U.S. Doubts Effects of Coca Plan
Alternative Program Fails to Win Over Colombian Farmers
By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Foreign Service
CAIRO, Colombia -- As the civil war in Colombia persists, U.S. officials
have become increasingly pessimistic about whether
a popular U.S.-sponsored program that pays farmers to uproot coca and replace it with legal crops will have any lasting
success against the drug industry.
The alternative development program is the most socially oriented element
of a $1.3 billion anti-drug aid package Congress
approved almost two years ago with the goal of cutting Colombia's coca production in half by 2005. Although it is only a small
fraction of a package tilted heavily toward military assistance, alternative development has long been seen as the most politically
acceptable part of a U.S. anti-drug strategy frequently criticized as a war plan targeting Colombia's Marxist insurgency.
A number of U.S. officials are rethinking the program less than a year
after it began here in southern Colombia's coca fields.
Security concerns, unfavorable economics and a history of mistrust between the Colombian government and coca farmers who
produce 90 percent of the cocaine arriving in the United States have complicated the program in ways that U.S. officials now
believe could be insurmountable.
Following two critical recent reviews of the program, U.S. officials
have decided to shift its focus from helping individual
farmers to creating public works jobs in coca-growing regions, tailor development projects by community and begin
development efforts in areas less fraught by civil war than this one 350 miles south of the capital, Bogota. Even so, U.S. officials
acknowledge, funding the $42.5 million program beyond this year is in question.
Here in the southern province of Putumayo, the heart of Colombia's coca
trade, only a tiny fraction of farmers who agreed to
uproot their coca plants by the end of July have done so. That resistance, rooted mostly in a legacy of failed government
promises in this remote patch of pasture and jungle, was reflected in a recent U.S. Embassy study that found that few of the
37,000 small-scale farmers who signed up for government aid last year in return for abandoning coca crops intend to comply.
Congressional auditors recently concluded that the program was failing,
mostly because of a lack of security in coca-growing
regions heavily contested by the two largest irregular armies in Colombia's nearly four-decade civil war. But farmers and town
officials say the problems stem more from the long delays in deliveries of aid and a U.S.-backed herbicide spraying campaign
that has at times targeted farmers who have agreed to pull up their coca voluntarily.
"Some of these people had started the process of pulling up their coca.
They were getting ready with corn, yucca, and then the
fumigation started," said Leandro Romo, the human rights ombudsman in the nearby town of La Hormiga, referring to spraying
late last year. "We're not arguing with the goal, just the methods. This has been indiscriminate. And until now the farmers have
received virtually nothing."
Alternative development in Colombia dates back more than a decade. The
notion of helping coca farmers develop a legal
economy through subsidies and technical assistance has been embraced by interests as diverse as European countries and
Colombia's largest guerrilla insurgency. But it has never had much effect on a multibillion-dollar coca trade that pays peasants
significantly more than they earn with legal crops.
Recently released figures compiled by the CIA showed that coca cultivation jumped 25 percent in 2001 to 419,000 acres.
U.S. officials blame the substitution program's problems on the government's
inability to secure coca-growing regions. Those
areas are fiercely contested by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC as the largest guerrilla insurgency is
known, and the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, a paramilitary group that fights the guerrillas alongside Colombia's
Both groups profit enormously from coca cultivation by exacting "taxes" at various stages of the cocaine production process.
Earlier this year, a General Accounting Office audit recommended that
Congress end funding for alternative development in
Colombia until the government could provide security for alternative development officials working in southern war zones. Last
year, four alternative development workers were kidnapped in Putumayo. Two were killed, and two are missing and presumed
dead, although Colombian officials dispute whether they were killed because of their alternative development work.
About $4.4 million of the $42.5 million in U.S. aid set aside last year
for alternative development programs was actually spent.
The Colombian government intends to spend $40 million on alternative development in coca-growing regions this year, about
40 percent less than in 2001. Most of that money comes from European donors.
The plan in southern Colombia, where the bulk of U.S.-sponsored alternative
projects are based, is to give farmers with less
than seven acres of coca roughly $800 worth of seeds, fertilizer and animals to turn small land holdings into pig, cow or fish
farms. Some 37,000 farmers with more than 80,000 acres of coca agreed last summer to pull up the crops by the end of July
2002 in exchange for aid -- or risk being hit by aerial herbicide spraying. The Colombian government also pledged to build
several major new highways to help farmers move legal crops and livestock to markets that today can take up to 10 hours to
reach along dirt highways.
But only about 150 acres of coca had been pulled up voluntarily by the
end of January, according to U.S. officials. "What
happened was that the Colombian government kind of oversubscribed," said an official with the U.S. Agency for International
Development. "Plante [the Colombian agency managing the program] didn't have the capacity."
Maria Ines Restrepo, the director of Plante, said the program was in
part a victim of its own ambitious plans. In a recent
interview, Restrepo said successful alternative development programs in Peru and Bolivia, which were carried out under far less
complicated conditions, took years to show results. She suggested that "an overly ambitious timeline" was developed in
Colombia to help secure U.S. aid.
"This was a political decision, not a technical one," said Restrepo, who says she believes the project is working.
But viewed from the small farms of Cairo, where almost every peasant
family has at least several acres of coca alongside corn,
yucca and plantain crops, alternative development appeared destined to fail from the start.
The small subsidies started arriving in late November, months after
most farmers had signed contracts with the government. By
then, most farmers had forgotten about their end of the agreement or had started planting coca again. When a small ceremony
was held in La Hormiga to pass out the first batch of farm aid, a sense of too-little too-late pervaded the event.
"These villages still don't have much confidence in the government,"
said Alejandro Ardila, a 52-year-old farmer picking up an
aid package. "Instead of the spraying they do, they should have been giving us credits. This may help our confidence a little, but
The $800 assistance package amounts to a small fraction of what most
farmers make in a single coca harvest. About two acres
of coca will yield a kilogram of coca base worth about $800, and coca can be harvested as many four times a year.
"There is no way the farmers will comply because they cannot support
a family on what the state gives them," said Carlos
Palacios, the former development secretary for the county of La Hormiga that includes this village. "No one is going to comply."
Jaimec Aguirre Gomez, who like many Putumayo coca farmers arrived in
the last decade from Colombia's declining coffee
region, has a typical farm for these parts: Five rolling acres split evenly between coca and food crops to feed his wife and two
sons. He left another four acres of coca to wither after a round of fumigation a year ago prompted him to sign up for the
alternative development program.
In preparing for aid he hoped would help him start a pig farm, Aguirre
invested $400 to build animal pens and plant crops that
would provide animal feed. But in November, the day he received his first visit from government alternative development
technicians, spray planes flew over his house and killed the beans and vines he had planted in preparation.
"This pretty much ended my confidence in the program," Aguirre said.
"They told us they were going to organize credit, new
markets, all of this. But now nothing."
Aguirre and others from Cairo have been receiving about $800 per kilo
of coca base, which makes cocaine, from men who
visit his farm. He does not ask who they are, but town officials said the men were from the paramilitary force that over the past
year has driven guerrillas from coca fields near town centers and now act as the area's sole coca dealers.
"The plan here so far has been fumigation, nothing else," said Enrique,
the regional paramilitary commander. "The government
would have had a lot more success if they said, 'We as the state will buy all the legal crops you produce.' Now there is no
Staff writer Karen DeYoung in Washington contributed to this report.