What's at stake?
Alternative development. If Putumayo's farmers are not convinced that crop substitution - pulling out coca bushes and putting bananas, palms or cattle in their place - is going to work for them, they will continue with coca. And the flow of powder to the US and Europe will continue. Originally under Plan Colombia, Putumayo's coca fields were to be sprayed indiscriminately with defoliants. But after heavy protests from local officials, the plan was modified to give small coca growers a reprieve: Their land will not be sprayed if they agree to take part in a voluntary crop-substitution program. Vast acreage of what officials call "industrial production" will be sprayed, as well as coca fields of absentee land owners.
Regional stability. Colombia's neighbors, including Ecuador, Peru, Venezuela, Brazil, and Panama - worry that instability caused by implementation of Plan Colombia will spill over their borders. Already, hundreds of Colombians are seeking refuge in Ecuador, prompting the US to increase its aid to that troubled country. Tensions have risen especially with Venezuela, where President Hugo Chavez continues to criticize Plan Colombia as a military plan opening the door to the hemisphere's "imperial power" (i.e. US) intervention in South America.
Human rights. Critics point to the Colombian Army's poor human rights record and warn that human rights abuses will rise in Putumayo as Plan Colombia is implemented. The US says no army battalion with demonstrated human rights violations will receive funding. Colombian President Andres Pastrana recently purged hundreds of officers from the forces in an effort to show his seriousness about the respect for human rights. But even US officials admit that Army collusion with the feared right-wing paramilitaries, demonstrably Colombia's worst human rights abusers with dozens of massacres on their hands, remains a problem.
The environment. Environmentalists and some of Colombia's neighbors see in large-scale aerial spraying, a potential natural disaster for the Amazon region. They worry about chemicals poisoning rivers and residents. Antidrug officials counter that the spray to be used is commonly found in US garden shops and poses no environmental threat. They say coca's unbridled growth is a much bigger threat: Four acres of rainforest are destroyed for every one acre planted in coca. And they insist that products like cement, gasoline, and chemicals - which are used in clandestine jungle labs to transform coca into cocaine - cause much greater environmental devastation than spraying.
The Next Vietnam? Putumayo as the US's next Vietnam is how some critics have painted the principal risk of Plan Colombia. But with no one predicting US ground troops in Colombia, some observers say the more likely risk is of a "Central-Americanization" of the US involvement. Their theory: that in the 1980s, the US poured millions of dollars into regimes in Central America, fighting left-wing guerrillas and one result was US involvement in numerous cases of human rights abuse. Two decades later, they say US military assistance to Colombia risks pulling it increasingly into Colombia's civil war - on the Army's side, but not on the side of the poor campesinos who remain caught in the crossfire of a 40-year-old war.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society