Uribe fights coca with chemical and trees


Under U.S. pressure, new Colombian President Álvaro Uribe has stepped up aerial fumigation of coca crops and overhauled a crop-substitution program to root out the source of 90% of the world’s cocaine.

Fumigation in Colombia was largely suspended between February and August of this year as former President Andrés Pastrana unsuccessfully tried to negotiate a peace agreement with leftist rebels who finance their four-decade struggle with drug profits.

Uribe, who has ruled out peace negotiations for now, says he will eradicate 300,000 acres (120,000 hectares) of coca this year—30% more than last year—to reduce coca cultivation and, thus, the guerrillas’ income. Drawing on bountiful U.S. anti-drug aid, the government in August started to extend spraying from “industrial-sized plantations” to small plots of only a few acres.

The fumigation drive has been attacked as futile and dangerous. Chemical spraying of coca began in 1994, when the nation had some 100,000 acres (40,000 hectares) of the illegal crop. Despite the spraying of more than 600,000 acres (250,000 hectares) of coca over the six subsequent years, cultivation stood at 320,000 acres (130,000 hectares) at the end of 2000. By the end of 2001—the most recent year for which information is available—it had risen to 419,600 acres (169,800 hectares), according to U.S. government figures.

And complaints poured in from farmers that their legal crops were being sprayed, their livestock poisoned and their health harmed by spray-related gastrointestinal disorders, respiratory problems and other ailments.

Fumigation declared safe

In September, the U.S. State Department certified to Congress that the drug fumigation was safe. Its report, based on assessments by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Agriculture, concluded that the glyphosate herbicide formulation being used in Colombia met EPA standards and posed “no unreasonable risks or adverse affects to humans or the environment.”

This has not satisfied critics, who say the State Department lacked the presence in Colombia to study health effects adequately. Nor has it quelled those who argue that fumigation simply prompts coca farmers to clear new plots in virgin forest using slash-and-burn techniques. But the finding did meet a U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee requirement that an evaluation be made before the release of $17 million for purchase of the herbicide.

The Colombian government also plans to restructure its alternative-development program for coca growers. The former $81-million program, intended to allow small farmers to substitute their coca crops for African Palms and other exotic fruits, was described as a failure in a March State Department report.

Critics say it never received adequate government financing and infrastructure. Markets for the substitute crops never emerged, and farmers were loath to give up lucrative coca crops with no attractive alternatives in sight.

The crop-substitution program is to be replaced with a four-year, $300-million reforestation project intended to provide long-term income for 50,000 coca-growing families. Under the new initiative, 150,000 to 250,000 acres (60,000 to 100,000 hectares) of forest a year are to be replanted in 10 priority areas where drug cultivation and processing have destroyed forestland and polluted waterways.

Replacing coca with trees

Reforestation is to take two forms—commercial plantations producing green-certified timber exports and watershed-management efforts that involve the planting of native tree species in river basins. “This is reforestation in the interests of our river basins, in areas—including national parks—where drug cultivation is destroying our most important sources of water,” says Juan Pablo Bonillo, the vice-minister of environment.

Farmers are to receive less than $2,000 a year for the reforestation work, far less than the $4,000 annually they can earn from a five-acre lot of coca. But officials are betting that with steady income from sustainable forestry and other green-friendly enterprises, farmers will want to exchange the violence, alcoholism and pollution associated with the drug trade for a more dignified way of life.

“No legal crop or activity can compete with the profitability of drug crops,” Bonillo says. “But we do hope we can generate long-term, sustainable activities for these families.”

Yet the reforestation effort, like the spraying, has met with skepticism.

“The central government has called for a vague reforestation program without approaching local communities and designing a rational strategy,” says Ricardo Vargas, director of Andean Action, a non-governmental group here that analyzes drug policy. “And besides, it may not make sense to reforest in the Colombian Amazon [the site of much coca cultivation], but to simply guarantee that the forest is left alone to heal itself while concentrating on management of the forest and medicinal and other appropriate uses of its biodiversity.”

- Steve Ambrus

Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office
Environmental Department
Bogotá, Colombia
Tel: +(571) 314-4000
Email: delegadaambiente@hotmail.com
Juan Pablo Bonilla
Environment Ministry
Bogotá, Colombia
Tel: +(571) 288-6020
Email: jpbonilla@minambiente.gov.co, oprensa@minambiente.gov.co
Martin Jelsma
Independent Researcher
Transnational Institute
Amsterdam, Netherlands
Tel: +(31 20) 662-6608
Fax: +(31 20) 675-7176
Email: mjelsma@tni.org
Elsa Nivia
Latin America Pesticide Network
Cali, Colombia
Tel: +(572) 552-5589
Email: rapalmira@telesat.com.co
Website: www.rap-al.org
Ricardo Vargas
Andean Action
Bogotá, Colombia
Email: rivarme@cable.net.co