S.American Farmers' Drug Dependency

IN recent months, drug ``czar'' William J. Bennett's public statements have focused on the belief that Washington has ``to talk about political ... and economic considerations'' in implementing its Latin American drug policy. Yet, according to leaks from his preliminary drug report, to be released Sept. 5, Mr. Bennett insists the United States should maintain its failed efforts to eradicate cocaine production. Officials continue to underestimate the economic dependence and cultural significance of coca to South American farmers. Bennett's plan hardly differs from current White House policy, which favors the mostly unsuccessful forced-education tact that did not prevent a 35 percent 1985-88 increase in South American cocaine production. The Bennett Plan would step-up Washington's military training of anti-drug forces in South America, as well as provide $300-$400 million (up 28 to 45 percent from last year) for economic and military help ``linked'' to drug eradication.

The failures of similar plans can be attributed to a lack of will on the part of US authorities to seek a viable economic alternative for the drug-dependent economies of nations such as Peru, Bolivia, and Columbia. In 1988, a total of 83 percent of the State Department's International Narcotics Control Program funds were spent on crop eradication, and drug enforcement and military training. A mere 3 percent helped replace income for those dependent on cultivating drug crops, and economic development projects. Estimates for 1989-90 indicate an equally small percentage.

Washington must recognize that in attempting to destroy coca plants it is not only dealing with a substance banned in the US, but also with the most profitable agricultural harvest available to the average South American farmer.

Presently, coca farmers have little recourse but to continue producing for their families' economic survival. The average annual income for campesinos who grow coca, usually on plots of less than three acres, is $1,000. Other crops yield about $160. Legal cash crops are not only a financially inadequate substitute for coca - they are more difficult to market. Unlike coca, they are more vulnerable to insects and disease. In contrast to substitute crops, coca needs little care after reaching maturity, and grows well at high elevations in poor soil conditions.

Since the early 1980s, as the standard of living deteriorated in narco-producing countries due to failing commodity prices, debt repayment burdens, and International Monetary Fund-like austerity measures, the opportunity to take advantage of the lucrative underground drug economy has become irresistible. The average international price for coffee and tin, respectively Colombia and Bolivia's leading legal exports, has dropped over 33 percent since 1980. The price of Peru's leading export, copper, although having recovered in 1988, fell approximately 50 percent from 1980-86. Similarly, the price of petroleum, a leading export for all three countries, dropped over 75 percent during the same period.

In recent years, Colombia, the largest coca refiner in the world, is thought to have earned over $1.5 billion annually from the cocaine trade, an amount nearly equaling its annual $1.6 billion coffee revenues. Peru generates an estimated $800 million yearly as the largest coca producer. That's more than Peru's 1987 total earnings ($786 million) from its leading exports, petroleum and copper.

Bolivia, the poorest country in South America, makes approximately $660 million annually from coca - outpacing its entire legal export earnings. If the cocaine market disappeared overnight, as Washington fervently wishes, these countries would undergo an unprecedented economic and political upheaval.

Coca-producing nations have become dependent on cocaine yields for their economic well-being. Only by an alternative road could Washington fashion a realistic solution for countries in the drug trade. Latin American financial planners are deeply concerned over the baleful role that drug dollars have on their economies because narco-dollars tend to be spent on the consumer market or reinvested in the drug trade, stifling any kind of real industrial development that would create a demand for skilled labor and an influx of foreign investment.

Bennett's plan does a disservice. It doesn't provide a sensible choice to countries involved in coca production. Without substantial economic and agricultural aid, South Americans will be left with no option but to continue producing cocaine. Drug trafficker bounties, undercover agents directing covert operations, extradition treaties, drug seizures, and shooting down drug trafficking airplanes may temporarily relieve the symptoms. But they won't provide a long-term solution.

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