Burro, or Donkey, as his friends call him because of his large ears and goofy smile, shyly shows off his hands. They're covered with greenish black stains from the morning’s work – stripping coca leaves – and burns from the chemicals used to process the plant into cocaine paste.
“It’s good work,” he says. “It pays.”
Coca farming is about the only thing that does pay in much of Catatumbo. Situated in the eastern Colombian state of Norte de Santander, it produces around 10 percent of the country’s coca crop. But the Colombian government is now hoping to change this through a deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) – the Marxist guerrillas who control coca farmers’ operations in Catatumbo and elsewhere in the country.
Colombia supplies around 95 percent of the cocaine consumed in the United States, and the government’s ongoing peace process with the FARC has been hailed as a golden opportunity to tackle this trade at its source, as the guerrillas dominate some two-thirds of the national coca crop. Indeed, the government and the guerrillas say they have developed a plan that could break the vicious circle of poverty and conflict that drives coca production.
But coca farmers, who have endured war, guerrilla rule, and state persecution and neglect, are deeply skeptical of government promises and FARC vows that this could work. Burro and his neighbors want to see much more than words before they uproot a crop that has fed their families for three decades. And it could be one of they key challenges to a post-peace accord in Colombia.
'No authority here'
Like most of Colombia’s coca-growing regions, Catatumbo is isolated. Its main town, Tibú, is less than 100 miles from the state capital of Cucuta, but the journey is four bone-jarring hours on a dirt road that slowly winds its way into the jungle valley.
Along the road are constant reminders that this remains a war zone. Heavily armed soldiers in helmets and flak jackets peer out of sandbagged bunkers at checkpoints, and convoys of armored vehicles and tanks rumble past.
The guerrillas are firmly entrenched in towns such as Tibú, and their fighting units roam the region’s mountains and jungles. In contrast, the state’s influence extends little farther than the military checkpoints.
“The state has no authority here – the only ones with any authority are the guerrillas,” says one cacao farmer here, who did not want to be named for security reasons. Locals know that there are worse things than guerrilla rule; rightwing paramilitaries slaughtered at least 5,700 people between 1999 and 2004 during a state-backed invasion of the region.
“You can talk to the guerrillas, you can negotiate with them and come to an agreement,” he says. “The paramilitaries, on the other hand, that was something bestial.”
The Catatumbo paramilitaries demobilized in 2004. The guerrillas now protect coca plantations from security forces as well as tax and regulate the sale of coca paste. They are also a key purchaser, selling it to traffickers, or processing it into cocaine themselves.
This role has allowed the FARC to set themselves up as the representatives of the coca farmers in Havana, Cuba-based peace talks. The plan they have agreed to with the government is designed to ease coca farmers into the legal economy and to eradicate their coca. They will then sit down with a specially created government body to devise a crop substitution program and a social development plan.
The program will be launched if negotiators agree on two remaining issues – rights of victims and disarmament – and sign a final peace accord.
‘A job like any other’
Community leaders in Catatumbo cautiously welcome the proposal, but they're wary.
“There isn’t the political will to combat this, to substitute [crops], to look for a solution to this problem,” says Juan Carlos Quintero, deputy leader of Catatumbo peasant farmer group Ascamcat.
The coca farmers themselves are typically men and women of all ages with little formal education and few skills outside of agricultural work.
“For us, [coca farming] isn’t anything illicit, it is a job like any other, like planting beans or corn,” says Jose del Carmen Abril, who helped found Ascamcat and became its president, despite never learning to read or write.
Most of the farmers live deep into the countryside, often in shacks without reliable electricity or water. Health and education services rarely reach them. If the substitution program that comes out of the peace process is to be successful, the farmers say, it will have to address this underdevelopment.
“To definitively put an end to the cultivation of ‘crops of illicit use’ – as the government calls them – the investment from above will have to reach those below,” says Mr. Abril. “When they have solved all the social problems, then there will be an end to illegal crops.”