Drug Cultivation, Fumigation and the Conflict in Colombia

by Ricardo Vargas, Transnational Institute (TNI) · Acción Andina Colombia

Executive Summary, October 1999, distributed at the seminar “Counternarcotics Policy and Prospects for Peace: Eradication and Alternative Development in Southern Colombia”, organized by the George Washington University and the Washington Office on Latin America, October 29, 1999. For the actual presentation by Ricardo Vargas at that seminar, and a more complete record of the meeting, contact WOLA at 1630 Connecticut Ave. NW, #200, Washington, DC 20009, (202) 797-2171 (phone), (202) 797-2172 (fax).


Since 1978, Colombia has undertaken aerial fumigation targeting illicit cultivation of marijuana, poppy, and coca. Several different chemicals have been tested and used, including Paraquat in 1978, Ticlopyr in 1985 and Tebuthiuron in 1986. Another chemical, Glyphosate, has been in use from 1986 to date. Fumigation is intended to eradicate, or at least substantially diminish, the area given over to illicit crop production. The anti-narcotics police, through programs supported and financed by the United States, have led the fumigation efforts.

In terms of poppy production, Colombia had reached significant production levels of 20,000 hectares in 1994, when intensive fumigation began. Poppy grows in the mountainous Andean region between 1,800 and 3,000 meters above sea level. As the forests and plains in the region are an important source of water, fumigation has had a significant environmental impact. At present, the authorities do not know for sure how many hectares of poppy exist. Fumigation efforts have destroyed plants throughout an area that is hundreds of kilometers wide, leaving the farmers and communities that have lost their crops without legal alternatives. These farmers thus decide either to move out of the region or to try growing poppy in more remote and inhospitable regions.

Finally, Colombia at present is the world’s largest producer of coca leaf. The increase of production has been most intense in the past five years, a period that corresponds exactly to the development of intensive aerial eradication efforts. When fumigation began, 22.84 percent of the coca-growing land in the Andean region was located in Colombia. In 1998, Colombia’s share of coca cultivation had increased to 53.35 percent, while countries like Peru witnessed a drop in coca cultivation from 115,300 hectares in 1995 to 51,000 in 1998 – without the use of any chemicals.

This suggests that the increase or decrease in the production of illicit crops is independent of methods such as aerial eradication. Rather, crop production, the first link in the drug chain, depends on the strategies and the financial fluctuations of the drug-trafficking industry. Illicit crop cultivation depends on the demand for raw materials – coca and poppy – for the manufacture of illicit narcotics for export to consumer countries.

The growers operate according to the laws of the drug market. They do not take part in the organized crime that characterizes drug-trafficking bands, which are created to facilitate the illegal export of drugs, control the flow of capital to the countries of origin, and develop myriad strategies for money laundering. Peasants grow coca and poppies because of the crisis in the agricultural sector of Latin American countries, escalated by the general economic crisis in the region. The majority of growers come from the ranks of poor farmers, frustrated settlers and indigenous people in the Andes and the Amazon.

In Colombia, many of these growers live in areas under guerrilla control. Even before the growing of illicit crops spread throughout the region, the rebels controlled this land; however, their power and capacity for territorial control has escalated in part due to the income provided by taxes paid by the growers or by traffickers involved in the processing of raw materials.

The guerrillas are not a drug cartel because they do not control the resources throughout the complete circuit of the drug industry (production through exportation). Rather, they control resources from taxation used not to finance further illicit drug production, but instead to finance an ever more costly war. Nonetheless, the security forces of the Colombian government have created and promoted the thesis that the insurgency has replaced the famous Medellín and Cali cartels. In fact, the Colombian traffickers who succeeded the cartels have restructured the drug trade into numerous smaller conglomerates. They continue to export cocaine and heroin to different points in Europe, the Far East, and the United States.

Colombian drug traffickers are the primary beneficiaries of the narco-guerrilla theory. While the antinarcotics police and the armed forces overplay guerrilla participation in drug trafficking and mistakenly compare the guerrillas to the cartels, the drug exporters and the money launderers are exporting illicit drugs at a rate matched only by the Cali and Medellín cartels at the height of their power. Nonetheless, in the decision-making centers of Washington – in Congress, the Pentagon and Department of State – debate is focused on the need to increase aid to fight illicit crop production, and to combat guerrillas, who are financing their war efforts through taxation.

Why are the assumptions underlying current counternarcotics policies mistaken?

1. Capital from the traffickers is the force driving the production of raw materials for illicit drugs. If one observes historical trends in the price of raw materials, the worst moments for the producers have come at the most critical moments for the drug traffickers, such as the counteroffensives led by the Colombian government against the traffickers following assassinations like that of the Liberal candidate Luis Carlos Galán in 1989 and Minister of Justice Lara Bonilla in 1984, or the operations resulting in the deaths of Rodriguez Gacha in 1989 and Pablo Escobar in 1993, and the capture of the Cali cartel leadership in 1995. These and other operations resulted in a fall in crop production provoked by an absence of demand. In some cases, this caused genuine social catastrophes for peasant farmers, such as the economic crisis experienced by coca farmers in Peru’s Huallaga Valley.

Despite these facts, policy-makers do not question this strategy, and continue to devote many more resources, personnel, arms and technology to combatting illicit crops than to dismantling the financial structure of the drug trade.

2. The failure of eradication efforts has two principal causes:

The reason for the official argument is obvious: Hard-line sectors of both the Pentagon and the Colombian Armed Forces benefit from counterinsurgency funding justified by the war on drugs. This is why a U.S.-trained anti-narcotics battalion has been created, and why others are in the works. These battalions of the Colombian armed forces are not going to attack the organized groups of traffickers who have expanded their business more than ever before. The battalions’ target is the weakest and most socially fragile link of the drug chain: production by peasants, settlers and indigenous people. These battalions will be deployed precisely where the counterinsurgency war is most intense.

With aerial fumigation, the dangers to the civilian population, the environment, and legal agriculture have multiplied. In fact, current pesticide spraying is carried out over the homes of peasant farmers, fields of legal food crops like manioc and bananas, water sources, pastures, livestock, and all of the crops included in crop substitution programs.

For example, the fumigation carried out in the middle and lower Caguán region in 1998 and 1999 harmed rubber and cacao plantations and family gardens, which were the product of a six-year development project by the Catholic parish of Remolinos del Caguán. In this area, as in many places where anti-drug and counterinsurgency programs are carried out together, the civilian population is forced to move to urban centers or other rural zones.

The movement towards urban populations generates inhumane living conditions, unemployment and misery. The movement towards rural areas leads to the felling and burning of forests, and contamination of the soil and water from coca cultivation and the initial processing of raw materials. At the same time, the government loses legitimacy and the rebel groups gain power in the eyes of the civilian population because the only visible presence of the state takes the form of force and repression. There is no accountability for the damage caused. On the contrary, the civilian population is criminalized on two counts: for producing illicit substances and for helping to finance the guerrilla war. These peasant producers are the targets of the counternarcotics aid that is discussed in Washington circles.

Meanwhile, through money laundering and the search for social and political legitimacy, drug trafficking has accelerated the restructuring of land tenure in Colombia. By purchasing land, or achieving de facto control through force, traffickers now control much of Colombia's valuable land.

Ranchers, investors and legal commercial farmers have created and strengthened private armies, presented to public opinion as a defense against guerrilla abuses. However, these armed groups serve as a means to violently expropriate land from indigenous people, peasants and settlers. This violent seizing of land has a tremendous social impact, contributing to cycles of violence and continual forced displacement with more serious and violent results than the production and export of illicit substances.

The anti-narcotics strategies do not contemplate these aspects of the problem, or else they consider these factors secondary because of their structural nature, in contrast to the focus on short-term results. Due to a simplified analysis of the situation, attacking illicit cultivation accounts for most of the military budget for the war on drugs, consuming resources that ought to be deployed in an entirely different direction.

A new policy is needed to address key issues, including:

1. Decriminalization of small growers to allow a dialogue between affected communities and the government without marginalizing those who depend on the illicit economy.

2. Respect and protection for human rights and recognition that illicit crop producers are non-combatant civilians. The civilian population is the primary victim of the deteriorating armed conflict in Colombia.

3. Comprehensive social and environmental policies are needed for areas dependent on the illicit economy, based on sustainable development. Such policies should be designed for long-term results, which necessitates programs to provide alternatives, gradually, to the illicit economy.

4. Putting in place administrative and environmental policies that address both the potential and the limits of illicit crop producing areas. All alternatives must be based on the ecological conditions and ensure economic and demographic viability. All policies must ensure community participation so there is community and technical support for community-based projects.

5. Finally, recognition that the current model (supply reduction focused on illicit crop producing areas) is counterproductive and a failure. Because of this, efforts should no longer be focused on the destruction of crops through chemical eradication. Anti-narcotics strategies should seek to contain the demand for illicit crops and the raw materials for illegal production from organized crime rings. This approach will involve long-term decisions to address structural aspects of criminal drugtrafficking organizations, unlike current policies, which favor the growing influence of drugtrafficking money in all arenas – social, economic, and political – of Colombian life.



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