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Why Plan Colombia Wont Choke The Coke - Articles Surfing
Landing at the airport in San Vicente de Cagun, visitors are greeted with a huge billboard declaring: 'Plan Colombia, the gringos provide arms, Colombians will provide the corpses.' Plan Colombia is often described as 'the next Vietnam'. It is a military offensive to eliminate drugs cultivation in the Colombian south that is controlled by left-wing guerrillas, still undefeated after 40 years of civil war.
The plan will this year make Colombia the third largest recipient of US military aid, after Israel and Egypt. The signs around the airport though, were erected by the Farc guerrillas who control this Switzerland-sized area. San Vicente de Cagun is the capital of the 'demilitarised zone'. Armed rebel soldiers patrol the streets and the roads are dotted with Farc signs reading 'Look after the environment' and 'Take care of the children'.
At San Vicente Cathedral, I meet Rodrigo Velaidez, who works for the Cifisam charity that helps coca growers switch to alternative crops. To meet the coca families, we must catch a boat from the 'neutral zone' down the river Cagun. It takes two hours. The port is bustling, the ground is dusty, the buildings are wooden and the bars are full. Men pass by wearing sombreros, ponchos, boots and shirts unbuttoned to the waist. It looks like the Wild West. And why not? It is a frontier town. The inhabitants are modern-day homesteaders who have made their way to the edge of the Amazon, in search of land. The violence drives them from home. So also do the big landowners, Rodrigo tells me. Agrarian reform in the richer north would stop people flocking south, he says.
The town is swarming with government soldiers. They have just deactivated a Farc bomb, we are told. At night, the troops will return to barracks as they do not control the town and skirmishes are common. Many Colombians distrust the motives of their and the US's government. Some suspect Plan Colombia is really aimed at ridding the region of guerrillas.
In Cartagena, we meet Daniel Garc'a , a former coca-grower now working for Cifisam, and travel deeper into the Cagun rainforest. We moor our boat and trek across land burned clear by settlers, but by nightfall we have still not reached our destination. There are no roads or railways. Only a product of extraordinary value would entice traders to make this journey.
Most farmers would rather become ranchers than grow the coca that is used to produce cocaine, but livestock is expensive and needs land. Cattle-rearing would not be the best use for this former-rainforest land so Rodrigo advises farmers to cultivate a variety of crops. Planting fruit trees, investigating herbal remedies, building up stocks, all are options but all take time and money. 'Imagine if, instead of fumigation, the government spent the US$7.5bn earmarked for Plan Colombia on this type of social investment,' Rodrigo exclaims.
The next day we meet Maria Bubu and her husband. They own one hectare of coca, supplemented with animals, fruit trees and a fish pond. They would like to replace the coca altogether. I ask Maria Bubu what she thinks of Plan Colombia. 'What's Plan Colombia?' she asks. The fumigation's, I reply. 'I've heard talk, yes. It's a worry.'
Ironically, although you can replant coca just six months after fumigation, it takes much longer to safely grow food crops again on poisoned land. Maria's fruit trees and fish stocks would be devastated by fumigation. Her coca would not.
Maria's 18-year-old daughter, Adelaida, nonchalantly says, 'The fumigating planes didn't get us last time round. I don't think they'll hit us.' Her mother looks less certain. Adelaida walks from farm to farm with her one-year-old baby, seeking work picking coca. When I ask her what she thinks of young Americans and Europeans who snort coke, she shrugs: 'Not much.' People rarely come across refined cocaine here and smoking coca-paste is frowned upon by the Farc.
Half a mile away, we're led by eight-year old Santiago to his mother who is cutting sugar cane. Friendly and talkative, Helena Guzman, walks us through the farm to the coca 'laboratory'. There, a tarpaulin held up by four poles covers a metal barrel, table and wooden press about seven-foot high. Helena explains that it's easy to find buyers, everyone knows who they are. The Farc only taxes the traders, not the growers, so Helena does not have to deal with them.
But she is extremely worried by the fumigation's, which would almost certainly poison the sugar cane, fruit trees, herbs and fish that she also cultivates. Most of all, she is scared the toxins will poison the water. She knows families who were fumigated not far away, and the children were horribly ill after drinking the polluted water. 'Dreadful illnesses,' she emphasises.
'Plan Colombia is a plan for war,' Daniel says, as we make our way back. It's a phrase I hear again and again during my time here. 'The Rambos will come here, they probably won't defeat the guerrillas, they know the jungle inside out. It's the peasant families who will suffer.'
On the 5th September 2002 Plan Colombia financed the biggest aerial spraying operation to date. It has had no effect on coca production, but environmentalists claim the herbicide used is harmful to humans. By 2003 the US had granted $2bn dollars to the Colombian government for military spending and lifted restrictions on using the money against guerilla groups. This is despite the fact Human Rights Watch have linked the army and the government to paramilitary deathsquads who murder trade union, community and indigenous leaders, and are implicated in the drugs trade.
Copyright © 1995 - Photius Coutsoukis (All Rights Reserved).
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