell that? I feel like I have a hangover from the fumigation, but I'm not sure if it's really the spray or all the money I'm going to lose."The spraying, which began in December 2000, is just one element of Plan Colombia's three-pronged approach to drug eradication.The Colombian government has put counternarcotics troops into the region's major towns to interdict shipments of coca paste and to destroy the laboratories that turn the leaves into paste. To help win over farmers, the government has also promised to develop roads, ports and other infrastructure to help farmers get their produce to better-paying markets.But it's an open question whether that can be accomplished with the government fighting a four-front civil war that has escalated in the past month. With much of the countryside out of government control, the often-brutal bands of guerillas and paramilitaries are the main arbiters of the coca trade. Chief among them is the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, a 17,000-man Marxist guerrilla army that makes up to $500 million a year with "taxes" on all aspects of the narcotics business.Until the Colombian government can mount education, welfare and other development projects, experts say, the country's peasant farmers will spurn lesser-paying crops such as rice, potatoes and coffee to grow coca and opium poppies, the raw material for heroin.Putumayo is Exhibit A in this argument. Coca has less than two decades' history in the region but now dwarfs all other crop production.Beginning in the 1980s, when the Colombian drug cartels began their climb to power, peasants first came here as pickers, known as raspachins. After earning enough money to buy land, they began to raise coca."I moved here because the money was just so bad where I'm from," said Jairo Muņoz Parro, a former coffee picker who came to Putumayo three years ago and acquired bit by bit an 8-acre spread next to Ortiz's farm.His house lacks electricity and running water, and his daughter walks 30 minutes to school each day. But it's a better life than he had before, he says."I was thinking of growing yuca before they sprayed, but you know, you have to go find a loan for that, and it's not easy to get one," said Parro, whose farm was also sprayed. Loans from other farmers, guerrillas or paramilitaries are easy to get for coca, but the plants are so plentiful that they're essentially free.In the early 1990s, when eradication programs and a fungus crippled coca production in Bolivia and Peru, the cartels moved production to Colombia. With the downfall of the Medellin and Cali cartels, the drug trade was atomized into dozens of small groups that formed links with rebel and paramilitary armies.The result is a classic agriculture industry composed of itinerant laborers, small-time farmers, drug labs and cocinas, or kitchens, that refine the coca paste before it's shipped to the United States."The people who move to Putumayo move there for one reason and one reason only: to grow coca," said Gabriel Marcella, an expert on Colombia at the U.S. Army War College. "The notion that these are some type of yeoman Jeffersonian citizen-farmers is ridiculous. The task for the government is to develop the rest of the country, as well as build up the army, to the point where there are alternatives to coca."Colombian and U.S. officials concede that is not happening. Despite government statistics that suggest coca production has been curtailed during the past year, authorities acknowledge that as fast as the fields are fumigated, farmers quickly cut the coca shrubs down to the roots to stave off the herbicide's effects. Fields of seedlings, often covered by plastic tarps to protect them from the herbicide, are easy to spot throughout Putumayo."That is why it is necessary to spray and to continue to spray in order to make clear that the government's policy is that coca cultivation is unacceptable," said Rand Beers, assistant secretary of state for international narcotics and law-enforcement affairs.But a recent report by the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, concluded that the United States should stop funding alternative crops until they can show results. The report says that the rebels control much of the coca-growing area, hampering government aid. It also suggested that the poor conditions and lack of development in Putumayo and other regions offer few realistic alternatives to coca.Farmers here agree, pointing to previous schemes that were crippled by waste and fraud. Many referred to a defunct farm-support agency that bought up the area's rice production only to let it rot because it had no means to ship it out of the province.A recurring complaint is the failure of the central government to share resources with poor states such as Putumayo."The real problem here is trade -- we simply lack the means to move produce out of the region because we don't have good roads, highways, places to store and ship produce," said Julio Tito Becerra, head of a farmers' group, who grows coca on his 60-acre farm.Even with the aid, there is little economic incentive to plant other crops. After paying for fertilizer and farmhands, a farmer with 5 acres of coca can make a profit of about $600 a harvest, or with four harvests a year, $2,400, said Hernando Londoņo, a former picker who now farms more than 800 acres of land. He's lucky if he can earn half that amount by growing rice.And the coca farmer doesn't have to worry about transportation costs. With coca, the buyer comes right to the door, be it a rebel soldier or a drug-cartel middleman.Even so, about 35,000 families have signed contracts, agreeing to destroy 91,000 acres of coca, but only a fraction of that number has received assistance. Farmers say they haven't received any money, but the spraying has already commenced.At Caņa Brava, near Puerto Asis, Juan Nicolas Raba complains that the crop-dusters destroyed his yuca and plantains along with a nearby field of coca. Like many here, Raba appeared to be confused about the contract he signed to eradicate coca. He thought he could continue growing it for a year before any spraying commenced."They're spraying house, animals, people -- things that are nowhere near the coca," said Raba. "All for what -- so the United States doesn't get cocaine? Nobody uses cocaine here -- they can't afford it."Where are the roads, the schools, the things we need? All we get in return are some chickens and a cow," he laughed, shaking his head. "The last time the government handed out chickens we had all of these eggs and no one to sell them to. We all sat around eating eggs for a month."Tim Collie is a reporter for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, a Tribune Publishing newspaper. Source: Orlando Sentinel (FL)Author: Tim Collie, Foreign Correspondent Published: March 11, 2002 Copyright: 2002 Orlando SentinelContact: insight orlandosentinel.comWebsite: Articles & Web Site:Colombia Drug War News At Small Lab, It Pays To Keep a Low Profile Rights Disaster Speaks Against U.S. Policy in Colombia 
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Comment #1 posted by project419 on March 11, 2002 at 09:07:37 PT
That pisses me off
So the government is spending billions of dollars to stop the cocaine game...but it's not doing a damn why do we continue to waste our own money?
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