Lure of Coca Money Hard for Farmers to Resist

Lure of Coca Money Hard for Farmers to Resist
Posted by FoM on December 17, 2000 at 17:57:38 PT
By Robert Collier, Chronicle Staff Writer
Source: San Francisco Chronicle 
When Felipe Alvarado signed up for a government program to uproot his illegal coca plants and switch to legal crops, he didn't expect things to work out so badly. But six years after Alvarado went legal, he is worse off than ever. He's been thrown in jail; his corn, rubber and yucca plants have been killed by government aerial fumigation; and his earnings have plummeted. 
Unfortunately for the Colombian and U.S. governments, Alvarado's predicament is just one of countless examples of failure for the decade-old attempt to cut the cultivation of coca, the plant that provides the raw material for cocaine. Instead, Colombia's total acreage planted with coca has expanded dramatically, more than tripling since 1995, to an estimated 350,000 acres. Now, however, Colombia is gambling that with a lot more money and attention, the crop-substitution program can be turned into a success. Plan Colombia, the government's five-year, $4.4 billion program to end cocaine production and defeat the leftist guerrillas, includes $150 million for crop substitution, as well as $360 million for new farm-to-market highways in coca-growing areas. The sums are huge and the ideas visionary: Grants, loans and technical advice will be given to farmers so they can make the transition from coca to such alternative crops as rubber, plantains, yucca and sugar, as well as cattle and fish ponds. If military force is Plan Colombia's stick, crop substitution is the all- important carrot. But for farmers in southern Colombia, the carrot isn't big enough. As Alvarado said, "Nothing at all competes with coca. Nothing." In 1994, Alvarado, the leader of a peasant cooperative, volunteered for a U. N.-sponsored crop substitution program. He agreed to pull up his seven acres of coca -- one of several crops on his farm -- and plant rubber in exchange for several thousand dollars in grants and loans. But before he was able to make the switch, overzealous army troops arrested him for growing coca, and he and his wife spent several months in jail until embarrassed government agriculture officials had them released. Two years later, just as Alvarado's first rubber crop was ready to come in, Colombia joined the World Trade Organization and was obliged to slash its tariffs on rubber imports from West Africa. Prices plummeted, and Alvarado and other rubber growers were forced to sell their crop at a loss. The government tried to compensate with additional aid programs, but rubber "still isn't profitable, no matter what they say," Alvarado said. "I believe in crop substitution because I know coca is a bad thing, but what am I supposed to do?" His solution: He pockets the government subsidies and sells his rubber for a pittance, while he and his eight sons and daughters surreptitiously work as pickers and lab workers at neighboring coca farms, making about $5 a day. Fearing that the long arm of the law may fall on him again, Alvarado refused to let his real name be used for this story. Meanwhile, U.S.-funded planes frequently spray the area with herbicides. The target is coca, but ribbons of dead brown foliage cut erratically through fields planted with other crops as well, apparently reflecting the whims of the pilot on any given day. Many government officials -- especially lower-level ones outside of Bogota, the capital -- are surprisingly frank about the failures. "Crop substitution has not worked, it is true," said Jose Alba, field manager for the government's crop-substitution program in the southern province of Caqueta. "And neither has fumigation. These programs have been designed to fail." For example, Alba said, the government has not improved Caqueta's only connection to the rest of the nation -- a tortuous mountain dirt road that adds cost and delay to the sale of substitute crops. Meanwhile, it has spent tens of millions of dollars fumigating hundreds of thousands of acres of coca fields. The net result? Increased antigovernment sentiment among peasants and the continued fast growth in coca production. But the government's real Achilles heel is coca's powerful economic appeal in a country where millions live in poverty and the middle class is shrinking. Alvarado calculates that a coca farmer is able to produce about one pound of coca paste per acre every two months. That's roughly a $2,000 profit per acre per year, at current prices, after paying expenses and "taxes" charged by the leftist guerrillas who control the Curillo area and most of Colombia's coca-growing zones. (In comparison, per capita gross domestic product nationwide is only $2,020.) "Nothing can provide similar profits to growing coca, so we have to use some coercion along with the alternative development. Otherwise no one would accept it," said Jaime Ruiz, the top government official for Plan Colombia. "But this is not going to be a scorched-earth policy." Although Ruiz's policy is intended to weaken the rebels by reducing their income from coca cultivation, many analysts warn that the outcome may well be the opposite. When the government makes its big military push into Putumayo and Caqueta provinces -- a move that is expected to start next month -- peasants fear the fighting will force thousands of families off their land, creating chaos in the countryside. With no land or jobs, many young men and women could become easy recruits for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the rebel group that controls most coca areas. Although the FARC harshly criticizes Plan Colombia, rebel leaders have quietly told government officials that they will allow its nonmilitary programs, such as crop substitution and road building, to be carried out -- as long as they are not publicly identified as being paid for with U.S. funds. The rebels appear to be bending to local residents' desire for economic development, no matter what the source. In addition, the FARC has proposed a similar crop-substitution program, to be carried out in a 300-square-mile zone the rebels already control around Cartagena de Chaira, a town in northern Caqueta. But there are two main differences between the FARC's plan and Plan Colombia: The FARC plan would cost about $300 million for just that one area, and it would be run by the guerrillas. Colombian officials and U.S. diplomats have rejected the FARC proposal, calling it a ruse to get the government to cede more territory to the rebels. But some experts call it feasible. "It's a serious plan and probably would work," said Alba, the crop-substitution official. He added that the $300 million price tag is realistic: "It seems shocking, but that's what it really would cost to create a whole social infrastructure in such an underdeveloped area and persuade the people to switch away from coca." Alba and other experts note, however, that the FARC proposal relies on the same sort of coercion as Plan Colombia. Under the rebel plan, coca growers who refuse to eradicate all their coca would be expelled from the zone at gunpoint. The result, just like the government plan, would likely be displacement of large numbers of peasants. But no matter how effective an anti-drug strategy might prove, it stands little chance of success in a war zone. "As long as the war continues, there is no anti-drug strategy that will have any significant level of success," said Klaus Nyholm, director of the U.N. anti-drug program in Colombia. "Peace is the answer." Note: Government officials admit that crop substitution is a tough sell in impoverished countryside.Source: San Francisco Chronicle (CA)Author: Robert Collier, Chronicle Staff WriterPublished: Sunday, December 17, 2000 Copyright: 2000 San Francisco ChronicleContact: chronletters Website: Article:US-Backed Program To Replace Colombia's Drug Crops Articles - Colombia
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Comment #2 posted by Stripey on December 19, 2000 at 23:02:36 PT
And if it's legal. . .
Then corporations start to grow it, and pow, the cartels and the rebels have no reason to exist anymore. . . Seems to be the easy way to end the drug war. . .Damn beurocrats.
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Comment #1 posted by mungojelly on December 17, 2000 at 18:33:09 PT:
as long as it's profitable
As long as it is profitable to grow coca, it will be grown. The only way to control coca production is to remove the profit. 
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