Drug Crops and Peace Process in Colombia: A Proposal for Peace

01 June 2000
A radically different approach to the current War on Drugs must be developed and integrated into the Peace Plan for Colombia otherwise the drug circuit and armed conflict will continue to undermine the prospect of realizing the goals of the Peace Process ultimately bringing to an end the war in Colombia.

Cultivos ilicitos y proceso de paz en Colombia
Una propuesta de cambio en la estrategia antidrogas hacia la solucion politica del conflicto

Ricardo Vargas Meza and Martin Jelsma
TNI/Acción Andina, Bogota, June 2000

Executive Summary
Drug Crops and Peace Process in Colombia
A Proposal for Peace

A radically different approach to the current War on Drugs must be developed and integrated into the Peace Plan for Colombia otherwise the drug circuit and armed conflict will continue to undermine the prospect of realizing the goals of the Peace Process ultimately bringing to an end the war in Colombia. If an alternative path is not entered soon, the current war is under threat of further escalation, the drugs war economy will continue to fuel all parties, and the crisis might evolve into more foreign intervention. This will worsen the already weak state legitimacy, exacerbate the armed conflict, increase the human rights violations and ravage the environment. Accion Andina and the Transnational Institute offer a detailed alternative drugs policy proposal, A Proposal for Peace, which, if implemented and supported by the national and international community will reduce the harm caused by the current repressive approach and could serve to safeguard the extremely fragile peace process negotiations.

An alternative drug proposal integral to the comprehensive peace plan, focused on reducing the risks resulting from the monocultivation of coca and opium poppy, requires affirmative action from the state with the political will to create legitimacy and democracy. The state must allow for the strengthening of civil society in these areas, which necessarily demands a rethinking of current anti-drug policies including calling an unequivocal end to the aggression of aerial fumigations. This requires autonomy and then authority to confront the problems related to the production of the raw materials used in processing psychoactive substances.

Traditional sectors in Colombia that allowed almost an exclusive foreign influence in these matters have shown a lack of political will to achieve changes in this direction. Therefore, we present to the new generations, to non-governmental organizations, to the academia, to the nation, and to the international community, an integral policy proposal on illicit crops in Colombia. Our proposal reflects the various interests and realities as well as the experiences of peasant and indigenous communities, local authorities, informed officials, national and international NGOs and governments open to considering political and policy spaces distinct from the ‘War on Drugs’ policy and operational failure.

The starting point is the acknowledgment of the absolute incompatibility between strategies of military confrontation and viable developmental alternatives to illicit crops. The only available option to resolve this incompatibility is by strengthening the peace process, which ultimately should result in a political solution to the conflict and a state monopoly over the use of force and in levying taxes. Secondly, the different levels of the drug production chain must be clearly distinguished and the incompatibilities of the ‘carrot & stick’ approach should be separated accordingly. The proposal defines three levels with the respective responsibilities of the authorities involved:

  • Production: Understood to be all activities related with drug crop cultivation, harvesting and farm level production of the raw materials, namely coca paste and raw opium. This level is intimately related to socioeconomic conditions of the rural population, internal displacement and the agricultural frontier. Policy making and international cooperation on this level must take a developmental approach, coordinated by agricultural, environmental and developmental authorities.
  • Trafficking: The category of all activities related to processing of raw materials into psychoactive substances -cocaine and heroin- and the comercialization and smuggling of these end products. These include chemical precursors, money laundering and also commercial plantations that are directly operated by traffickers. Policy making and international cooperation for this level should take a law enforcement approach, coordinated by judicial, police and financial control authorities.
  • Consumption: The category of social and health problems related to abuse and addiction of illicit drugs. Policy making for this level should take a public health approach, coordinated by local, social and health authorities. International cooperation should focus on the exchange of experiences and best practices.

The proposal explicitly addresses the first level only, where – as is the case also for the consumption level - the indiscriminate implementation of repressive measures are aggravating problems instead of solving them. The current criminalization, forced eradication and military policies and operations have produced extremely serious socioeconomic disorder, forced displacement, human rights violations and environmental degradation, and are threatening the very essence of the peace process. The core of this proposal argues for five strongly interrelated points as the foundation for an alternative policy.

    1. The suspension of forced eradication of illicit drug cultivation and the promotion of agreements with the communities involved setting specific conditions for manual eradication;

A decade of intensive aerial spraying of opium poppy and coca with herbicides has been futile and has caused grave social and environmental damage. Some 220.000 hectares were dusted with 2 ½ million liters of Glyphosate (Monsanto’s Roundup), but the coca hectarage has approximately tripled since the aggressive fumigations began from an initial 40.000 hectares to 120.000 to date. Over the entire decade, the combined total Andean coca production has remained stable. The only difference has been in the percentage each country has contributed. In this period, Colombia grew from the third to first coca producer despite the fact that it was the only Andean country conducting aerial chemical warfare against the illicit crop. In both Bolivia and Peru the use of aerial fumigation is prohibited by law.

Derived of their only means of subsistence after their coca, opium poppy and food crops have been fumigated, the population is forced to move either to urban centers or other rural areas. Not only are the peasants driven away, but also the raspachines, or the temporary workforce hired to harvest coca leaf, including the service sector that develops around the coca economy, are forced to migrate. The movement toward provincial urban slums generates inhumane living conditions, unemployment and misery. Rural migration means searching for available land deeper in the Amazon or higher up in the mountains to replant illicit crops.

There is no question that drug crop cultivation and chemical processing of the raw materials into cocaine and heroin causes severe environmental damage. But it is clearly incoherent to argue that the current fumigation policy is an antidote to the environmental impacts of illicit crops, when chemical spraying only aggravates, both directly and collaterally, the already negative environmental effects of illicit crops themselves. The continuous displacement of crops caused by the aerial campaign multiplies the pace of deforestation of the Amazon and Andean mountain forests and spreads the polluting consequences of cultivation throughout these ecologically sensitive territories.

Plan Colombia includes plans to drastically intensify the spraying operations with the US providing fifteen additional spraying planes and many heavily armed helicopters to accompany them. The US has also pressured Colombia to introduce stronger and more hazardous granular herbicides into the aerial eradication program. Recently, the formulation of the currently used Glyphosate has been changed, causing even more devastation. Moreover, in US laboratories, a herbicidal fungus has been developed with the intention of forever destroying the coca bush. The goal is to fumigate coca growing areas with the ‘Fusarium oxysporum’ fungus, thus intentionally creating an epidemic through biological warfare tactics making the Amazon soil unfit for growing coca for many years.

The accomplishment of the fumigations has been to set in motion a vicious circle of human, social and environmental destruction. In the course of the cycle human rights are violated, the legitimacy of the state is eroded, peasant support for the guerrilla increases, the war extends to new areas, and the anti-drugs warfare is ever more entangled with counterinsurgency objectives. Based on all of these considerations the proposal calls for a clear end to these inefficient and harmful forced eradication practices.

    1. The decriminalization of the small producers of drug crops and the creation of a forum for dialogue with their legitimate organizations;

Currently, Colombian law does not differentiate between levels of involvement in illicit agriculture. Defined in article 32 of Law 30 of 1986, small, medium and large scale producers are all punishable alike with a minimum of four years imprisonment (up to a maximum of 12), excluding the possibility of a suspended sentence. For small producers this leads to disproportionate penalties for a problem that should be recognized as a socio-economic rather than a criminal phenomenon. This legal situation also causes an ambiguous and dubious treatment and positioning of small farmers due to the real risks of farming illicit crops and the alternative development/crop substitution strategies. In one instance a small producer is criminalized and punished by law. In another, he could be asked to implement an alternative development project in the spirit of solidarity. Forced eradication and imprisonment and alternative development schemes are therefore simply incompatible and inconsistent strategies.

The proposal therefore argues for changing the current law, by fully decriminalizing illicit cultivation up to three hectares, which approximates the subsistence level and the definition generally in use of what constitutes "small" producers. For medium size producers growing between 3-10 hectares, the proposal argues to reduce by half the penalties, thereby opening up the possibility of applying suspended sentences. For cultivation beyond 10 hectares, the concerned article of the law would remain intact.

    1. Developmental alternatives with a gradual process of substitution of illicit crops;

Alternative Development in Colombia has largely been defined in the restricted vision of ‘crop substitution’, as ‘another tool to eliminate illicit drugs’. In practice, projects often have been degraded to the level of subsidies and serve as a complementary function in the operations of forced eradication. The idea is that forced eradications combined with crop substitutions represent the ‘carrot and stick’ approach from the context of a drug supply reduction strategy. The only indicator regarded as relevant in evaluating the success of this type of alternative development has become the number of hectares eradicated.

The proposal outlines a programme of developmental alternatives to illicit monocultivation, arguing for the necessity of gradual substitution schemes. These should be based on periodical target figures for reducing illicit crops established in agreement with the affected communities, while simultaneously regional development conditions are evaluated. Developmental indicators must take on a social dimension including the meeting of basic needs, the presence and level of educational facilities, literacy and health rates, the strengthening of community organization and social participation. Compliance with the established reduction targets should be made dependent on the progress in regional development.

Basic parameters for such programmes are: (a) the creation of a climate of trust between state and communities - for which points one and two of the proposal are crucial; (b) a regional and community based approach where not only the peasants, but also the needs of the transient day-laborers and service sector populations working in the illicit economy are considered; and (c) the productive capacity and environmental limitations of each region are evaluated and appropriately integrated. A coordinating council must be established considering representation, participation of organized communities and local authorities in each region targeted for this type of regional development programme. Participation in these councils should be considered from NGOs with expertise in the area, national government representatives with developmental experience, representatives from peace agreements and from the international community.

    1. Full participation of the communities on the local and regional level combined with the development of a programme for Territorial and Environmental Planning to develop criteria for substitution projects;

The starting point for any development strategy for municipalities in conflict zones and with the presence of illicit crops should be the physical conditions and limitations of the region. A restructuring of the local economy away from the exclusive dependence on illicit crops and a more rational use of the natural resources must be based on a detailed territorial survey supported by the appropriate technical analysis on the sustainable use of the soil. The proposal considers it essential, even in the preparatory stage, to reach a consensus with local communities around the use, exploitation and protection of natural resources in the areas where they live. A variety of experiences currently exist that can serve as models particularly in the maintenance of indigenous reserves and national parks. The proposal outlines a detailed methodology for a participatory process through the establishment of ‘Areas of Community Management’ leading to ‘Local Territorial Planning’ which details land property issues, suitable and sustainable possible uses for every plot of land in the area, potential of available resources, environmental fragility, etc. Once the issues of land ownership and responsibility for its protection and management are clearly defined, definitive plans for the area can be elaborated and developmental projects can be financed and implemented.

    1. Full respect and guarantees for human rights and international humanitarian law, specifically in the areas of illicit crops torn apart by the War on Drugs and by the relationship between the illegal economy and the armed conflict;

The areas where illicit crops are concentrated are increasingly becoming the stage for armed conflict with devastating consequences for the civilian population. The southern Amazonian parts of the country, namely the departments of Caquetá, Putumayo and the Guaviare is where most of the coca is cultivated. However, it is rapidly extending to newer areas in the Catatumbo, Magdalena Medio, Darién regions and the opium poppy zones in the south of Tolima and Huila. The inhabitants of these areas suffer from a double criminalisation, firstly for being illicit crop growers and secondly for paying taxes to and providing a social base for the FARC guerrilla who largely control these areas. This situation has triggered two types of armed interventions namely, the anti-drug military operations that concentrate more and more on undermining the drug-based war economy of the insurgency and the paramilitary incursions increasing in number and level of atrocity, aimed at eroding, through terror and violence, the social and economic base of the guerrilla. More than a million people that live in municipalities economically dependent of illicit crops have become fully exposed to the degradation of the armed conflict in which none of the parties has shown any respect for human rights or international humanitarian law.

The proposal lists a series of concrete recommendations for the armed actors in the conflict and for the government, which demand full recognition and protection of the non-combatant status of the population in the affected areas. It argues for a special status and specific conditions of social protection for the areas involved in the developmental alternatives consistent with criteria included in this proposal. The negotiating parties are urged to sign a humanitarian agreement as soon as possible, and to advance as much as possible the commitment for a negotiated settlement of the conflict. The armed actors are urged to abstain from any actions targeting the civilian population namely, methods of warfare likely to affect civilians, terrorist activities, kidnapping, assassinations, intimidations, and the like. The government is specifically urged to abstain from using any disqualifying or criminalizing terms in referring to social, easant or indigenous organizations representing the needs from communities in these areas. They are to be recognized as valid interlocutors in finding solutions and should not be prevented from organizing and mobilizing in peaceful ways or from using their right to freedom of expression in any form including the case of protesting the current eradication policies of illicit crops. The government should do everything it can to safeguard these community organizations as well as supportive NGOs and local authorities against threats, persecution or attacks coming from state security forces themselves or from paramilitary groups operating under their protection.

Drugs and Peace

Our proposal is the result of many years of research and debate around the complexities of these issues. We present this contribution at a moment when the reflections on the current Plan Colombia are critical. Our starting point is the call for peace and for a renewal of a democratization process in Colombia. We aspire to strengthen the contents of the proposal with the support of a broad national and international group seeking to reduce the harm brought to individuals and to society as a whole as a result of the abuse of drugs and by the current ‘zero olerance’ based ‘War on Drugs’ policies. In Colombia such policies have created, jointly with the phenomenon of drug trafficking itself, grave harms like an increase of violence, environmental degradation, state illegitimacy, and violations of the fundamental rights of the population involved at the lowest and weakest level of the illicit drug production chain. Beyond broadening the space for debate around the global drugs issue, we believe policy changes of the kind in this proposal will reduce the harm caused by indiscriminate repression will diminish the extent of drug-related problems and will enhance the prospects of the extremely fragile peace process.