Pubdate: Sat, 10 Feb 2001
Source: New York Times (NY)
Copyright: 2001 The New York Times Company
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Author: Ana Carrigan

A FOOLISH DRUG WAR

TOLIMA, Colombia -- Secretary of State Colin Powell recently affirmed the 
Bush administration's support for Plan Colombia  the plan inherited from 
the Clinton White House that pledged $1.3 billion to fight drugs in 
Colombia. But this plan  based almost entirely on military strategies  
could well lead to America's next proxy war in Latin America.

In Putumayo, the province with about half of the coca crop, recent aerial 
spraying of herbicides has already caused social and environmental havoc. 
In Strasbourg, France, last week, the European Parliament, worried by the 
human rights consequences of America's support for this approach and for an 
army that maintains links to drug-financed paramilitaries, voted 474 to 1 
to reject Plan Colombia.

But there are workable alternatives being developed by local governments in 
Colombia that are on the front lines of this drug war. In six southeastern 
Colombian provinces where some 80 percent of the Colombian drug crop is 
grown, new governors have proposed several promising initiatives.

The governors oppose Plan Colombia because they fear their provinces will 
be overwhelmed by its traumatic impact. They also say no one in the region 
was consulted when it was designed by officials in Bogota and Washington. 
The governors want to use manual eradication of the coca crops rather than 
widespread fumigation. And, most important, they are identifying pragmatic 
ways to help peasant communities with livelihoods now tied to drug crops.

These regional leaders know military approaches have not worked. Parmenio 
Cuellar, a former justice minister and the new governor of Narino Province, 
said in a recent interview: "We all want this plague to be eradicated. But 
in 20 years, Colombia's anti-narcotics policies have not reduced, much less 
eliminated, drug production. We have to recognize that the problem of drugs 
in Colombia is tied to the poverty of the peasants."

Manual eradication with the voluntary labor of the peasant growers uproots 
crops peacefully, without environmental harm. Persuading these growers to 
eradicate their drug crops is the easy part because they are sick of 
drug-related violence and scared of the fumigation and mass displacement 
that follow.

But alternative eradication methods do not address the central economic 
problem that is driving coca production. Colombia's traditional rural 
economy is in crisis. Take coffee, for example. Since Colombia opened its 
agricultural markets in the early 1990's, the coffee harvest has been 
reduced almost by half. Ten years ago, agricultural imports to Colombia 
were 700,000 tons, and today they are 7 million tons. One million rural 
jobs have been lost during the past decade. A quarter of a million peasants 
have turned to coca production. Any long-term solution has to provide 
sustainable crops or employment.

Recently, two of the governors held exploratory talks with European 
diplomats in Bogota to discuss the kinds of programs they intend to present 
to European governments in Brussels this spring, when Europe will decide 
how to spend $800 million over five years. There are a few infrastructure 
projects on their list: a highway linking Tolima, Huila and Narino to the 
Pacific coast; improvements to the Pacific port of Tumaco. They have 
identified competitive products for export: rubber, African palm, cocoa, 
and wood. And they say milk production, tropical fruits and cotton could be 
linked to microenterprises in rural towns. One small town near the 
Narino-Ecuador border, for example, currently employs 1,000 people 
producing specialty foods for Japan.

As for the war, the governors have reason to believe that once peasant 
communities have some economic alternatives to coca production, the 
guerrillas in the region will not be able to oppose the citizens' 
collective will.

Last week, Plan Colombia's operations in Putumayo were temporarily 
suspended, in part because of local protests. The Bush administration now 
has an opportunity to evaluate this project's performance. There is still 
time to turn this ill-conceived plan around and get behind the development 
proposals of the local governors. With American support, their integrated 
vision of a drug-free, more peaceful Colombia is still possible.

Ana Carrigan, who writes from Colombia for The Irish Times, is the author 
of "The Palace of Justice: A Colombian Tragedy."
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