Peru Aims to Win Coca Farmers Over to Crop Substitution Program

Fujimori policy gives peasants access to credit to aid conversion

PERU'S decision to coordinate its antidrug efforts more closely with the United States comes hard on the heels of an address last month by new Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori, in which he elaborated his antidrugs ``doctrine.'' The establishment of a working group earlier this month between the two nations was well received across Peru's political spectrum. Anthony Quainton, US ambassador to Peru, called it a ``positive'' step.

``This shows the Peruvian government's decision to maintain cooperation and, from our side, I can say we reciprocate that,'' he added.

The nub of Mr. Fujimori's policy is legitimacy for coca-growing peasant farmers through a modern system of land entitling, which in turn will enable farmers to raise mortgages, gain access to credit, and thus effectively switch to legal crops.

According to Fujimori, the crop substitution plan has already begun. The Interior Ministry has a full-scale, detailed expense plan for a pilot 25,000-acre area. It would be situated near the joint base maintained by the antinarcotics police and the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) in Santa Lucia in the Upper Huallaga Valley.

The plan would allow, at a cost of some $12 million over three years, 1,500 families to introduce crop substitution for coca. It would provide technical assistance, improved infrastructure, and marketing facilities. The cost of a similar program for all of Peru's five main coca-growing regions is estimated at $374 million over five years.

Peru, Fujimori argues, is a special case within the Andean drug-producing countries. The area devoted to coca in Peru is put at 650,000 acres, according to Ministry of Agriculture calculations.

An estimated 200,000 peasant families, or more than 1 million people, directly depend on coca growing for their living, making it ``imperative'' to accompany repression and eradication of coca with crop substitution.

Previous efforts to check coca in Peru have been unsuccessful. The DEA, in conjunction with Peru's antidrug police, embarked in 1983 on the process of manual eradication of coca plants in Peru's main coca-producing area, the Upper Huallaga Valley.

By 1988, innovative circular saws were achieving better results. But the record 13,000 acres eradicated that year were still exceeded by more than fourfold increases in new plantings. Coca in the Huallaga Valley has proliferated from an estimated 21,000 acres in 1978 to upwards of 375,000 acres today.

The Upper Huallaga Valley remains Peru's most serious, though not its only, coca problem. The land produces especially good quality coca leaf, high in alkaloids. Little else grows so quickly, and cheaply, on the apparently lush but actually impoverished hillside soil.

Growers bent on quick returns slash and burn vegetation, planting and harvesting their coca largely undisturbed. If one area becomes the focus of eradication efforts, growers swiftly move elsewhere in what Cynthia McClintock, a specialist on Peru at George Washington University, calls ``the corset effect: wherever drug enforcers squeeze, the cocaine pops out somewhere else.'' After its cultivation, coca is processed into ``basic cocaine paste.'' Fighting the cultivation and manufacturing process is complicated by the informal, but effective, alliance in the Upper Huallaga Valley between traffickers and the Sendero Luminoso, or Shining Path, Peru's Maoist guerrilla group.

Shining Path protects traffickers, controls prices, and collects ``landing taxes'' from the myriad small airplanes that still, to DEA disgust, fly unmolested back and forth from the valley's clandestine and even official town airstrips.

Crop substitution may seem a toothless palliative in the face of well-established organized crime. But the Fujimori proposal draws upon several earlier initiatives.

As early as August 1988, a sizeable group of farmers in the Upper Huallaga Valley, discouraged by falling international coca leaf prices and tired of harassment from both Shining Path and antidrug forces, finally gained United Nations Development Program backing for their own crop substitution scheme.

Brig. Gen. Alberto Arciniega, the region's controversial political-military chief from April to December of last year, enthusiastically espoused crop substitution.

`It is essential to distinguish between the criminal drug trafficker and the peasant who cultivates coca because he has no alternative,'' he said.

The Arciniega strategy, some analysts say, was more successful than any recent Peruvian countersubversive policy. He defended growers from antinarcotics police interference, while haranguing them in villages on the urgency of crop substitution.

At the same time, he sent his troops out to labor alongside the civilian population on road-building and public works. The new relationship built trust between coca growers and the Army, paying dividends in improved intelligence information and a consequently better military record against the Shining Path. But the general's stance exacerbated the traditionally poor relations between the Army, which is constitutionally charged with fighting subversion, and Peru's DEA-advised paramilitary police, whose role is fighting drugs.

General Arciniega refused to allow police to carry out interdiction in his ``model'' town of Uchiza. This attracted charges of collusion with drug traffickers.

Ironically, such attacks have enhanced Arciniega's prestige rather than damaging it, leaving him in a position to help form antinarcotics policy.

Another key antidrug policy player is Hernando de Soto, Fujimori's personal adviser. Mr. De Soto would like to incorporate coca-growers into the legal, free-market economy by first granting them land titles. Once coca-growers are legal owners of their land, they can register businesses, commit themselves to substitution pacts, apply for agricultural credit, and form marketing associations for their products.

US officials may take heart from Fujimori's view that he will ``continue the agreed programs to combat drugs-trafficking.''

But Peruvian government proposals will require ``medium and long-term investment and measures to create the economic conditions for definitive substitution of the coca economy,'' Fujimori said.

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