Spraying Misery 

Spraying Misery 
Posted by FoM on April 23, 2001 at 09:40:08 PT
Source: Economist
San Juan De Cerro Azul, despite its impressive name, consists of just half a dozen wooden huts. It stands on a ridge overlooking steep hillsides at the end of a bruising dirt track, an hour by jeep from the riverside town of San Pablo, on the Magdalena in the south of Bolivar department. For the past ten years, San Juan has been home to Eliecer Galvis, a 38-year-old farmer. Mr Galvis, whose bare upper torso carries a long scar across the stomach, says he has 30 hectares (74 acres) of land on the scrabbly soils of the hillside behind San Juan. 
Like many Colombian farmers, he grows bananas, yuca and maize. But "food crops don't give a decent income", he says. So three years ago, he began to plant coca. He had four hectares of the green-leaved shrub, enough to provide a living for his family of seven. That was until the weekend in mid-February when the police helicopters arrived, escorting a crop-duster that swooped low over the fields and sprayed the coca with glyphosate, a powerful agricultural weedkiller. Ten days later, Mr Galvis's coca field looked brown and withered. So, he claims, were his food crops. "Who knows what we're going to do now? They've destroyed everything. At least they should pay us something, and build a decent road, so that we could make a living from agriculture or cattle," he complains. Mr Galvis was the target of a vigorous coca-spraying campaign that American officials see as a key element in tackling their drug problems. Over the past two decades, the United States has honed a three-pronged strategy for the Andean countries, aimed at cutting the supply of cocaine reaching its shores: first, going after drug-processing labs and transport routes to disrupt the market for coca leaves, thus driving down their market price; second, eradicating coca growing, by consent if possible, by force if necessary; and third, financing the development of alternative sources of income for at least some of the coca farmers and labourers. This strategy has been a qualified success in Bolivia, where acreage under coca decreased from 48,000 hectares in 1996 to 15,000 last year, according to the State Department's annual report on international narcotics control. In Peru, too, land under coca fell from 115,000 hectares in 1995 to 34,000 last year. Unfortunately the coca simply moved to Colombia, where cultivation has risen steadily over the past decade (see chart 3). In the early 1990s, Colombia's drug traffickers also introduced opium poppies, which are grown on the high Andean slopes in the south. Colombia is now a small heroin producer. What makes matters worse for the drug warriors--and for Colombia--is that most of the coca is in areas which are under the control of one or more of the country's armed groups, rather than the government. That is not coincidental: as an outlaw industry, drugs thrive in a lawless environment. Superimpose a map of the coca crop on one of guerrilla and paramilitary territories, and the two will prove a good fit (see map towards end of this article). Almost half of the coca crop comes from the southern department of Putumayo, which is controlled partly by the FARC and partly by the paramilitaries. Coca cultivation has increased in southern Bolivar, Narino and Norte de Santander departments--battlegrounds contested by all three illegal armies. A Blitz on Coca: Wiping out Colombia's coca crop is, ostensibly at least, the chief aim of the United States' contribution to Plan Colombia. Several years' spraying has so far failed to stop the growth of the coca harvest, but officials insist that for the first time they now have enough resources, both in hardware and in cash. Some $440m of American aid is being used to train three anti-drugs army battalions, totalling around 2,500 men, and to equip them with 16 Blackhawk helicopters. These will not start arriving until June, but the first two batallions have already gone into action, using 22 Vietnam-era Huey helicopters. On December 19th, when the thousands of raspachines (migrant coca-leaf pickers) had gone home for Christmas, the Colombian police began a lightning spraying campaign in Putumayo. By mid-February, with the protection of the battalions, they had sprayed some 29,000 hectares without encountering serious armed resistance. Over half of this was in paramilitary-controlled areas, and much of the rest in those of the FARC. Farmers claim that glyphosate is dangerous to health, though there is no firm evidence of that. The spraying may be damaging to the environment, but so is growing coca: large areas of forest have been cleared to make way for it, and millions of gallons of chemicals used in its processing. Much of Putumayo's coca is in large, industrial plantations. Farms with less than 3 hectares of coca are spared; if food crops are hit, that is because they have been cunningly planted amid or next to the coca. If mistakes are made, compensation is paid. Officials say that the crop-dusters' nozzles are computer-controlled; the targeting system uses American satellite imagery. That is the theory. In practice, this is not an exact science. And for the farmers, growing coca is a rational economic choice; being made to stop growing it causes them serious problems. Plan Colombia does recognise this. "The whole project is carrot and stick: they see the spray planes and sign up for manual eradication," says Anne Patterson, the United States' ambassador in Bogota. Already, about 2,000 coca farmers in three municipalities in Putumayo have signed up for manual eradication. Gonzalo de Francisco, the Colombian official in charge of the programme, says he hopes that in all, 26,000 families in Putumayo, with 16,000 hectares of coca, will sign up. They will have a year to destroy their coca; in return, they will get emergency aid, and long-term help to develop alternative livelihoods. These could include cattle, forestry, fish, palm hearts and natural medicinal products. One problem is that the emergency aid has been so slow to reach the farmers. Another, as American officials admit, is that alternative development in Putumayo will be far harder than in, say, Bolivia. "The infrastructure is poor, so is access to markets, quality of soil and climate, and the security situation is complex," says George Wachtenheim, the outgoing Colombia director of the United States Agency for International Development. There is also a high risk that coca will simply move on: already it is being planted in the inaccessible rainforests along the Pacific coast. In Putumayo, the government is spending $50m on improving roads, but the biggest question mark is security. As part of an agreement reached with Mr Pastrana in February to revive the moribund peace talks, the FARC said they would not obstruct voluntary coca-eradication schemes. But will that stick? And if the government fails to provide swift alternatives, how many of the disgruntled farmers and labourers will join the guerrillas? In the middle-Magdalena region, which includes southern Bolivar, a development project run by Desarrollo y Paz, a non-government organisation, gives some grounds for hope. This is perhaps the most violent and conflict-ridden area of Colombia. But by taking a politically neutral stance, Desarrollo y Paz is managing to work, more or less in peace, with around 5,000 peasant farmers. It gives advice and arranges credit (through private banks, though with government subsidies and guarantees) for projects ranging from organic farming to buffaloes, sugar cane and African palm. A well-managed small farm can provide an income of at least three times Colombia's minimum wage, says Francisco de Roux, the director of Desarrollo y Paz and a Jesuit priest. "Nothing is more profitable than coca, but the farmers know it has a very high social cost. They say: show me an alternative that offers a reasonable living, and I'll leave coca." Vicious Circle: Tired of the United States' bullying hypocrisy over drugs, Colombians have often downplayed the industry's disastrous effect on their own country. For a while, a decade or so ago, that became impossible. The traffickers based in Medellin, led by Pablo Escobar, sought political and economic power: when thwarted, they resorted to bomb attacks and assassinations of judges, politicians and journalists. In 1989, three presidential candidates were murdered. With help both from the rival gang based in Cali and from the United States, the police eventually dismantled the Medellin cartel, killing Escobar in 1993. The Cali traffickers preferred bribery to terrorism: their undoing was to respond to a request for campaign cash from aides to Ernesto Samper, who was elected president in 1994. Mr Samper survived impeachment over the matter, but the affair had some disastrous consequences. One was that the United States sought to weaken Mr Samper's government, cutting aid to Colombia. That was one reason why both coca and the illegal armies flourished in the mid-1990s. The Samper government did crack down on the Cali gang. The police, with much American tuition, regularly bust traffickers and laboratories. But none of this has cut the flow of drugs from Colombia. Nowadays, according to Bruce Bagley, a researcher on drug trafficking at the University of Miami, up to 60% of the trade is in the hands of small "boutique" syndicates, run by family groups of middle-class professionals with close links to the paramilitaries. Much of the remainder is controlled by an old-established gang in the Cauca valley, north of Cali. American officials periodically link the FARC to international trafficking, but without firm proof. Still, nobody disputes that the guerrillas make money from taxing coca farmers and traffickers, and from running processing laboratories and airstrips. The best estimate of their income from drugs, extortion and kidnapping is perhaps $250m-300m a year. Alfonso Cano, a member of the FARC's seven-strong secretariat, as its top leadership is called, admits that the guerrillas receive money from "retentions" (kidnaps). "We know that this is bad, but we have a very large force that needs to eat and to dress, and we need arms and munitions." He adds that drug money is "everywhere in the world economy". The paramilitaries earn perhaps $200m from similar activities, reckons Mr Bagley. That is the vicious circle that is at the heart of Colombia's plight. As an illegal product, cocaine attracts a risk-inflated price. Although most of the profits go to dealers in consumer countries, what filters back to Colombia amounts to significant wealth in a poor country: estimates of the money repatriated by the drug industry range from $2.5 billion to $5 billion a year (or 2-4% of GDP). For comparison, Colombia's defence budget is $2.8 billion, including army and police pensions. Whether the drug money is used to finance illegal armed groups or to corrupt officials, the outcome has been a catastrophic weakening of the democratic state and the rule of law. Source: Economist, The (UK) Published: April 21-27, 2001Copyright: 2001 The Economist Newspaper Limited Contact: letters Website: Related Articles:U.S. War on Drugs in Colombia Ravages Farmers on Drugs Takes Toll on Environment
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Comment #4 posted by Sudaca on April 23, 2001 at 13:45:25 PT
sucess in bolivia
bolivian crops may have been razed according to the articles numbers , however, the peasants are in the same poisition. And that is why they have been blocading commerce, protesting in mass, and have the country in the middle of a huge political fight. That americans don't pay attention doesn't mean that the problems were solved or that those people are happy.You can f*ck a small country and get away with it, but not all small countries, and not forever either.
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Comment #3 posted by Ethan Russo, MD on April 23, 2001 at 12:39:01 PT:
Thanks, FoM
You are too gracious, as usual!
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Comment #2 posted by FoM on April 23, 2001 at 10:55:06 PT
Welcome Back Dr. Russo
You did a great job at the Conference. We listened to the webcast when you were speaking. Glad you're back safely.
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Comment #1 posted by Ethan Russo, MD on April 23, 2001 at 10:46:49 PT:
Sorry gang, but no amount of Yanqui ingenuity is going to solve this one. The Amazon is a cruel mother to anything but subsistence farming in small garden plots (swiddens) and hunter-gatherer systems. It is not conducive to large monocultural farming, or to beef production. Coca can produce profits, but the risks of being shot, hacked to death, or poisoned by clouds of glyphosate are too great. At the risk of being provocative, missionary efforts by the Catholics and evangelical Protestants are both counter-productive here. Population constantly outstrips the ability of the land to support more people. Ecological concerns dictate that a policy of family planning and alternative livelihoods would be most reasonable. Fat chance, when Dubya and his minions are pulling the plug on any program that so much as mentions the A word as an alternative.What should be done?: 1) Legalize and regulate the drug market in the USA. 2) Allow reasonable family planning in the Third World. 3) Use Plan Colombia money to improve education and diversify the local economy.Anything else will fail miserably, as have all our previous efforts.
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