Eradications and conflict in Colombia

19 May 2008
While the coca farmer is treated as a criminal the road to peace in the Colombian countryside will remain closed.

Although more and more coca is being eradicated, production levels remain steady. According to the latest Annual Report of the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB), published in March 2008, more and more coca is being eradicated in South America. Despite this, the total area sown has remained stable in the region, as has the total production in metric tons of cocaine. In the case of Colombia, 23 per cent more was eradicated in 2006 than in 2005.

While the coca farmer is treated as a criminal the road to peace in the Colombian countryside will remain closed.

Although more and more coca is being eradicated, production levels remain steady. According to the latest Annual Report of the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB), published in March 2008, more and more coca is being eradicated in South America. Despite this, the total area sown has remained stable in the region, as has the total production in metric tons of cocaine. In the case of Colombia, 23 per cent more was eradicated in 2006 than in 2005. More was eradicated in 2007 than in 2006.(1) Eradications in 2008 are planned to exceed the number in 2007. And so on. When programmes to eradicate illicit crops do not take place gradually, as part of a framework of consensus involving farming communities, they are condemned to failure, as decades of forced eradication in Colombia and the Andean countries have shown. This recommendation, based on numerous official and unofficial studies, seems not to reach the ears of the international bodies charged with setting drugs policy, which remain deaf to the need to revise the strategy of eradication. Since 2002, under the auspices of the German Government and the UNODC (United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime), a series of thematic conferences have taken place with the aim of evaluating 25 years of alternative development, and drawing conclusions about the future. According to the final declaration of the first of these conferences, “Alternative Development should neither be made conditional to a prior elimination of drug crop cultivation nor should a reduction be enforced until licit components of livelihoods strategies have been sufficiently strengthened.”(2) In the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs March 2008 session, which took place in Vienna, a ten year balance of the Action Plan was presented, incorporating the lessons of a number of conferences and evaluations.(3) The UNODC report is the best example of the advances made in the debate about alternative development. It recognises that in “the last decade it is worth noting that globally, the illicit cultivation of the coca plant and the poppy has been maintained largely without change.” In general, based on UNODC evaluations, the report indicates “that there is little proof that the eradications reduce illicit cultivation in the long term as the crops move somewhere else”. In its recommendations, the report therefore asks member states to increase their support for rural development in regions and populations affected by illicit crops, and to facilitate better market access for the products of alternative development policies. It concludes that “alternative development must be evaluated through indicators of human development and not technically as a function of illicit production statistics”. It is very significant that the report does not ask countries to increase or continue the forced eradication efforts. The International Crisis Group, in its last report on drugs in Latin America, suggests that methods such as “aerial crop spraying … [and] the forced military eradication of the supply” be revised in favour of “giving priority to policies of alternative development and reinforcing the effective application of the law with an expansion of the positive presence of the state.”(4) In the case of a country like Colombia, where forced eradications take place in a context of armed conflict, their negative impact is even greater. The forced eradications produce chaos in the regions where they take place, not only because the principal source of income is being destroyed without any replacement, but also because this destruction takes place in a conflict situation, generating a humanitarian crisis, displacements and a heightening of poverty. Furthermore, following the passage of the eradicators, be they manual workers or pilots spraying the crops from light aircraft, the inhabitants of the area are left in the hands of whatever local group has the strength to offer them some kind of response. In most cases, such support does not come from State representatives. Forced eradications in Colombia, both manual and aerial, have not offered a way to solve the problem of illicit crops; they have not helped in any way to slow drugs trafficking; and they have clearly contributed to darkening the security atmosphere in the production zones, thus becoming an obstacle to peace. Between a rock and a hard place As a result of the drugs policy applied in Colombia, an anomalous relationship exists between the State and the country’s peasant farming communities. The Colombian State perceives the farmers as potential (or actual) enemies. The farmers, accustomed to not being able to count on the State, which only appears when it comes to impose its law, tend to suspect and fear government authorities. Until this context of mistrust is overcome, it is hard to expect any development plan to work adequately. Although the great marches of the coca farmers that took place in the South of Colombia in the 1990s now give the appearance of being in the past, in reality smaller versions of these protests continue to take place. The most recent case was last February, when thousands of farmers and their families from the Valdivia and Bajo Cauca regions of the department of Antioquia protested. The protest started when the farmers took two schools and the main square of the Valdivia municipality, suspending all activity in the town. Shortly afterwards, other municipalities in the area were occupied. When riot police were sent in, confrontations between the farmers and the public forces quickly ensued, resulting in dozens of injuries. As in previous cases, the reaction of the government was to say the protests were backed by the guerrillas, thus stigmatising the community as delinquent and invalidating at one stroke any demands the farmers might have. In fact, the area is one in which there is a conflict between the insurgents and the paramilitaries, creating a framework of violence that the media and the authorities often irresponsibly use as an argument to distort the acts of civil resistance carried out by the population.(5) The eradications have not only taken place in Antioquia. As anticipated, in 2008 anti-narcotics authorities began eradicating more widely in a total of 22 of Colombia’s 32 departments, eradicating a record 17,000 hectares in the first three months of the year.(6) The interest in continuing and even intensifying the eradications was stimulated by the authorization given by the National Council on Narcotic Drugs to the National Police in October 2007, to eradicate illicit crops in protected areas and indigenous territories.(7) This authorization is particularly significant because it affects territories suffering the consequences of the armed conflict, a circumstance that the authorities prefers to ignore, just as they prefer to ignore the fact that the presence of the guerrillas in these areas is due to the absence of social and institutional responses. The infiltration of the guerrillas in these communities neither impedes nor invalidates the farmers’ demands. These eradications have left indigenous peoples and local communities between a rock and a hard place. The anti-drugs policy applied in Colombia under pressure from the US has accentuated the distance between the government and the rural population. Between these two sectors it seems there is a dialogue of the deaf. The government does not understand the farmers’ reasoning, and as a result, criminalises their behaviour. The farmers, given the precarious conditions in which they live, cannot accept that the government wants to eliminate the only means of earning a living at their disposal and, for that reason, continuously re-sow. This same pattern of eradication and re-planting is then repeated year on year. The Colombian conflict, which has been developing for more than four decades, has become linked to the existence of illicit coca crops and the development and expansion of a coca economy. Any perspective aiming to find ways to solve the Colombian armed conflict – and it is worth mentioning here that this persists not only because of violence from the guerillas, but also that of the different paramilitary groups linked to drugs trafficking and other businesses operating on the margins of legality, as well as the interaction between these groups and members of the armed forces – should start with a substantial change in the strategy currently being applied in Colombia to dealing with the illicit crops. Meanwhile, the Colombian authorities should not criminalise the coca farmers’ protests with the argument that the FARC are behind them. The government would do better to take the complaints of the communities seriously and recognise that its eradication policy is not working. It has not reduced the crops, but it has created social problems. The aerial crop sprayings with glyphosate are not effective against the coca plant. On the other hand, they do affect subsistence food crops, water sources, the health of the local population and the environment. Eradication, a practice questioned even by government and international bodies (as shown above), has not successfully prevented re-sowing. In this sense, it would be highly advantageous for the government to implement aid plans for farmers in coca growing areas. These should take the form of alternative sustainable development programmes that take into account the suitability of the land where they are being applied and the interests of the participating communities. They should provide a more equitable redistribution of land – especially land seized from the large drug traffickers – and the return to the communities of lands that they have lost in the past decade, due to expropriations by armed groups and drugs traffickers. From the beginning of Plan Colombia in 2000 to date, more than a million hectares of illicit crops have been eradicated. Nevertheless, levels of cocaine production remain high.(8) Anti-narcotics authorities cannot continue to ignore the overwhelming weight of evidence, particularly when they are putting the peace of the country at risk. The Colombian conflict has developed intertwined with the problem of illicit crops. A non-repressive and magnanimous approach to the farmers would undermine and take social force away from the armed groups in the regions. Translated from Spanish by Kate Wilson References (1) E/CN.7/2008/2/Add.2,Session 51 of the Commission on Narcotic Drugs, United Nations Fifth Report of the Executive Director on the world drug problem, Action Plan on International Cooperation on the Eradication of Illicit Drug Crops and of Altrnative Development, Vienna, 10th to 14th March 2008. International Crisis Group, Latin American Drugs I: losing the fight, Latin America Report No.25, 14th March, 2008. International Crisis Group, Latin American Drugs II: improving policy and reducing harm, Latin America Report No.26, 14th March, 2008. International Narcotics Control Board INCB, 2007 report. United Nations, New York, 2008. Washington Office on Latin America WOLA, Chemical Reactions: a Wola Report on the Failure of Anti-Drug Fumigation in Colombia, February 2008. Notes (1) The quantity has not yet been officially established. (2) Feldafing Declaration, http://www.unodc.un.or.th/ad/feldafing/document/declaration.pdf (3) E/CN.7/2008/2/Add.2, Fifth Report of the Executive Director on the world drug problem, Action Plan on International Cooperation on the Eradication of Illicit Drug Crops and of Altrnative Development, Vienna, 10th to 14th March 2008. http://www.unodc.org/unodc/en/commissions/CND/session/51.html (4) International Crisis Group, Latin American Drugs I: losing the fight, Latin America Report No.25, 14th March, 2008. (5) On the protest in Valdivia, we recommend the multimedia magazine Semana at: http://www.semana.com/wf_VerMultimedia.aspx?IdMlt=495&IdArt=109551 (6) El Tiempo, En tres meses se erradicaron 17.000 hectáreas, [17,000 hectares eradicated in three months], 31st March, 2008. (7) Lluvia de glifosato [Glyphosate Rain], El Espectador, Bogotá, 24th November 2007 (8) According to UN statistics, in 1996 Colombia produced 300 mt of cocaine; 2000:695; 2002:580; 2004:640: 2006: 610

About the authors

Amira Armenta

Amira Armenta (Colombia/Netherlands) has a degree in Latin American history from the Université de Jussieu (Paris).

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