Development & Aid, Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean, Poverty & SDGs

COLOMBIA: With No Alternatives for Farmers, Coca Production Rebounds

Constanza Vieira

BOGOTA, Jun 22 2006 (IPS) - Coca farmers in Colombia complain that their proposals for alternative development projects are ignored by the goverment. Meanwhile, coca production is on the rise once again, despite increased spraying of illegal crops and forced manual eradication.

The U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) reported this week that in spite of the unprecedented destruction of over 170,000 hectares of coca crops in 2005 and more than 142,000 in 2004, coca cultivation rose eight percent – from 80,000 to 86,000 hectares – between 2004 and 2005.

Colombia is the world’s leading exporter of cocaine, with potential production equivalent to 70 percent of the global market, UNODC said in a report released Tuesday, “Coca cultivation in the Andean region – A survey of Bolivia, Colombia and Peru”. Some 640 tons of cocaine can be produced with 86,000 hectares of coca.

“This is the first increase following four consecutive years of decrease in Colombia,” says the UNODC study.

The controversial aerial spraying of coca crops with the herbicide glyphosate increased two percent, covering a total of over 138,000 hectares. The remaining 32,000 hectares were eliminated manually.

Colombian Minister of the Interior and Justice, Sabas Pretelt, argued that the surface area under coca would be even greater if it were not for the spraying. The government estimates that coca farmers clear 100,000 hectares of jungle every year to plant their crops.

But critics say that because coca fields are small and far apart, at least eight hectares are fumigated for each hectare of coca crops eradicated by spraying.

“Glyphosate does not distinguish between coca and other crops, and it also harms human health,” campesino (peasant farmer) Heraclio Hormiga, a former town councillor from Mesetas, in the central department (province) of Meta, told IPS.

Mesetas is located to the north of the Serranía de La Macarena, one of Colombia’s four smaller mountain ranges, which was declared a nature reserve and is considered unique in its endemic species. But the area is threatened by coca crops.

Experts agree that today, coca and cocaine are the fuel driving Colombia’s armed conflict, which has dragged on for decades, and that all parties to the civil war are influenced by drug trafficking: the leftist guerrillas, the extreme right-wing paramilitaries and the armed forces.

>From 2000 to 2005, the U.S. government poured some four billion dollars into the war on drugs in this South American country, through Plan Colombia.

A new component of that strategy, known as Plan Patriot, was launched in 2004, consisting of a major counterinsurgency military offensive against the biggest rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), which the U.S. Justice Department has identified as one of the highest priority targets in its fight against illegal drug trafficking.

Previous high coca production years in Colombia were 1999, 2000 and 2001, during the peace talks between the FARC and the government of Andrés Pastrana (1998-2002) -which collapsed in 2002 – and a period of expansion of the paramilitary United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (AUC), which are led by drug lords.

In 2002, when the government declared an all-out war on the FARC and began once again to discuss the possibility of negotiations for the demobilisation of the AUC, coca cultivation was cut by 42,000 hectares, reducing the total to the 1998 level.

Right-wing President Álvaro Uribe, who was reelected in May, asked President George W. Bush in Washington last week to increase financing for coca fumigation, which the Colombian government would like to increase twofold.

Uribe also sought an extension of U.S. trade benefits for the Andean region – designed to encourage anti-drug efforts – which expire this year.

Campesino Héctor Torres, human rights coordinator in the Río Güéjar Association of Communal Action Councils (Asogüéjar), closely studied the UNODC map of coca crops encroaching on the La Macarena region.

Río Güéjar is located in that area, which is in the war zone where Plan Patriot is in full-swing.

“The cultivation of coca is growing just as poverty in the country is growing,” he commented to IPS. “As long as there are limited opportunities for employment and a livelihood, campesinos have no choice but to opt for illegal crops.”

Although coca cultivation does not usually lift campesinos out of poverty, it is by far the most profitable crop they can grow. Furthermore, they lack markets and distribution mechanisms for alternative crops.

Last September Asogüéjar presented the government with a proposal for coca eradication that would include the construction of roads, health centres, schools and crop storage facilities, as well as soft loans and the provision of seeds and breeding stock.

Torres said that with government support of this kind, “campesinos would have a chance to replace illegal crops with alternative products that could immediately provide the farmers with a livelihood.”

But “The government has responded by stepping up forced eradication and fumigation,” he complained.

However, a source with the government told IPS that contacts have been made with campesino organisations in that region.

“This year we were surprised by a large number of demobilised paramilitaries who moved into the area,” said Torres.

Government talks with the AUC led to a controversial paramilitary demobilisation process that was completed this year.

In response to a question from IPS, Pretelt said Tuesday that the government planned to put demobilised AUC fighters to work eliminating coca crops by hand.

But Torres is worried. He said that “Besides destroying the coca crops, which is what people depend on to put food on their tables, (the demobilised paramilitaries) have killed people’s livestock, and have raped both women and men.”

“Extrajudicial executions have been committed in the area by some army battalions,” he added, without providing further details.

For Torres, forced eradication of coca “does not improve the quality of life in local communities, nor does it respect human rights in these rural areas.” The government policy is aimed at depopulating these areas,” which is why, despite the human rights violations, Asogüéjar is determined to stay in the region, he said.

UNODC executive director Antonio María Costa stressed that Bolivia, Colombia and Peru, the three Andean producers of coca leaf, need increased international aid, in order to “provide poor coca farmers with sustainable alternative livelihoods.”

“Our aid efforts need to be multiplied at least tenfold in order to reach all impoverished farmers who need support,” said the U.N. official.

That would not only help fight poverty, but would also reduce the global supply of cocaine, according to UNODC, whose report said there is an “obvious geographic association of rural underdevelopment and coca cultivation,” although it also acknowledged that the problem is a complex one, involving a number of different factors.

UNODC estimates that 68,600 families in Colombia subsist by growing coca, which provides an average annual income of 2,500 dollars per person, “well below the average GDP per capita, confirming that coca farmers belong to the economically worse off part of the population.”

The governmental Mission for the Reduction of Poverty and Inequality reported that rural poverty rose from 67.5 percent of the population in 2004 to 68.2 percent (or more than eight million people in this country of 43 million) in 2005. Over three million people, meanwhile, live in extreme poverty.

Agricultural GDP dropped 0.89 percent from 2000 to 2004, reported UNODC.

A study carried out jointly by UNODC and the Colombian government last year stated that 55 percent of coca farmers said they grow the crop, despite the risks, for economic reasons, including the crop’s profitability and the ease in finding a market for it..

Another 28 percent said they had no choice, and the remaining 17 percent said that “coca cultivation was part of local culture,” indicated the study, which added that just nine percent of coca growers had received any sort of assistance for switching to legal productive activities.

This week’s UNODC report said that “In fact, only about 6,800 householders are being assisted by UNODC through alternative developments projects in the country.”

These families produce around 80,000 hectares of legal products – just short of the number of hectares dedicated to coca cultivation, it added.

Some 31,000 people are involved in a government programme, Forest Ranger Families, which is aimed at encouraging local communities to keep their areas free of coca plantations. The participating families receive advice and support for sustainable production alternatives.

The programme is supposed to pay each family 265 dollars a month for three years.

But campesino leader Eduardo Viuche said “promises are made, but after the programme begins, they are not kept.”

Viuche was mayor of Montañita, in the southern department of Caquetá, at the time of massive protest marches by coca producers in 1996. The demonstrations came to a halt after the government reached agreements with the local communities.

“The agreements talked about improving the roads and expanding electrification, but none of that has happened,” he told IPS. “Because of that, people no longer believe in the promises made by the government.”

“We have presented proposals to the government many times, but have had no response. Meanwhile, the problem is getting worse and worse,” he added.

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