Colombian cocaine runs through it

As Plan Colombia kicks in to full gear, the ground and air routes long traveled by drug runners are being blocked. Their solution? Transporting along the country's many rivers.

Like most of the remote communities on the Caguan River, Santa Fe is a place on the ragged edge of civilization.

It is where poor Colombians come to make easy money, fast money, planting and picking and processing coca leaves into a product sold on the streets of Los Angeles and behind the school gymnasiums in the suburbs of Chicago.

For the small-scale coca growers, the illicit crops harvested from the inky soil equal a one-way ticket out of poverty. But most farmers here would gravitate to a less volatile cash crop if it were profitable.

"We grow coca for survival, not because we like it. That is why we could eradicate it if we had a viable substitute," states a coca farmer here in southeastern Caqueta state.

And that is just what the Bogota government is trying to accomplish with its $7 billion "Plan Colombia." With $200 million in support from the European Union and at least $1.3 billion from the US, this massive effort focuses on fumigation and convincing farmers to plant crops other than narcotics.

As ground and air routes are increasingly blocked by Plan Colombia strictures, rivers have become the latest frontier in Colombia's 40-year war on drugs. Waterways like the Caguan now serve as the main transit for the country's endless flow of cocaine.

And to those living in the remote communities along the river, coca production and trade is a means of survival.

The Caguan is a Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) security corridor that runs close to their 12,000-square mile zone given by the government to the left-wing guerrillas in 1998 as a safe haven to initiate peace negotiations.

Coca substitution is by no means a new idea to Caguan river communities. In 1989, when the Colombian Army began to repress the drug business, a priest in this area created their first organization to eradicate illicit crops and initiate alternative substitution crops like fruit, rubber, and cocoa.

"We became partners with [a European nongovernment organization] to acquire machinery and make the chocolate factory a reality," says a local coca farmer. "But we never had a chance to put this alternative into practice, due to massive and indiscriminate fumigations that killed all crops in 1996. We blame our government and the Colombian antinarcotic police force."

He has since joined the new Cocaine and Heroin Growers Cooperative (COCCA) for the people who farm coca and poppies here along the Caguan River.

Another co-op member adds, "We are all coca growers in this region, and at least 90 percent of us believe in the eradication and the substitution of illicit crops, but we have to do it in an intelligent way. The crops are bringing death and misery to our country."

"There is no infrastructure to support traditional crops that could bring us the profit like coca," says another Caguan coca grower. The narco-buyers come practically to their front door, effectively displacing traditional cash crops like, yucca, bananas, rubber or chocolate, whose transportation costs make them prohibitively expensive.

At present, the raw form of cocaine, coca paste, prior to further chemical processing, averages about $1000 per kilo in the Caguan river communities.

Small-scale coca farm owners can earn a few thousand dollars a week to pay their employees, feed, clothe and house their families, and even buy a few extra goods.

Narco-buyers typically come down the Caguan River every 15 days to purchase the paste, but sometimes they do not show for months, and locals have to adapt to a lack of cash. The result is a bartering system where grams of coca paste equate to the value of food, supplies, and medicine - or are used for recreational activities, like gambling at weekend cock fights. This de facto currency is not seen as a pleasure drug but as mercancia, or merchandise.

A campesino, or peasant, sitting at another table in the restaurant shows a small bag of coca paste: "It weighs six grams - about $5.50, which is equivalent to four pounds of beef, lunch for me and my family," he says.

"I started here with nothing. We had to crawl inside our home - it was so small," says a wrinkled old man. "Today, as you can see, we are standing tall." For him, the illicit crop made his family live better. He owns a few acres of coca, as well as a small processing lab. "Someday I will eradicate my coca plantation," he continues. "But today, that is impossible."

But the quest for a profitable alternative to coca continues. Early this year, for example, the FARC agreed to collaborate with four medium-size Caguan coca farm owners. They switched their land to cultivate a licit crop, sugar cane; the FARC harvests it, while a newly built factory produces the pure sugar. There are plans to create a rice factory with machinery from India, and to eventually create a nature reserve in the rainforest of the lower Caguan river region.

Although small-time coca campesinos aren't targeted in Plan Colombia, their association with the FARC creates problems - whether they side with the guerrillas or not.

"Just because we live here doesn't mean we agree with FARC politics," says a coca grower.

"They just happen to have the guns."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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