A 'Paradise Lost' In the Colombian Amazon

By Pedro Arenas

From an early age, I traveled in small boats along the rivers of the provinces of Meta and Guaviare, in the eastern plains and northern Amazon of Colombia. It's a region rich in unique species and inhabited by 27 indigenous groups. It's also said to be a main center of coca leaf production.

United States drug czar Barry McCaffrey visited my hometown of San Jose del Guaviare recently, where he praised US-sponsored aerial spraying of hazardous herbicides for the eradication of coca. He condemned the "narco-guerrillas" in Colombia and announced an increase in US military aid to $150 million this year. Yet, this money and this kind of rhetoric are only worsening a decades-long internal guerrilla war in Colombia - compounding the hardships faced by the local peasant population and damaging the environment. The policy also is failing to stem the supply of coca leaf.

Harmful effects

Six years ago, I helped found the Youth Movement for the Guaviare. This movement, based on the principles of tolerance and respect for the ideas of others, agrees with the goal of eradicating coca, but we've also seen the harmful effects of forced coca eradication programs, particularly those that include aerial spraying.

The spread of coca leaf production in southern Colombia is a social phenomenon, involving hundreds of thousands of Colombian peasants displaced by landlessness from other regions of the country. The coca growers haven't sought to play a role in the conflict between the government and guerrilla forces, nor are they wealthy traffickers with luxury homes and cars in the cities. They are peasant producers whose main objective is to survive. They are not producing coca to harm others. They simply want to give their own children the same chance for survival.

Tired of accusations that they are drug-traffickers, guerrillas, or both, this summer 300,000 people marched peacefully to population centers in the Colombian Amazon to oppose forced eradication programs. The government responded with firepower. More than 15 peasants were killed, more than 50 wounded, hundreds of families were displaced, and dozens of demonstrators were imprisoned.

Target: Guaviare

Unlike coca fields in Peru, Bolivia, and elsewhere in Colombia, Guaviare is subjected to aerial spraying with chemicals that not only destroy the coca plant but contaminate the groundwater and legal subsistence crops. The impact on the environment and people is not yet fully known.

The US is providing the chemicals, aircraft, and helicopters used in these campaigns. These materials, in turn, are contributing to human rights violations, despite US legislation prohibiting antidrug aid to military or police units that violate human rights.

The net effect of these campaigns is not to reduce coca leaf production: According to the US State Department, there was a 32 percent increase in coca leaf production in Colombia last year. After spraying, the small growers responsible for 90 percent of the crop simply go farther into the Amazon.

Colombia at a crossroads

Colombia is at a crucial crossroads. In the 1990s, political violence has worsened steadily nationwide. Paramilitary squads - which human rights groups such as Amnesty International say operate with Army support - have stepped up their killings.

Guerrilla organizations, too, have mounted offensives on an ever-larger scale. They have a presence in much of Guaviare and have shot down several planes involved in aerial spraying. Meanwhile, the Colombian government, with US support, has adopted an antidrug strategy for the Guaviare that perpetuates this brutal civil war.

Guaviare's citizens should be given a say in government policies, to help put an alternative economy in place. This is a must if coca leaf production is to be eradicated. More and more Colombians also are convinced of the need for a peace accord. We can't solve our shared problems of drugs, violence, and poverty without a democratic dialogue within and between our countries. Ending the aerial spraying would encourage coca farmers to participate in that dialogue. It could be a first step toward restoring peace and sustainability to the hidden paradise I knew as a child.

Reprinted with the permission of the Christian Science Monitor (from Dec. 2, 1997 issue).