A drug war down on the farm

In a region dependent on coca-growing, Colombia's president tries to sell alternative crop program.

At the livestock arena of this jungle outpost in the world's principal coca-growing region, Colombian President Andres Pastrana is kicking off the "soft side" of Plan Colombia - the US-backed program to end the crop's cultivation in the south and slash the global supply of cocaine.

It's been five months since the multi-billion-dollar plan's "hard side," or military component began, over objections from local leaders, international environmental and rights groups, critics in the US Congress, and dubious European and South American governments.

Here in Putumayo, ground zero of Plan Colombia, aerial spraying has so far destroyed more than 50,000 acres of the raw material for cocaine, according to a US embassy spokesperson in Bogota. US-trained army battalions have been deployed to take out cocaine processing labs and stop trafficking.

Now, with a local school's drum-and- xylophone corps at attention before him, Mr. Pastrana tells farmers that programs are set to help replace the illicit cash crop they had come to depend on.

But the farmers are skeptical as they watch Pastrana hug single mothers who will receive monthly stipends to feed their children and announce funding to pave roads to get new crops to market.

"I think most of us are ready to give up coca, as long as we have something to replace it," says Evrede Sambrano, a farmer near Villa Garzon, Putumayo, who says he lost other crops along with 17 acres of coca when his property was sprayed. "The problem is that no one has ever helped us replace the benefits that coca brought us, so we doubt that it's really going to happen now."

Pastrana tells the crowd: "We are not here to offer promises, but to announce facts and to commit to you that together we can build a peaceful and coca-free Colombia."

With his two-day visit that ended last Friday, Pastrana is offering support for a claim he has made since proposing Plan Colombia: that despite strong criticism of more than $800 million in US military assistance, 80 percent of the $7.5 billion plan is socially oriented.

But despite the occasion's bands, balloons, and free "Coca-free Putumayo" T-shirts, farmers fear the government's grand agricultural scheme will only end up fizzling. That has happened in the past, they say, in this region that has grown coca since the 1980s.

At the same time, critics inside and outside the country say Plan Colombia's focus was clear in the decision to carry out the eradication phase first. Says Lisa Haugaard, Colombia specialist at the Latin America Working Group in Washington: "That the [aerial spraying] went ahead while nothing was in place for the people who were going to be affected makes it obvious what the priority is."

Alternative development programs were delayed at the end of last year by a strike called by Colombia's largest guerrilla group, the FARC, that brought Putumayo to a standstill. Other delays came after local officials' opposition to spraying and farmers' doubts about signing on to the new programs.

Colombian and US officials decided to begin the spraying in Putumayo, using the herbicide glyphosate, in mid-December, when weather conditions were good and work in coca fields had subsided for the Christmas season.

What Colombian officials feared most - a broad social movement against the spraying, with strikes and unrest - never materialized. Several factors explain Putumayo's calm, and even falling violence this year, officials say. For one thing, much of the area's large itinerant population, closely tied to the coca industry, left after spraying began. Some evidence suggests that the spraying reduced guerrilla, paramilitary, and criminal gang activity in parts of Putumayo, since it at least temporarily reduced the lucrative trade resulting from coca production.

In his visit to Putumayo, Pastrana heeded pleas from local leaders and decided to hold off on spraying small family-owned coca fields.

Farmers who sign an alternative crop "pact" with the government will have a year to manually replace their coca with another crop. In Puerto Asis, 6,000 families have signed the pacts, which allow for manual eradication of at least 40,000 acres of coca across Putumayo.

Puerto Asis Mayor Manuel Alzate maintains that only with alternatives - and not by force - will farmers be willing to abandon coca. "That people who have had their coca sprayed are returning to plant even more is a sign that spraying is not effective," he says.

Alzate's position has put him and other local leaders at odds with Pastrana, who says spraying of Putumayo's "industrial"-size coca fields, which he says are tended by drug traffickers and not families, will continue.

Putumayo Gov. Ivan Guerrero is one of six southern governors who oppose aerial spraying of coca, which has been carried out in other parts of Colombia, though on a smaller scale, since the mid-1980s. The governors say spraying only encourages more coca planting in other areas.

Other critics point to new studies showing that coca cultivation increased 60 percent last year as proof that spraying doesn't work. But Plan Colombia's supporters note that the effect of extensive spraying in Putumayo will show up only in this year's statistics.

Many farmers who came out to see Pastrana say they're ready to drop coca because they have suffered from the spreading violence of its trade. But they worry that aid in the form of seeds, fertilizer, agricultural extension services, and transport will not materialize.

"I know of people who have signed a pact [to eradicate their coca], but are still preparing to plant more," says Rosa Elia Figueroa, who lost her Putumayo farm's 10 acres of coca to spraying. She's decided to plant tropical fruits as an alternative to coca - at least for now. "As long as the people doubt the government's commitment," she says, "they're going to fall back on coca."

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