Pubdate: Thu,  1 Nov 2001
Source: Mother Jones (US)
Copyright: 2001 Foundation for National Progress
Author: Kirk Semple
Note: This article includes a Photo Essay by Monique Stauder


For Small Farmers In Isolated Settlements, La Coca Is The Only Viable Cash
Crop - And Leftist Guerrillas Are The Only Government.

THE DUSTY VILLAGES along the banks of the Caguan River are among scores of
settlements in Colombia's sparsely populated southern reaches that have been
thrown together with wood planks and tin roofs. These frontier towns serve
as home to the campesinos who make their living from coca, the raw material
for cocaine. Most arrived within the past decade in search of land and
economic opportunity, fleeing the fighting that has splintered the country
for 37 years. As coca cultivation shifted from Peru and Bolivia to the
hinterlands of Colombia, settlers cleared swaths of virgin rain forest in
the Caqueta province, and remote outposts along the region's main rivers now
bustle with life and commerce.

Survival is the operative word for these farmers, and la coca assures them
of that. The sturdy bush is easy to grow, its leaves easy to transform into
the coca paste that farmers sell to dealers, who then cart the product
through the jungle to secret laboratories where it is refined into pure
cocaine. The region's campesinos will tell you they'd be doing something
else if they had another, legal, option. But coca is the only viable cash
crop where they live, the only functioning industry.

The sole functioning government is provided by leftist guerrillas, who have
been trying to topple the state for nearly four decades. Officials in Bogota
abandoned this isolated region long ago. In their absence, order is
maintained by the country's largest rebel army, the Fuerzas Armadas
Revolucionarias de Colombia, known by its Spanish-language initials, FARC.
To prevent narcotraffickers from ripping off farmers, the rebels set a
minimum price for a kilo of coca paste. They also tax traffickers for the
protection of smuggling routes, the use of clandestine runways, the
importation of cocaine-processing chemicals, and the export of every kilo of
refined cocaine shipped from the region. In addition, the FARC levies a
municipal tax on farmers, based on sales, to cover the costs of public-works
projects such as road repair and bridge building, services the central
government has failed to provide. In essence, the guerrillas have developed
something of a symbiotic relationship with the region's cocaleros: Both
groups depend on the coca and on each other.

Along the Caguan River, a kilo of coca paste sells for as much as $900 -
enough. for a grower to cover production costs, pay his workers, feed his
family, and pay local taxes. Enough, but just barely. The farmers are
surviving, but they aren't getting rich. The rebels, by contrast, are
stuffing their war chest. According to the U.S. State Department, the FARC's
drug-related proceeds may top $100 million per year.

Bogota and Washington are hoping to wipe out these gains with Plan Colombia,
a U.S.-backed strategy designed to destroy the narcotics industry at its
source and help the government regain control. National police have stepped
up their chemical spraying in coca-growing regions and have unleashed three
battalions of Green Beret-trained anti-narcotics troops with the mandate to
clear the nation's mountains and jungles of coca crops and processing
laboratories. So far, the spraying has focused on other coca-growing areas
but has done nothing to diminish cocaine supply. Except for a few sorties,
the spray planes have yet to attack the heart of FARC territory in the
Caqueta province.

For the cocaleros along the Caguan, spraying offers no solution. Farmers
fear it will only fracture their communities and upend their lives. When the
planes come, some will move back to their hometowns in the west and north,
where poverty and violence are widespread. But many will flee deeper into
the forest to grow coca. They may be forced to relocate - but they know
there will always be someone to buy their paste.
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MAP posted-by: Doc-Hawk