Drug farmers seek alternatives

Published July 25, 2001|Updated Sept. 10, 2005

As the U.S. Congress debates funding for a new counterdrug initiative in Latin America, the United Nations is asking Colombia to accept international monitoring of the U.S.-sponsored crop spraying program that is coming under mounting attack here from politicians and peasants alike.

The U.N. Drug Control Program's representative in Bogota, Klaus Nyholm, said the Colombian government was studying the proposal for an audit of the drug crop spraying campaign, which he called "inhuman," for targeting small farmers, and "ineffective."

"We can't do anything to prevent it but an international audit would be able to document what is being done," he said.

A controversial U.S.-sponsored aerial spraying campaign to eradicate half this nation's coca and poppy fields has Colombian farmers clamoring for less destructive alternatives to end their economic dependence on drug crops.

Washington is funding the counternarcotics offensive, known as Plan Colombia, with the bulk of the $1.3-billion in aid approved last year. Congress is now considering an additional $676-million for Colombia and its Andean neighbors.

As of June, Colombia's anti-narcotics police had fumigated 127,400 acres of coca crops, mostly in Putumayo province on the border with Ecuador where nearly half of the cocaine-producing bushes are grown.

While Colombian and U.S. officials hailed the results as a major advance in the drug war, politicians here are questioning the policy as unjust and ill-conceived.

"An anti-narcotics policy with its prime focus on fumigation is a policy that is condemned to failure," said Sen. Juan Manuel Ospina.

While Colombia has been using aerial fumigation against drug crops since 1992, the area of coca and poppy cultivation has skyrocketed to more than 400,000 acres.

As a new crop-dusting offensive began last week in the provinces of Cauca and Narino, national Human Rights Ombudsman Eduardo Cifuentes called for an immediate suspension of the spraying, citing the lack of an approved environmental protection plan and the absence of effective alternative development programs.

"There are no real programs for crop substitution, except attempts that are being carried out in Putumayo province," Cifuentes wrote in a letter to Justice Minister Romulo Gonzalez.

As the aggressive aerial spraying began in Putumayo in December, nearly 40 communities there agreed to manually eradicate their illegal crops to forestall fumigation, in exchange for government aid and investment in infrastructure.

But, according to Ospina, only two of the communities have received the promised subsidies, leading many farmers who signed the pacts to replant coca bushes.

The government's representative for social programs in Putumayo, Gonzalo de Francisco, was not available for an interview.

Though the crop substitution programs in Putumayo have yet to work, farmers in Cauca and Narino are angered that they have not been offered the same option, although their governor has repeatedly presented alternative development strategies for the region.

Meanwhile, the Colombian Senate called hearings with government officials to question the fumigation policy, and two senators plan to introduce a bill that would change the focus of the anti-narcotics program from aerial spraying to offering the hundreds of thousands of peasant farmers who cultivate drug crops a legal alternative.

"Fumigation does not resolve the problem, but it worsens others. We are not in favor of the illegal crops but rather against an irrational policy," said Ospina, one of the sponsors of the bill.

Ospina's bill would not prohibit aerial spraying altogether, but would make it a last recourse if social programs to wean peasants off the illegal crops fail.

But Floro Tunubala, governor of Cauca province, currently targeted in the spray campaign, sees little support in the government for alternatives to spraying.

"They are going to go ahead with the fumigations, trampling everyone," he said after two days of meetings with President Andres Pastrana and drug policy officials in Bogota to try to halt spraying in his province.

He also met with U.S. Ambassador Anne Patterson who he said told him the spraying was necessary to get approval in Washington for new funding.

Tunubala, along with governors of five other southern Colombian provinces, has led efforts to secure funding from the European Union to offer farmers alternatives to growing drug crops and securing markets for the new products.

But the government, Tunubala said, appears willing to invest in social development only once the crops have been sprayed. The lag time between the destruction of the crops and the arrival of government help, however, is driving many farmers further into the jungle to replant the drug crops.

"The government's position is to fumigate first and then repair the (social) damage it causes. We are asking that it be turned around," he said.