Side effects hit Plan Colombia

Pastrana is set to ask Bush today for more help in building a legal economy in drug-producing areas.

Rigoberto Rosero was setting out a new crop of plantains when his farm was doused in herbicide by police crop-dusters escorted by US-made combat helicopters. Their target was his illegal 10-acre plot of coca, the tea-like bush which provides the raw material for cocaine, but within days nearly every plant on Mr. Rosero's homestead withered and died.

Nearly two months later, he still seems stunned as he walks past half-dead orange trees, a shriveled stand of maize, and rows of skeletal coca plants. "This was my life's work. I thought I could build something for my children's future. But when something like this happens, you start to lose hope."

As President Bush welcomes Colombian president Andres Pastrana to the White House today, the largest anti-drugs offensive this country has ever seen is rolling across the jungles and farmland of southern Colombia.

But the offensive's rapid success so far is raising concern that promised food and development aid will not come quickly enough to give farmers like Mr. Rosero a way to feed themselves and a legal alternative for making a living.

The $1.3 billion strategy known as Plan Colombia kick-started in December with an airborne assault on the Guamuez Valley deep in Putumayo state, a lawless frontier region where clandestine laboratories churn out nearly half of Colombia's cocaine.

The all-out offensive on the heart of the cocaine industry is part of a five-year plan to cut back Colombia's drug production, and weaken the leftist guerrillas and right-wing paramilitaries who finance their operations with money from narcotics deals.

The Colombian government is calling the operation a resounding success - 72,500 acres of coca were destroyed in the first phase of the plan.

"People in the regions never thought they'd be fumigated, so they never tried to change. Now they're annoyed because we have destroyed their coca, so they're bound to complain," says presidential adviser Gonzalo de Francisco.

Against expectations, in the Guamuez Valley, home to the largest concentration of coca crops on earth, there was little resistance from the guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, partly because right-wing militias - the army's de facto allies - launched a terror campaign in the region late last year, driving out the rebels. Spraying operations have now been launched in the rebel-dominated, neighboring state of Caqueta. There, fumigation sorties have come under heavy ground fire, and last week, an armed rescue unit - including US civilian contract workers - braved guerrilla bullets to save the crew of a downed police helicopter.

The incident underlined the risks implied in an increased US involvement in a savage civil war, but most of the conflict's victims are still unarmed civilians.

So far the brunt of the anti-narcotics campaign has been borne by small farmers like Rosero.

Local officials and campesinos say that fumigation has poisoned thousands of acres of food crops and pastures, devastated the local economy, and sown deep resentment among the rural poor.

"The effects have been catastrophic. They sprayed the coca, but they also killed all our food crops," says Miriam Rodriguez, a teacher at La Concordia's two-room school.

Like the tin-roofed Catholic church and most of the houses in this tiny village, the school was surrounded by coca crops. And when the crop-dusters arrived on Jan. 6, it, too, was coated in herbicide.

This semester, the school won't be able to provide free lunches for the poorest students because its kitchen garden was destroyed. Locals have complained of skin rashes, headaches, and vomiting after exposure to the clouds of Gliphosate, the weedkiller used in aerial eradication.

County officials have tallied more than 800 cases where indiscriminate spraying has destroyed legal crops along with coca. Rosero's legal crops used to be enough to feed his family, but like most farmers in the Guamuez Valley, he says that he depended on coca as their only source of cash.

"I could have planted yucca, but nobody would have bought it. The government doesn't understand that we campesinos are humans too, and we have the right to make a living," he says.

In some regions, the government has signed a series of pacts promising emergency food aid and long-term development assistance for small farmers who destroy their own crops.

At today's meetings, President Pastrana is expected to ask the US for further economic assistance and trade preferences, which he hopes will boost the legal economy in drug-producing regions.

He has stressed that the campaign will only succeed if accompanied by social development programs, but most of the first tranche of the US aid went for helicopters, equipment, and training for the elite anti-narcotics army battalions leading the current fumigation drive.

In the Guamuez Valley, meanwhile, emergency food deliveries described in the plan have been irregular, and many locals say they have yet to receive any help at all from the government. According to Alfonso Martinez, a former mayor in the neighboring town of La Hormiga, many campesinos are losing faith in the government's promises.

"Two months after they fumigated, we still haven't seen any aid. The campesinos aren't getting any incentives [to legalize]," he says. Some are replanting their illegal crops - this time with a new strain of high-yield Peruvian coca.

"I understand the people's impatience, but the government hasn't let them down," counters Mr. de Francisco, who is in charge of Plan Colombia's social programs. He blames the delays on administrative problems with the Colombian national budget.

"We have signed contracts with non-governmental organizations who will manage the long-term development projects," he says. "There has been a delay, but that's because we're setting up a social program which is unprecedented in Colombia. We really believe we can solve Putumayo's problems."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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