Coca farmers protest spraying
By RNW.nl – August 2001
On Thursday, Colombian farmers blockaded important routes in protest against the spraying of illegal coca plantations. Last week, a judge in the southern Colombian province of Putumayo declared himself opposed to the spraying, and imposed a suspension in that province. But the Colombian anti-drugs unit, a government body, refuses to cease the spraying of illegal coca plantations. The Colombian government has invested a lot of money and effort in the fight against drugs, and is being assisted by the United States.
For the past ten years, the US has sprayed illegal coca crops in Colombia using a toxic herbicide called glyphosa. However, the harmful effects of glyphosa are coming to light. Several farmers in the Putumayo have been suffering from serious skin infections and lung problems. Some of them have now taken the matter to court. And last week, a judge ruled that the irrigation of the crops must stop until the Colombian government has investigated the effects of the chemicals used.
Thorn in the Side:
The suspension of crop irrigation is a thorn in the side of the United States. Last year, America invested 1.3 billion dollars in its war on drugs in Colombia. Ninety per cent of the cocaine that enters the US is produced in Colombia. The coca plantations are situated in the southern Amazon region, where the guerrilla movement FARC is highly active. This Marxist rebel movement forces the coca farmers to relinquish a percentage of the profit they make from the sale of coca. Because the region is impenetrable, spraying the plantations from small aircraft, under the protection of US helicopters, seems to be the only effective way to destroy the coca production.
Numerous accounts of the harmful effects of the war on drugs programme have only enhanced criticism of the Colombian government. The United Nations and the National Ombudsman agree with the ruling of the judge in the Putumayo region. They feel that apart from the pending health hazard to the indigenous people, the policy of irrigation is missing its goal. Coca farmers are moving their poppy plantations even further into the jungle. And further research has shown that the amount of coca is increasing.
Local administrators, like the governor of Putumayo, hope that the ruling will open up negotiations about alternatives. Small farmers have said they are willing to destroy the coca crops by hand, if in return they receive reasonable financial compensation. Earlier, they received an amount of $1000, which was not enough. Furthermore, administrators are requesting an investigation into other crops that are being cultivated in the Amazon.
The US fears that the suspension of the irrigation programme will lead to an expansion of the cultivation of coca. Controlling the cultivation of coca is very difficult, and destroying the plantations by hand is a long and obscure process. But the free market mechanism is the largest dilemma. As long as demand in the US remains high, Colombia will supply coca. America would be better off investing its dollars in reducing the demand at home.