WOLA Delegation in Putumayo told: "Stop the Fumigation!"


by Joe Eldridge, Kay Spiritual Life Center, Chair of the Board of Directors of the Washington Office on Latin America. Joe traveled with the WOLA-led delegation in mid-February to Bogotá, Puerto Asís (Putumayo), and San José de Apartadó (Urabá region).


Fifteen mayors from Putumayo cannot have it wrong, especially when their views are echoed by other local officials, health care workers, human rights defenders and small farmers. During a recent visit to the region organized by WOLA (which included two members of Congress), dozens of local government officials, human rights and health workers, small farmers and community organizers gathered in Puerto Asís to vehemently deliver a message which they hoped would reach Washington: Stop the campaign of aerial fumigation!

Without warning on Dec. 19 of last year the US launched a massive aerial strike on coca cultivation. Thousands of hectares of coca have been destroyed, but according to many small growers collateral damage to food crops has been extensive. Indiscriminate fumigation has defoliated forests, killed cassava and plantain crops and threatened to pollute watersheds. The spraying also targeted farms of many who had signed an agreement with the government for manual eradication. According to procedures established by the Pastrana government, coca farmers participating in the government plan would be spared bombardment with toxic chemicals and receive technical and economic assistance. These social contracts have been ignored in the haste of the eradication efforts (see Washington Post, March 6, 2001).

The delegation heard moving testimonies about the growing costs of the aerial fumigation. In the municipality of San Miguel, the town had agreed to voluntary destruction of the coca plants, yet endured a month of defoliants dumped on their forests, rivers, farms and homes. The border with Ecuador, inhabited by indigenous tribes, and which had been declared off limits by the government, has had more than 90% of its land sprayed. The massive use of defoliants has disrupted thousands of poor families, destroyed farms and left a residue of potentially serious health consequences.

Both the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc) and the paramilitary forces, now competing for control of the region, have at least theoretically agreed with the universal call for manual eradication. However the 24th Army Brigade, garrisoned in Putumayo, has been blocking manual eradication. The brigade also stands accused of human rights violations which has led xx(confirm) to a suspension of cooperation with the United States. (The Leahy amendment to the Appropriations bill forbids U.S. military aid to units accused of human rights violations.) An investigation is under way and a renewal of Pentagon support is pending.

Community leaders, aware of the perils inherent in the cocaine industry, seemed genuinely interested in finding an economically viable alternative to coca. According to the governor of Putumayo, Ivan Gerardo Guerrero, the peasant farmers are fearful of both the paramilitaries and the Farc guerrillas. According to Guerrero, if peasants denounce the paramilitaries they will wind up dead – same with the Farc. The growers are caught in the middle, fearful of becoming the latest statistic in the escalating conflict between "paras" and guerrillas or between the military and the guerrillas.

All the voices from Putumayo were unanimous about Washington's reliance on force. Huey and Blackhawk helicopters are not the answer. The citizens of Putumayo believe that reliance on the Colombian military as a strategic ally in the fight against drugs will yield only more violence and death.

Regrettably not only is the lion's share of US aid directed toward the military and the police, but that is the only aid in yet in evidence in Putumayo – or elsewhere. The economic assistance is lagging far behind – to date not one farmer reported having seen any economic or development aid.

Virtually everyone in Putumayo is sustained by coca. At present the growers have no incentives to move from the illicit to the licit economy. Without an accelerated and comprehensive approach to crop substitution and financial help, peasant farmers will have no choice but to move to other areas to resume cultivation of coca. While USAID is considering alternatives such as rubber, extensive cattle grazing, fish, medicinal plants, much more consultation and research will be required to determine both feasibility and sustainability.

Meanwhile the violence continues to escalate. Over the last several months the paramilitary armies have seized control of many of the productive areas of coca cultivation, by challenging the Farc. Like the Farc, the paramilitaries tax the cultivation, the processing and the marketing of coca products. On the other hand, sometimes they find it more efficient and profitable to vertically integrate, simply seizing control of all levels of production and trafficking. When asked about assigning blame for human rights violations, human rights workers (both governmental and nongovernmental) were quick to assert that the paramilitaries had become the most notorious offenders.

As more people are displaced from their farms and deprived of their livelihoods, they provide a recruiting bonanza for both the paramilitaries and the Farc. While many are conscripted against their will, hunger drives others into the ranks of the armed groups.

The heart and soul of Plan Colombia is the coca eradication effort in Putumayo. If the last several months are indicative, it is off to a rocky start. Unless there is a major policy adjustment, it is doomed to failure. The failure will not only be measured by grams of cocaine on U.S. streets. It will be measured by the number of innocent lives claimed in Colombia.


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