Pubdate: Sun, 17 Dec 2000
Source: San Francisco Chronicle (CA)
Copyright: 2000 San Francisco Chronicle
Contact:  901 Mission St., San Francisco CA 94103
Author: Robert Collier, Chronicle Staff Writer


Government Officials Admit That Crop Substitution Is A Tough Sell In 
Impoverished Countryside

When Felipe Alvarado signed up for a government program to uproot his 
illegal coca plants and switch to legal crops, he didn't expect things to 
work out so badly.

But six years after Alvarado went legal, he is worse off than ever. He's 
been thrown in jail; his corn, rubber and yucca plants have been killed by 
government aerial fumigation; and his earnings have plummeted.

Unfortunately for the Colombian and U.S. governments, Alvarado's 
predicament is just one of countless examples of failure for the decade-old 
attempt to cut the cultivation of coca, the plant that provides the raw 
material for cocaine. Instead, Colombia's total acreage planted with coca 
has expanded dramatically, more than tripling since 1995, to an estimated 
350,000 acres.

Now, however, Colombia is gambling that with a lot more money and 
attention, the crop-substitution program can be turned into a success.

Plan Colombia, the government's five-year, $4.4 billion program to end 
cocaine production and defeat the leftist guerrillas, includes $150 million 
for crop substitution, as well as $360 million for new farm-to-market 
highways in coca-growing areas.

The sums are huge and the ideas visionary: Grants, loans and technical 
advice will be given to farmers so they can make the transition from coca 
to such alternative crops as rubber, plantains, yucca and sugar, as well as 
cattle and fish ponds.

If military force is Plan Colombia's stick, crop substitution is the 
all-important carrot.

But for farmers in southern Colombia, the carrot isn't big enough. As 
Alvarado said, "Nothing at all competes with coca. Nothing."

In 1994, Alvarado, the leader of a peasant cooperative, volunteered for a 
U. N.-sponsored crop substitution program. He agreed to pull up his seven 
acres of coca -- one of several crops on his farm -- and plant rubber in 
exchange for several thousand dollars in grants and loans.

But before he was able to make the switch, overzealous army troops arrested 
him for growing coca, and he and his wife spent several months in jail 
until embarrassed government agriculture officials had them released.

Two years later, just as Alvarado's first rubber crop was ready to come in, 
Colombia joined the World Trade Organization and was obliged to slash its 
tariffs on rubber imports from West Africa. Prices plummeted, and Alvarado 
and other rubber growers were forced to sell their crop at a loss.

The government tried to compensate with additional aid programs, but rubber 
"still isn't profitable, no matter what they say," Alvarado said. "I 
believe in crop substitution because I know coca is a bad thing, but what 
am I supposed to do?"

His solution: He pockets the government subsidies and sells his rubber for 
a pittance, while he and his eight sons and daughters surreptitiously work 
as pickers and lab workers at neighboring coca farms, making about $5 a 
day. Fearing that the long arm of the law may fall on him again, Alvarado 
refused to let his real name be used for this story.

Meanwhile, U.S.-funded planes frequently spray the area with herbicides. 
The target is coca, but ribbons of dead brown foliage cut erratically 
through fields planted with other crops as well, apparently reflecting the 
whims of the pilot on any given day.

Many government officials -- especially lower-level ones outside of Bogota, 
the capital -- are surprisingly frank about the failures.

"Crop substitution has not worked, it is true," said Jose Alba, field 
manager for the government's crop-substitution program in the southern 
province of Caqueta. "And neither has fumigation. These programs have been 
designed to fail."

For example, Alba said, the government has not improved Caqueta's only 
connection to the rest of the nation -- a tortuous mountain dirt road that 
adds cost and delay to the sale of substitute crops. Meanwhile, it has 
spent tens of millions of dollars fumigating hundreds of thousands of acres 
of coca fields.

The net result? Increased antigovernment sentiment among peasants and the 
continued fast growth in coca production.

But the government's real Achilles heel is coca's powerful economic appeal 
in a country where millions live in poverty and the middle class is shrinking.

Alvarado calculates that a coca farmer is able to produce about one pound 
of coca paste per acre every two months. That's roughly a $2,000 profit per 
acre per year, at current prices, after paying expenses and "taxes" charged 
by the leftist guerrillas who control the Curillo area and most of 
Colombia's coca-growing zones. (In comparison, per capita gross domestic 
product nationwide is only $2,020.)

"Nothing can provide similar profits to growing coca, so we have to use 
some coercion along with the alternative development. Otherwise no one 
would accept it," said Jaime Ruiz, the top government official for Plan 
Colombia. "But this is not going to be a scorched-earth policy."

Although Ruiz's policy is intended to weaken the rebels by reducing their 
income from coca cultivation, many analysts warn that the outcome may well 
be the opposite.

When the government makes its big military push into Putumayo and Caqueta 
provinces -- a move that is expected to start next month -- peasants fear 
the fighting will force thousands of families off their land, creating 
chaos in the countryside. With no land or jobs, many young men and women 
could become easy recruits for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia 
(FARC), the rebel group that controls most coca areas.

Although the FARC harshly criticizes Plan Colombia, rebel leaders have 
quietly told government officials that they will allow its nonmilitary 
programs, such as crop substitution and road building, to be carried out -- 
as long as they are not publicly identified as being paid for with U.S. 
funds. The rebels appear to be bending to local residents' desire for 
economic development, no matter what the source.

In addition, the FARC has proposed a similar crop-substitution program, to 
be carried out in a 300-square-mile zone the rebels already control around 
Cartagena de Chaira, a town in northern Caqueta.

But there are two main differences between the FARC's plan and Plan 
Colombia: The FARC plan would cost about $300 million for just that one 
area, and it would be run by the guerrillas.

Colombian officials and U.S. diplomats have rejected the FARC proposal, 
calling it a ruse to get the government to cede more territory to the rebels.

But some experts call it feasible. "It's a serious plan and probably would 
work," said Alba, the crop-substitution official.

He added that the $300 million price tag is realistic: "It seems shocking, 
but that's what it really would cost to create a whole social 
infrastructure in such an underdeveloped area and persuade the people to 
switch away from coca."

Alba and other experts note, however, that the FARC proposal relies on the 
same sort of coercion as Plan Colombia. Under the rebel plan, coca growers 
who refuse to eradicate all their coca would be expelled from the zone at 

The result, just like the government plan, would likely be displacement of 
large numbers of peasants.

But no matter how effective an anti-drug strategy might prove, it stands 
little chance of success in a war zone.

"As long as the war continues, there is no anti-drug strategy that will 
have any significant level of success," said Klaus Nyholm, director of the 
U.N. anti-drug program in Colombia.

"Peace is the answer." 
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MAP posted-by: Richard Lake