Drug Cultivation, Fumigation and the Conflict in Colombia

01 October 1999
Cover Fumigacion y conflicto

A summary of Fumigación y conflicto: Politicas antidrogas y deslegitimación del estado en Colombia
Ricardo Vargas Meza, October 1999

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

After 20 years, fumigation has yet to produce the expected results. Since 1993 there has been a surge in marijuana cultivation, making Colombia the primary producer in the hemisphere after the United States. In terms of poppy production, Colombia had reached significant production levels of 20,000 hectares in 1994, when an intensive fumigation process began. Poppy grows in the mountainous Andean region between 1,800 and 3,000 meters above sea level. Because the forests and plains in the region are an important source of water, fumigation has had a significant environmental impact. At present, authorities do not know with certainty 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 to either 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 with 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. Production, the first link in the drug chain, depends rather 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 exportation 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 the case of Colombia, a great number of these growers live in areas under guerrilla control. Even before the practice of growing illicit crops spread throughout the region, 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 that are not used to finance further illicit drug production, but instead are used to finance an increasingly 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 anti-narcotics 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 combat guerrillas financing war efforts through taxation.

The erroneous assumptions fueling these policies are:

  1. The production of raw materials - coca base, poppy latex and marijuana - is the primary stimulus, and, in a way, the engine of the drug trade.
  2. Eradication efforts, directed against these raw materials, have not obtained positive results for two reasons:
    • The chemical being used - Glifosate in the case of Colombia - is innocuous, killing only 27.58 percent of the fumigated plants.
    • The illicit drugs are planted in areas controlled by the insurgency. Therefore, access to these regions is very difficult, and anti-narcotics personnel and planes come under fire from rebel ground forces.

Why are the assumptions underlying current counternarcotics policies mistaken?

  1. Capital from the traffickers is the force driving production of raw materials for the production of illicit drugs. If one observes historical trends regarding the price of raw materials, the worst moments for the producers have come in 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 1983, 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 1994. These and other operations resulted in a fall in crop production generated 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 the Huallaga Valley of Peru. Despite these facts, policy-makers do not question this strategy, and continue to devote many more resources, personnel, arms and technology to combating illicit crops than to dismantling the financial structure of the drug trade.
  2. The failure of eradication efforts has two principle causes:
    • The rise and fall in illicit crop cultivation depends on the demand from drug manufacturers and traffickers, and is rarely impacted through repressive counternarcotics policies. Potential production of coca leaf in the Andean region has remained steady, or has tended to increase. The total, in tons of coca leaf produced, has increased from 293,700 in 1988 to 303,600 in 1996. What varies is the amount produced in each individual country in the region, depending on the specific conditions that dictate how much of the raw material the drug trade demands. This is what explains why coca production in Colombia has grown to unprecedented levels despite the use of almost 650,000 gallons of Glifosate between 1992 and 1998.
    • Fumigation operations have already begun in many of the zones controlled by the Colombian guerrillas. Two of the most important zones for the FARC are the Middle and Lower Caguan in the department of Caqueta, and Miraflores in the department of Guaviare, where fumigation has been constant since 1997. What has really happened is that illicit crops have been displaced and grown in countless hidden regions in the Amazon basin, an event that has multiplied the environmental damage caused by both crop cultivation and coca base processing.

The reason for the official argument is obvious. Both hard-line sectors of the Pentagon and the Colombian Armed Forces benefit from counterinsurgency funding justified by the war against drugs. This is the reason why an US-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 have as their target the weakest and most socially fragile link of the drug chain: the production by peasants, settlers and indigenous people. These battalions will be deployed precisely where the counterinsurgency war develops most intensely.

Simultaneously, decision-makers in Washington are pressing for the replacement of Glifosate with new pesticides. Judging by some of the proposed chemicals, like Imazapyr, Hexaxinona and Tebuthiuron, these pesticides will have a serious impact on the fragile tropical rainforest environment because of their low degree of dissolution in water, long duration and the capacity to spread throughout extensive areas.

Currently, pesticide spraying with Glifosate violates minimum technical standards designed to diminish the environmental impact. Glifosate is sprayed from above the required height of ten meters. The dose used is 13.47 liters per hectare, a concentration level exceeding the specifications placed at 2.5 liters per hectare by official studies. Thus, 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 yuca 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 Caguan region during 1998 and 1999 affected fields of rubber, cacao and family gardens that were the product of a six year development project by the Catholic parish of Remolinos del Caguan. 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 ground and water sources through coca cultivation and 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 is that 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 helping to finance the guerrilla war. These peasant producers are targeted by 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 defacto 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 contemplate these aspects of the problem, or else they consider these factors to be 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 employed in an entirely different direction.

Conclusion: The Need to Reformulate Policy

A new policy must contemplate key issues, including:

  1. The decriminalization of small growers to allow a dialogue between affected communities and the government without the marginalization of 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 for areas dependent on the illicit economy, based on sustainable development. Such policies should be designed for long-term results, which necessitates gradual substitution programs for the illicit economy.
  4. Creation of 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 drug-trafficking organizations, unlike current policies, which favor the growing influence of drug-trafficking money in all arenas - social, economic, and political - of Colombian life.