Pubdate: Thu, 13 Apr 2000
Source: San Francisco Chronicle (CA)
Copyright: 2000 San Francisco Chronicle
Author: Kirk Semple, SFC Foreign Service
Note: From the Latin America Focus

Colombia Tries to Get Growers to Kick
the Cocaine-Producing Habit and Plant Legal Crops

(Puerto Asis, Colombia)---If President Andres Pastrana has his way, this
rough-and-tumble jungle town in southern Putumayo state will be transformed
from a center of Colombia's cocaine industry to a model of a new,
law-abiding economy
based on hearts of palm, fish farming and rubber-tapping.

But first, he has to confront some formidable foes, including leftist
rebels, right-wing paramilitaries, distrustful locals and the law of
supply and demand.

Putumayo state, a sparsely populated slice of jungle about the size of
Vermont, lies near the border with neighboring Ecuador and Peru. Its
biggest town, Puerto Asis, is the hub of a coca-producing area that
provides an estimated 50 percent of Colombia's coca leaf and is home
to the nation's major warring parties.

The state has become the main focus of Pastrana's $7.5 billion,
five-year Plan Colombia to destroy the drug trade. Although the
government has engaged in intense aerial spraying of herbicides in
other states to combat marijuana, coca and poppy plants used for
heroin, it only recently began its first concerted effort in Putumayo
with an herbicide called glyphosate , designed to block photosynthesis
and slowly kill the plant.

Colombia plans to pay for most of the anti-drug campaign - $4 billion
- - but is asking the international community to contribute the rest,
including $1.6 billion from the United States. If the U.S. Congress
approves the aid package currently under debate, a large portion of
that money will wind up in Putumayo. It would pay for military
hardware to ensure protection for aerial spraying and, later, social
development projects.

At the strategy's core is the creation of three anti-narcotics
battalions trained by U.S. military advisers that would be based just
across the northern border of Putumayo in Caqueta province, another
rebel stronghold for coca production.

Critics say that if Congress passes the aid package, it will repeat
the Pentagon's failed Central America policy of the 1980s when it
supported military regimes that engaged in violent repression. U.S.
military aid to Colombia has long been curtailed because of concerns
about the military's spotty human rights record during its
long-standing war against an estimated 30,000 guerrillas.

Moreover, critics accuse both the Colombian and U.S. governments, of
having only a fuzzy notion of what to do with the anti-drug funds.
"It's clear that the cart is way before the horse," said Adam Isacson,
an associate at the Center for International Policy, a Washington,
D.C.based think tank. "At first, I thought (the Clinton and Pastrana
administrations) were being deliberately vague. But except for the
military aspect, it's clear they haven't thought out what exactly
they're going to do."

On paper, Pastrana's Plan Colombia will offer Putumayo coca farmers a
regular salary and social security and health benefits to move to
another state to work in an agro-industry. The fields of farmers who
insist on staying put would be spared the herbicides if they replace
coca with such ventures as palm hearts, tropical fruits, fish farming
and rubber-tapping. ,

Many residents and civic leaders in Puerto Asis are angry that they
have not been included in strategy sessions between government
officials in Bogota and the U.S. State Department, and say they have
been left out of a process that directly affects them. Few federal
politicians ever visit this outback region.

Government officials "haven't asked us anything," said Marino Zuniga,
the planning secretary for Puerto Asis.

Without their input, officials fear that willy-nilly, expansive aerial
eradication will destroy not only coca plants but yucca, corn and
plantains that almost every campesino farmer in the state grows
alongside his main cash crop.

The government, however, insists that won't happen.

'We will attack the narcos, not the campesinos," Defense Minister Luis
Fernando Ramirez recently told The Chronicle. "We will be attacking
their source of income, not them."

To date, the government has destroyed 130,000 acres, according to
official records. In most cases, the destruction has not been
accompanied by government-sponsored development and crop substitution

Puerto Asis Mayor Manuel Antonio Alzate proposes a moratorium on
defoliation until such projects begin. "Let's enact social investment
first," he said. "It seems much more just. "

Fernando Medellin, the director or the Social Solidarity Network, the
agency in charge of coordinating Plan Colombia's development projects,
agrees. "There's not going to be any defoliation without parallel
social action," he promised.

Despite those assurances, many Puerto Asis residents fear that a new
war on coca growers will increase human rights abuses, force a mass
migration of farmers into town or neighboring states and further
impoverish the state; Colombia is undergoing its worst recession in 70

Because there is no local industry or developed farm to market infra
structure, most small-scale growers are forced to grow coca to eke out
a living. Civic leaders insist that most peasant farmers would gladly
grow legal crops if they could reap a reasonable income. Because
guerrillas and paramilitaries demand a hefty!, cut - as much as 80
percent of profits - switching crops would not be a hard sell.

Until last year, Janet Landinez, an impoverished single mother with
two small children, cultivated 24 acres of coca on a small plot of
land several hours by motorboat down-' river from Puerto Asis. She
said she responded to her "conscience" and traded coca for corn. But
the difference in price - she can make 50 to 150 percent more raising
coca - has left her bitter. "I had the unfortunate surprise to find
out that you can't live on legal crops here," she said.

Farmer Jose Aldemar Pedreros, 44, who lives with his family in
Quilili, a dot on the map just outside Puerto Asis, voluntarily
destroyed most of his small coca crop and began producing hearts of
palm. But the government-sponsored project has been stalled for two
years because the newly constructed processing factory still doesn't
have electricity.

"The politicians say they're getting money (from the U.S. and Europe)
to do away with drugs," he said. "They say it will help farmers. Lies!"

In the meantime, some community leaders say the Pastrana
administration, will need to move quickly if it hopes to win over a
community that already harbors deep mistrust of the federal
government. "They've promised a lot, but they haven't delivered," said
Father Luis Alfonso Gomez, a local priest.

And there is another good reason to speed the move to alternative
ventures. Several Catholic priests, who travel freely throughout the,
countryside, say guerrillas have begun an aggressive campaign to
recruit minors and arm families in anticipation of the aerial
eradication program.

"Families have to send them a child if they want to continue living in
the countryside," said Sister Angela Maria Grenada of the Missionaries
of the Immaculate Conception. "Everybody is scared to death."

SIDEBAR from Page A14


Puerto Asis, a town Of 45,000 inhabitants, is Putumayo state's most
important population center, but it has long been abandoned by the
central government.

Last year, downtown residents finally put aside privately owned
generators after the area received its first reliable electrical
hookup, Most of the streets are unpaved, as are most state roads.
Violent crime is rampant: Of the 220 deaths recorded at the only
hospital last year, 2 11 were registered as homicides.

And although there is both a police station and an army base, neither
force has been able to control right-wing paramilitaries and leftist
rebels, who derive lucrative taxes from Protecting coca fields,
laboratories and drug routes.

In town, right-wing paramilitaries have the final word. The U.S group
Human Rights Watch says the military has such strong links with the
paramilitaries that it extends "right through the brigade level and to
the top of brigade command."

The authority of thousands of leftist guerrillas of the Revolutionary
Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the largest and oldest of the
nation's guerrilla movements, begins just outside the urban center,
Their nearest camp is located on the other side of the muddy Putumayo,
River, a 10 minute drive from the town's main square.

The Constant potential for violence causes the town to Shut down by 9
pm on most weekdays and by midnight on weekends, the unofficial
paramilitary-enforced curfew.

As in most lawless frontier settlements, booze and prostitution
Proliferate. The main sources of entertainment appear to be the dozens
of pool halls and cable television,

On most days, Puerto Asis fills with the poor from other states who
have flocked to the region over the Past 30 years. They came during a
boom in oil exploration in the 1970s, which was followed by a rise in
logging in the 1980s, and now, coca.

"There is no state in Putumayo," said a senior government official who
asked not to be named. "It's like the Gold Rush days in the United
- ---
MAP posted-by: manemez j lovitto