A Long Way From Coca to Coffee
By Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writer
LA SIERRA, Colombia –– Among the shiny, dark green leaves and red berries
of the coffee trees on Jarol Uribe's farm, an occasional coca bush still
stubby branches toward the sun. Like many South Americans, Uribe considers the leaves medicinal. "We just keep it for ourselves," he says. "It's good for the
But Uribe, 36, is no longer in the commercial coca business that helped
sustain him and his neighbors in this remote corner of southwestern Colombia
for years. His
family, and more than 400 other nearby peasant farmers, are participating instead in a government-backed crop substitution project that is helping them grow organic
coffee for export to the United States, Europe and Japan.
By conservative count, small farmers like Uribe with holdings averaging
four to five acres cultivate at least one-third of the estimated 300,000
acres of coca, the main
ingredient in cocaine, grown in Colombia. Nearly all of the 19,000 acres of opium poppies used to make heroin are found on even smaller private plots.
The other two-thirds of the coca, according to U.S. and Colombian officials,
is grown on large plantations, where migrant workers pick and process the
Under Plan Colombia, a $1.3 billion, two-year U.S. aid package will begin flowing here this month. U.S.-trained and equipped army battalions will attempt to seize
the plantations from the drug traffickers that operate them and guerrilla and paramilitary forces that guard them. Colombian police will eradicate the crops with aerial
fumigation and dismantle the laboratories where drugs are processed for export.
But a portion of the aid--$42.5 million--is to be spent trying to persuade
and assist small producers to switch to other, often less profitable, cash
crops. While the
military anti-drug offensive has garnered most of the attention--and criticism--in Washington, senior officials here, from President Andres Pastrana on down, maintain
that it is on small farms such as Jarol Uribe's that a large part of Colombia's war against both drugs and the rebels will ultimately be won or lost.
"If the United States would simply like to finish all the coca in the
most cost-effective way--spraying--they would destroy Colombia," said Jaime
point man on the non-military aspects of Plan Colombia. Fumigation "alienates the peasants," who simply move more deeply into the jungle, cut down more trees, and
plant more coca. More often than not, Ruiz said, any residual loyalty toward the government is transferred to the drug traffickers or guerrillas who help them regain
With the new programs, Ruiz said, "we are going to tell these people
we're going to give them something, not just take something away from them.
They have to feel
they don't want to grow coca."
Although similar crop substitution efforts have had some success in
Bolivia and elsewhere, no country has attempted such an endeavor on the
scale of Colombia, and
under such adverse circumstances. There are neither roads nor accessible markets in many of the growing areas, and little if any government presence. Guerrillas or
paramilitary groups occupy much of the territory.
Hundreds of such projects will be needed; only a handful currently exist
and all are small and struggling. Once begun, efforts such as the organic
coffee program in La
Sierra take years to show concrete results.
So daunting is the task that the Colombian government has already significantly
scaled back its plans to change the hearts, minds and crops of the drug-growing
peasantry. Initially designed to cover all regions of the country, the crop substitution program is now targeted for the foreseeable future only on relatively small areas
of the two southern states of Cauca and Putumayo, and the northern region of Magdalena Medio.
The simple facts of life for the farmers in La Sierra and seven adjoining
administrative regions of Cauca where the project operates illustrate the
several years of nurturing their coffee with organic compost and homemade natural pesticides on the steep mountainsides, farmers are earning an average 35.6
percent return on the money they invest in their crop, according to project technicians. For local coca farmers, the rate is 59 percent; for poppy growers, 45 percent.
A successful coca farmer on an average-size farm can make about $2,500
a year. Most of the coffee growers haven't yet approached that level. Although
there is a
steady stream of recruits to the project, many of the growers who initially signed up have dropped out, declaring the farming too difficult and the returns too risky.
"Farmers in these zones get into drug cultivation because the [trafficking]
middlemen pay them to grow it and give them the seeds," said project director
Melo. "They can harvest four to six months after planting, and then two or three times a year. It doesn't take much work."
On the peaks above Uribe's farm, neat rows of opium poppies grown by
Indian communities are clearly visible. Government airplanes spray herbicide
there, and the
coffee farmers say enough wafts down to adulterate their coffee plants and sabotage their crop's organic quality. The Colombian massif looming overhead is the
watershed for the many rivers that tumble through the region, and there are fears of ecological damage.
"They're just spraying a certain area," said coffee farmer Hely Hernandez. "But the wind, the water spread it everywhere."
No crop substitution or other assistance is currently offered or planned
for the region's high-altitude poppy growers, whose food crops are wiped
out along with the
drugs. Cauca Gov. Carlos Negret, an outspoken critic of Bogota's policies, has complained about the lack of coordination between the police and military in charge
of the spraying, drug interdiction and fighting the rebels, and the civilians in charge of crop substitution and other development programs.
Similar complaints have come from the governor and mayors in neighboring
Putumayo, where the largest concentration of spraying and military operations
In July, they announced their opposition to all fumigation and refused to cooperate with it.
Large swaths of Cauca are occupied by guerrillas of the Revolutionary
Armed Forces of Colombia and the National Liberation Army, and right-wing
forces have begun moving into the state from the north. Although farmers say the guerrilla columns that frequently pass through La Sierra seldom bother them, there
would be no one to call if they did. Like nearly a third of Cauca's 41 regions, La Sierra has no police or military presence.
Asked if growing organic coffee is worth the effort, farmer Jesus Abad
declared it "a good question. . . . Lots of people got rid of their own
food and other crops to
grow coca because of the money.
"We were 150 farmers when we started," he said of his group in the coffee
project. "And there are 43 of us left. But our production is going up little
by little, and a lot
of them are now seeing what we've accomplished. It doesn't all happen at once."
For the U.S. Agency for International Development, which is administering
most of the non-military part of the U.S. funding, Plan Colombia marks
a new beginning.
Barely a year ago, AID had decided to "graduate" Colombia from its programs, a euphemism for shutting down operations altogether.
Today, AID has leased vast new office space in Bogota, and plans to
increase its skeleton staff to 50 U.S. government employees and contractors.
In addition to the
crop substitution funds, there is money for assisting people displaced by the war and for helping to rebuild Colombian democracy.
"For the first time! Social investment from the United States!" Pastrana marveled in a recent interview.
Not everyone is as happy as the Colombian president. Opposition to U.S.
military aid among human rights and humanitarian organizations that fear
it will widen the
war has rubbed off on the development projects, and the guerrillas have said that anyone who accepts U.S. money will become a potential military target. As a result,
regulations have been waived that would have required AID's clasped-hands logo to be imprinted on all U.S. assistance, from bags of food to earth-moving
equipment. AID has prohibited U.S. officials from traveling to project sites outside of major cities.
Colombia and the United States have agreed that Plante, the four-year-old
Colombian government alternative development agency, will determine the
direction of the program and provide technical help. Although AID funds will be administered by international contractors, rather than by any Colombian government
agency, Plante's role makes U.S. officials nervous.
"Plante's performance has been mixed," said one U.S. official, who questioned
its ability to absorb major new funding. State officials such as Negret,
governor, accuse Plante of being a pawn of political powers in Bogota, dispensing aid as regional pork. Some non-governmental aid agencies here consider it inept at
best, and corrupt at worst.
To participate in the program, farmers must sign a document listing
all their coca or poppy acreage--only those with less than eight acres
of coca or 2.7 acres of
poppy are eligible--and promise to rid of it. The timing of the voluntary eradication is flexible, said the Plante director, Maria Inez Restrepo. "Not everybody is going
to do it in 10 months."
With the promise of help comes a threat. If the drug crops remain after
the agreed time, they get sprayed. "It only works if there's a credible
risk that . . . some law
enforcement action will take place--either fumigation or interdiction of their harvest"--that will affect their earnings, an AID official said.
There have been heated discussions between Plan Colombia's military-police
and civilian sides in both Washington and Bogota over the correct balance
development, fumigation and drug interdiction.
Over the summer, the military-police side agreed to cut back somewhat
to give development the space and time to work. But time is something aid
workers feel is in
short supply. "There is a lot at stake in demonstrating that the alternative development approach can succeed, and succeed quickly," the Washington official said.
"The problem is, all the jobs are hard ones. You've got to get farmers to develop a different economy than they have now. And you've got a year. Hello? Trees don't
grow in a year."
Among the biggest unknowns is how the drug traffickers and the guerrillas
will react if the programs pick up speed. "There's been no reaction from
the traffickers so
far" to the several, small substitution programs begun by the United Nations in recent years, said program director Klaus Nyholm. "If you wanted to be malicious, you
could say it's because we haven't had much effect on them."