Air Assault on Coca Leaves Crop, Farmers in Dust

Air Assault on Coca Leaves Crop, Farmers in Dust
Posted by CN Staff on November 12, 2002 at 22:45:05 PT
By Scott Wilson, Washington Post Foreign Service
Source: Washington Post 
La Hormiga, Colombia -- Three months of the most intensive U.S.-sponsored aerial spraying to date has devastated coca crops in this key cocaine-producing region of southwestern Colombia.The spraying has covered more than 115,000 acres of coca here in Putumayo province since President Alvaro Uribe took office on Aug. 7, sending herbicides down on nearly the entire crop in the world's richest coca-producing farmlands. The aerial assault has accomplished what several previous Colombian governments employing more benign measures have failed to do: virtually eliminate the large and small coca crops in Putumayo. 
Past spraying had reduced coca cultivation only temporarily, until peasants replanted the lucrative crops. But the sustained intensity of this round appears to have killed many farmers' incentives to try again. More than a dozen coca farmers interviewed along a 40-mile stretch of fertile river valley, many of whom had experienced spraying at least once before, said they did not plan to replant coca and risk losing time, money and the food crops that are frequently grown alongside it.If that holds true, the results would represent the first lasting success for the $1.3 billion U.S. anti-drug aid package for Colombia. The aid, mostly in military resources, has been concentrated in this remote province, 350 miles south of the capital, Bogota. The damage to these coca fields might not immediately reduce the amount of cocaine arriving in the United States, much of which is already in the international pipeline, but the supply could decline in the year ahead if the drug crop does not return, authorities said.The success, however, has come at a high cost for thousands of peasants who live here on small farms cut out of the jungle."It is all gone here," said one farmer, Juan Carlos Gaviria, 52, whose three acres of coca in the village of Achapos Sinai were sprayed in August. "It is no longer profitable for us to plant this. But the problem is that this hasn't just ended coca, but everything else too."The U.S.-backed anti-drug program, Plan Colombia, has traced an uneven course over the past two years. Until this point, the military resources and a special U.S.-trained anti-drug brigade have failed to make a lasting dent in an industry that supplies 90 percent of the cocaine reaching the United States. Nor has the program's $100 million-plus investment in a broad variety of social development projects, from road-building to crop-substitution incentives, constructed a substitute economy for impoverished farmers such as Gaviria, as had been promised on paper.The goal of the plan, originally envisioned as a $7.5 billion effort funded by the Colombian, U.S. and European governments, was to cut coca production in half by 2005.The strategy, it was hoped, would dramatically reduce international cocaine supplies. In addition, it was hoped that the pressure on cocaine-producing areas would force the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, as the largest rebel insurgency is known, to negotiate an end to its protracted war against the government once it was deprived of its principal source of financing.The results so far are unclear. The CIA has estimated that Colombia's coca crop rose 25 percent last year, to nearly 420,000 acres, while the United Nations detected an 11 percent decline. However, both those figures reflect events that took place before the all-out spraying campaign here.U.S. anti-drug officials, who have long identified spraying as the most effective weapon, had repeatedly said real progress would not materialize until the full complement of more than 20 OV-10 and T-65 spray planes and nearly 80 helicopter escorts foreseen in the aid package arrived to wage a war of attrition against coca farmers. The majority of those resources are now in place, and U.S. officials said they hope to spray more than 300,000 acres of coca over the next 12 months, a third more than in 2001.Just as important, U.S. officials have found a reliable ally in Uribe, who came to office promising a broader war against the guerrillas. Uribe's predecessor, Andres Pastrana, won the aid package from the Clinton administration, but he frequently suspended spraying because of worries that its harsh effects were undermining international support for Plan Colombia, particularly among Europeans, and complicating peace talks with the FARC, which eventually collapsed. Uribe apparently has no such worries.Government and national police estimates put Putumayo's coca cultivation at between 105,000 and 125,000 acres at the end of last year. Uribe said recently that 115,000 acres of coca have been sprayed in Putumayo since he took office, more than half the national total for last year. Farmers here estimate that 80 percent of the coca has been killed as a result of daily spraying that began July 31, after the deadline for thousands of peasants who signed on for U.S. alternative development assistance to yank up coca crops.But it remains to be seen whether the spraying in Putumayo will push coca cultivation to other provinces, as it has in the past. The U.N. analysis reported that coca crops exist in 22 of Colombia's 32 provinces, almost double the number from three years ago. Development officials and farmers here say that Nariņo province, just next door, is experiencing a spike in coca cultivation; it has become the country's Colombia's fourth-largest coca-producing province since Plan Colombia began.To avoid such movement, Plan Colombia promised to replace the illegal economy here by investing in roads, schools and health clinics, and by providing seed money to help farmers abandon coca for other crops. But the effort has not generated much support from local farmers, who view the alternative development help as too little and too slow in arriving.Here in the Guamuez River valley, 4,000 families signed up last year for stopgap aid packages worth $800 in livestock, feed and seedlings for legal crops to tide them over while they pulled up their coca. But only 702 of those families complied with the July deadline to destroy their illegal crop.Those families represent 22,000 acres of coca; they are now planning community projects such as collective dairy farms, fish farms and hearts-of-palm processing plants. In addition, more than 100 projects to build roads and bridges are underway to help farmers get legal crops to market in a region with few paved tracks. But those who did not comply with the agreements are no longer eligible for help, so thousands of families have been left without obvious livelihoods after being sprayed."Many received the original aid, but they did not meet the terms of the agreement," said Nidia Toro, a regional adviser for Plante, the government agency managing the alternative development program. "Many of them are larger producers, who don't live here and don't want to pull it up, and have made others in the area suffer as a result."The spraying stopped this month, farmers and development officials here said, as the rainy season's low storm clouds began to make flying difficult. Farmers here said it was also likely that the spray planes ran low on targets.These hills, once glowing with the brilliant green of coca, have been left a burned brown. In a tour of the area, it was hard to find a coca field intact along a swath of jungle and pasture stretching from El Placer in the west to Ancura in the east, a region that once accounted for as much as 40 percent of Colombia's coca production.Many farmers here are already planting legal crops where coca once grew, in spite of the benefits cutoff, while others are preparing to do so. In the past, farmers used small, thatched shelters to protect coca seedlings from the spraying to facilitate quick replanting. Now many of those shelters cover palm, yucca and plantain seedlings.Some large coca fields near the city of La Hormiga are remerging after being cut back by farmers in a last-ditch effort to keep them going. Living coca fringes some large fields, and a few deep narrow valleys that are difficult targets for the spray planes brim with the head-high shrubs. But much of it is dead or dying, driving out many peasants who once produced it.Whole villages have been abandoned, like the empty collection of cinder-block houses that once made up the hamlet of Los Angeles. Most residents packed up their few belongings and headed to neighboring Nariņo, or to Ecuador on Putumayo's southern border, part of an exodus from Putumayo since January that the Social Solidarity Network, a government relief agency, estimates at nearly 9,000 people.Honky-tonk towns like Puerto Asis and La Hormiga, whose traditionally high prices and assortment of Swiss Army knives, digital cameras and Ray-Ban sunglasses in local stores have long testified to the coca economy, are dark soon after sunset. At the Electro-Millionaire appliance store in Puerto Asis, Joaquin Santander has seen business fall from $35,000 a month to less than half that since the spraying started."We call our clients and ask why they aren't paying their credit, and they just tell us, 'We have no money,' " Santander said.Those farmers who remain, like Alfonso Lopez, are trying to make ends meet the best they can. On a recent afternoon in La Hormiga, the 46-year-old farmer arrived at the Marquis Buy-Sell Store with his well-used chain saw.A few weeks before, his 30-acre farm in Las Delicias was doused with herbicide, killing his four acres of coca and 12 acres of palms he planned to process into hearts of palm. He said pawning his chainsaw was the only way to pay the final year of high-school tuition for his daughter Edie, 17, the oldest of his five children. After firing up the saw on the sidewalk to show that it worked, he left with $80."I have nothing else," the slight farmer said. "Nothing at all."Complete Title: Colombia's Air Assault on Coca Leaves Crop, Farmers in Its Dust Source: Washington Post (DC)Author: Scott Wilson, Washington Post Foreign ServicePublished: Wednesday, November 13, 2002; Page A01 Copyright: 2002 Washington PostContact: letterstoed washpost.comWebsite: Related Articles & Web Site:Colombia Drug War News Civilians Wage Drug War from Colombia's Skies Legal Crops' Damage - Washington Times Insists Colombia Coca Spraying Is Safe May Cause Eye Damage
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