In Colombia, Anti-Drug Plan Has Come a Cropper
By T. CHRISTIAN MILLER
Times Staff Writer
FLORENCIA, Colombia -- State Department officials have concluded that
an alternative development plan aimed at slashing drug crops has failed,
a decision that
raises doubts about the U.S.-backed effort to eradicate the primary source of cocaine on America's streets.
Farmers in southern Colombia who signed voluntary agreements to eliminate
coca, the source of cocaine, in exchange for aid have eliminated little
or none of their
harvest and have no intention of doing so before a deadline later this year, according to a confidential State Department report.
As a result, U.S. Embassy officials have decided to largely abandon
a plan to encourage the substitution of other crops and products for coca.
Instead, they will
concentrate on building large infrastructure projects to provide jobs, and improve living conditions and transportation.
And they will rely increasingly on a controversial aerial fumigation
program to show farmers, mostly rural poor with small plots of land, that
their coca will be wiped
out if they do not stop growing it.
"There's nothing that we can offer [the farmers] as an alternative that
comes near the value of coca," said Ken Ellis, the head of the U.S. Agency
Development in Colombia. "They're not going to give that up unless there's a credible threat that they will be forced to eradicate."
The U.S. decision represents a radical new direction in the alternative
development program, long touted as the only way to ensure a permanent
reduction in the coca
crops that fill valleys and riverbanks throughout southern Colombia, which is the source of most of the cocaine that reaches the United States.
Experts on alternative development and peasant farming say that the
changes spell disaster. Small-time coca farmers, who often plant coca alongside
such as corn, will face food shortages if spraying becomes the primary tool to encourage eradication and kills their food crops as well.
And they say that many of the farmers, who migrated to isolated southern
Colombia in search of work, will simply move to other areas to grow coca
if they are not
taught how to raise other crops.
"You can spray all you want, you can spend all the money in Europe and
the United States, but the problem of coca will continue," said Jesus Bastidas,
of an alternative development program in Florencia, the capital of Caqueta state.
More Funding Urged
Colombian government officials acknowledge that the alternative development
program has failed to produce results. But they say more time and money
Only 96 of Colombia's 222 coca-growing counties have programs in place.
"We need permanent support," said Maria Ines Restrepo, the head of Colombia's
alternative development program. "Our conflict is not going to end without
There are few problems more stubborn in the fight against drugs than
what to do about the 100,000 or so small coca farmers in Colombia, a dilemma
social, political and economic issues intertwined with Colombia's nearly 40-year-old guerrilla war.
Most of the farmers moved to isolated corners of Colombia in the 1970s
and '80s in search of jobs or land. Once there, they grew traditional crops
along with coca
on small, five-acre plots. They were helped by narcotics traffickers and leftist guerrillas, who provided seeds, loans and technical advice.
Although estimates vary, such farmers account for at least 15% of the
coca grown in Colombia, which last year had about 321,000 acres of coca,
according to a
State Department report. The rest is grown on huge plantations.
Experts say that wiping out the coca through fumigation would simply
lead to widespread displacement, food shortages and environmental damage,
as farmers push
deeper into Colombia's rain forest.
That's why Plan Colombia, the multibillion-dollar U.S.-backed effort
to halve drug production here by 2005, included a budget of more than $100
alternative development. The idea was to wean farmers off coca by providing new sources of income through alternative crops or jobs in industries such as rubber
As of the beginning of this year, Colombian officials had signed up
nearly 40,000 small farmers who had planted about 45,000 acres of coca
and poppy, the source
of heroin. Most of those projects were concentrated in the southern state of Putumayo.
A program created and initially funded by the Colombian government in
Putumayo provided farmers a package of aid worth as much as $1,000, including
cows, seeds or technical assistance. In return, the farmers would pull up their coca crops by this July.
But State Department officials said a confidential, 2½-month
study of the area late last year concluded that the farmers had no intention
of pulling up their crops. The
officials added that it was unclear whether the Colombian government actually expected them to do so.
Similar alternative development programs in the past had failed.
The Colombian government's aid was slow in reaching the area, whose
drug crops have made it one of the most contested regions in the guerrilla
war. The U.S.
government also insisted that farmers pull up all their coca crops before receiving any U.S. aid. That led to confusion among many farmers and local alternative
development groups, who say they were told that aid would flow to help soften the blow as farmers pulled up their crops.
As a result, say those involved in the program, neither side trusted the other, and few farmers pulled up any coca plants.
A General Accounting Office report in February found that the alternative development program had made "little progress" and was in need of review.
"The results to date have been disappointing," said a top U.S. Embassy
official during a recent conference in Miami. "In violation of the agreements,
many of these
communities continue to plant new coca."
Isolation a Problem
Another problem was that many of the proposed alternatives to coca crops
were simply not viable. Putumayo, just west of the Amazon basin, is a tropical
long separated from the rest of Colombia. Its isolation makes it nearly impossible to economically transport agricultural goods to market. And the region's poor soils
cannot sustain intensive farming or grazing.
Plans to encourage farming of rice, beef cattle, chickens, pigs and
fish have all been shelved. The U.S. will continue to support such projects
elsewhere in Colombia
and back some alternative development in Putumayo, such as a plan to grow trees for specialty lumber.
But even those projects have no guarantees should they prove unprofitable.
"We have not gone back on our word on these activities," Ellis said. "Coupled with infrastructure, there are some activities that may be feasible."
A final problem with alternative development is security. The Colombian
military, paramilitaries and leftist guerrillas are constantly battling
in the region. Two aid
workers were killed in Putumayo last year.
To replace the existing plans, the U.S. is rushing to put into action a new plan to build about $17 million in infrastructure.
Smaller projects, chosen by individual communities that eradicate their
coca, will include new schools, health clinics, running water and electricity.
Large projects will
be managed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and involve building bridges and roads to better connect Putumayo with the rest of Colombia.
However, development of infrastructure projects raises fears that U.S.
money will help speed the flow of the region's coca crop to U.S. markets.
It also creates the
possibility that U.S. aid will end up in the hands of the guerrillas, who control much of Putumayo and demand protection payments from workers and contractors.
One aid worker acknowledged that he already writes up fake invoices
when he distributes aid from a previous alternative development project
funded by the
Interamerican Development Bank and the United Nations so that he can pay off the guerrillas.
"That's what you have to do here," said the worker, who asked not to be identified.