Colombian farmers start anew after coca `bonanza'

IN the late 1970s, the winds of change swept over this small village and those surrounding it. The previously dirt-poor farmers began earning big profits for producing coca to meet escalating demand for cocaine in the United States. Suddenly, farmers in this remote area had money to buy cars, drink imported whiskey, and travel throughout the country. But ``the bonanza,'' as that era is now called, ended abruptly in late 1983 when a 100-man antinarcotics police squad swept through the area, cutting down and burning the coca plants. With their livelihood dependent on the plants, the farmers were left destitute. The once rosy future looked bleak.

Today, however, hope is returning to this poor farming community in Cauca State, 400 miles south of Bogot'a, thanks to a joint project of the Colombian government and the United Nations Fund for Drug Abuse Control. Launched a year ago with the aim of introducing alternative crops to coca (such as coffee and sugar), the five-year, $5 million project provides technical help, equipment, and seeds. But it also builds better roads, schools, and water pipelines in a four-county area with a population of 150,000. The program will directly benefit about 10,000 people. (The UN sponsors similar projects in Bolivia and Peru.)

With the farmers not growing coca for fear of another police raid, the program offers the only hope of lifting this area out of grinding poverty. And by giving the people here the opportunity to better their lives, it could rob the area's guerrilla groups of their chief recruiting base.

With its long-term goals and painstaking approach, and with a relatively small amount of money, the project contrasts sharply with the headline-grabbing, US-supported military raids in Bolivia, which began in July and will end in a few weeks.

But people here believe this follow-on approach is far more likely to win the hearts and minds of the coca growers in South America in the battle to attack the cocaine production problem at its roots.

``To attack the cocaine problem, you need the interdiction and eradication programs,'' says a UN adviser, who asked not to be identified. ``But you just can't eradicate and leave the farmers with no alternative. . . . This causes terrible social and economic problems. And, besides, in time they'll try to start growing coca again.''

``I used to grow coca all over this area,'' Francisco Alcides Ruano says with a sweep of his arm, as he stands on his five-acre farm tucked into the mountainside.

But with the coca plants gone, Mr. Alcides is growing coffee, yucca, sugar, and other crops. A small pond is stocked with 300 fish, to provide badly needed nutrition for his three small children.

Alcides is the crop substitution program's biggest booster, but not because he didn't profit from the bonanza. In fact, he was the area's biggest coca trafficker, earning enough to buy three cars and a 125-acre farm (all of which he has since had to sell).

Although he had far more money then, Alcides wasn't as happy. ``I was dealing in such large quantities of money and with so many people that I had to juggle a lot of balls,'' he says. ``I regularly had trouble sleeping and often received warnings from people that if I didn't come through with their coca shipment they'd kill me.''

Alcides was also arrested once while taking several kilos of coca to Bogot'a. But he escaped with the help of a ``friendly'' policeman.

Farmers had grown coca leaves in the area for generations for local people to chew. But production was modest until the late 1970s, when residents became part of the production chain for cocaine to be smuggled to the US.

Increased production brought a problem that the area had never suffered from before: drug addiction. Suddenly, a dangerous coca-based substance called basuco began to wreak havoc.

Basuco is raw coca paste treated with leaded gasoline, kerosene, and sulfuric acid. It is said to have extremely serious effects on the user. It is highly addictive, and addicts may go for days just smoking the drug, eating and sleeping little. They usually pay for their habit by stealing.

``You would come home and find that your chickens had been stolen,'' says one El Morro resident. Another had his cattle stolen, and he's still trying to pay off the money he borrowed to buy the livestock.

Basuco, not the police eradication effort, led Alcides to get out of the drug trafficking business. One day a customer came to his house and smoked a basuco cigarette in front of two of his children, aged 5 and 3.

``Later that day,'' he remembers, ``I found my kids about to smoke a basuco cigarette. I told my wife, `I don't care if it means we have to starve, I don't want anything more to do with coca.' ''

Coca growing also brought violence. During the bonanza, ``people would try to steal your coca plants, so you'd have to get a gun to protect them,'' says Alberto Navia, an unemployed mechanic who cultivated 20 plants. ``It seemed for a while that someone was getting killed every week.''

At 80, Marceliano G'omez is El Morro's elder statesman. At his insistence, his family was the only one in the village not to grow coca. ``Coca is great for the wallet but bad for the community,'' he says. ``You earn a lot of money, but you have to get a gun to protect your crop, which could lead you to murder someone or be murdered yourself.''

But in an area that had never known anything other than deep poverty, Mr. G'omez's family was the exception. Indeed, despite the drug problems and violence, virtually all of El Morro's residents would cultivate it again if they didn't fear another police raid.

``It was the only time we had any money,'' says farmer Feliciano Gaviria. While Mr. Gaviria earned 300 to 400 pesos a day picking coca, he now receives 200 pesos a day harvesting other crops (200 pesos now equal $1). Coca can be harvested four times per year, while other crops can be harvested only once or twice a year. Alcides now earns one-tenth of what he earned during the bonanza. The area's annual per capita income is $320, far below the national average.

But without the coca or any other hope, this community is willing to give the government-UN program a chance.

Basically, the program shows farmers how to cultivate new crops and get higher yields from ones they've grown before. ``The farmers are suspicious of us until we plant one-quarter of an acre on their land and show them how much bigger the harvest is,'' says Fideligno Wilches, a coffee agency agronomist.

But the program is also a frontal attack on poverty. Doctors come to the area to treat a variety of health problems. Farmers learn to cultivate fish to improve nutrition. Farmers are guided through the legal steps needed to obtain title to their land. With land deeds, they are able to get loans from the state farm bank. Since July, 36 farmers have received loans.

Aqueducts are being built to provide running water to hundreds of homes, and a road is under construction so that crops can be marketed more easily. Local residents are helping to build both projects.

The program seems to be succeeding. Some farmers have increased their harvests. The road is nearly finished, and the aqueduct has reached dozens of homes.

And interest is running high. A recent meeting in El Morro to discuss the program's status drew 250 people, with some walking four hours to attend. ``One indication of our success is that local politicians, who had shunned the program, are starting to take credit for some of the things we've done,'' says the UN adviser.

Back on his small farm, Alcides serves three guests a lunch of chicken, rice, and salad. ``This all came from my farm,'' he says proudly. ``During the bonanza, I would have just bought it all with my coca profits.''

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