America North and South: Women on the Realities of War and Drugs

This was the title of a speaking tour Women's International League for Peace and Freedom of four women, one each from Colombia, Peru, Bolivia, and the United States. The tour started on October 23 and ended in New York on November 10. Following are some of their words.

OMAYRA MORALES - Miraflores, Colombia: Why do we continue to cultivate the coca leaf? Because the people who want it come directly into our communities and purchase it from us. Nobody comes into our communities to buy corn. And we don't have the infrastructure, roads, transportation, to develop our own markets. Coca is the only product we can sell to support our families. It's not that we want to continue in this coca trade. But if we eradicate all the coca plants before we are given assistance for a new crop how will we survive between the time it takes for the new crop to be ready for market? In Colombia, we've had aerial fumigation since 1994. When the fumigation began, Colombia was the third largest supplier of coca leaf, now we are the first. So fumigation has not served its stated purpose: instead it has created destruction and war. We want coca taken off the list of hazardous substances because then we can market the beneficial products of the coca leaf. We want to no longer be criminalized as farmers, as producers of coca, nor do we want consumers in the U.S. to be put in jail: jails are filling up here and there: what is needed is social investment. Please, no more money for war!

LEONILDA VARGAS, the Chapare region of Bolivia: The peasants who live and grow coca in the Chapare region came here as migrants because of neo-liberal reforms that have affected the rest of the country. They are miners who were thrown out of work; farmers impoverished by the"el Niño" effect of droughts and freezing in their regions; and the poor and unemployed from the cities. All have been drawn to the Chapare to grow the coca leaf and support their families. But the "Dignity Plan" developed by our government aims to eliminate all coca by the year 2002. Since April we have had 7,000 troops in our area. They have been forcibly eradicating the coca but also cutting down our food crops. They occupy our schools and traumatize the children. As women we are most affected by the military. The men, our husbands, flee to the mountains for fear of arrest; and we stay with our children and suffer the abuse. We organized a march this summer from August 10 to Sept 2; it was 650 miles to La Paz, calling on our government to demilitarize the Chapare region, to respect our human rights and to stop forced eradication of the coca leaf. After that we held a 20-day hunger strike, but we've had no response from the government. We see this not as a fight against drugs but a fight against peasants. The reason we're so opposed to forced eradication is that the coca leaf is part of our economy and our culture. We use it for medicine, gum, teas...and, every year, 70 tons is grown to sell to Coca-Cola.

CATALINA BARBOSA, Rio Apurimac Valley, Peru: We have cultivated small amounts of coca for our own use since my grandfather's time. We chew it to help with the work. As time went by, we saw that coca leaf for export brought a better price than other crops. It was the only product that could help us meet the needs in our community. The Peruvian government says fumigation is not allowed, but they are fumigating anyway. It affects the vegetation, food crops, and animals, and it pollutes the rivers. Women miscarry. We're seeing the destruction of the Amazonian ecosystem. Our government says that money is coming for alternative development. There are 51 NGOs in Peru working on alternative development projects, but we haven't seen anything. If any aid comes, it should go to the community organizations.

MARSHA BURNETT, USA: When you're caught in the grip of addiction it drives you.... I was self-medicating myself with cocaine for many years. There were times I wanted help and there were no beds available. Eventually I got Aids...that's my reality...nobody educated us on how to be safe. When women users are in crisis the first thing they (government agencies) do is snatch your kids away. The programs that are available don't keep your family intact. The legislation I would like to see would provide more comprehensive programs for women and children, and it should be done in a holistic way. Also, we need new legislation on needle exchange. It saves lives. We need to start a movement at the grassroots because the policy won't change unless the people demand it...we have to get a mass movement going like we got in the Vietnam War.

WILPF's Drug Policy Task Force is planning to pursue a campaign in the organization's next program cycle. For more information, contact Task Force chairwoman Robin Lloyd, 300 Maple St., Burlington, VT 05401; (802) 862-4929; Or contact Andrea Sáenz at WILPF, 1213 Race Street, Philadelphia, PA 19107-1691,