Pubdate: Mon,  2 Dec 2002
Source: Boston Globe (MA)
Page: A1
Copyright: 2002 Globe Newspaper Company
Author: Kirk Semple, Globe Correspondent


SAN FRANCISCO, Peru - Though only 250 miles from the Peruvian capital, this 
plunging jungle valley seems just out of the government's reach.

Isolated, impoverished, and connected to the rest of the country by 
treacherous dirt roads cut into vertiginous mountain slopes, this lush 
region has for decades enticed drug traffickers and coca growers. Maoist 
Shining Path rebels arrived in the 1980s, feeding off the cocaine trade. 
The region's fiercely independent peasants then formed self-defense groups 
and drove the rebels back into the chilly highlands.

The government is now concerned about new stirrings of rebellion that 
spring from this same fount of self-determination. The latest unrest 
threatens to upend US-backed development programs designed to wean farmers 
from coca cultivation and put new agricultural industries in its place.

The Apurimac River Valley has resounded with marches, strikes, sporadic 
acts of violence, and threats against development organizations during 
recent weeks.

In the face of increasingly menacing criticism of its work, CARE, the 
veteran international humanitarian organization, recently shut its office 
in this ramshackle town, the main one in the valley, and returned its 
workers to the capital, Lima.


Globe Staff Map

"It's a subversive attitude that the government rejects absolutely," Nils 
Ericsson, director of the Peruvian government's drug-control office, 
DEVIDA, said about the burgeoning revolt.

The Apurimac River Valley crisis is occurring as drug authorities try to 
figure out how to counteract a recent surge in coca cultivation throughout 
Peru. For years it seemed as if authorities had solved the problem. By 
cutting off aerial and surface trafficking routes and sending troops into 
coca-growing areas to uproot the crops by hand, the government slashed 
cultivation from highs of around 321,000 acres in the early 1990s to 
107,000 in 2000, according to United Nations figures. (Unlike neighboring 
Colombia, Peru prohibits the use of crop dusters and other chemical methods 
of eradication.)

But this year, Peruvian officials acknowledged, the total acreage had 
rebounded, in part because massive aerial eradication efforts in 
neighboring Colombia have driven up the demand - and the price - for 
Peruvian coca.

The UN International Drug Control Program put the nation's 2001 coca crop 
at 114,000 acres. Peruvian and international officials estimate the total 
this year could be greater than 123,000 acres.

In September, the Peruvian government added to their anticoca arsenal what 
DEVIDA's Ericsson calls a "more humane" strategy: a voluntary eradication 
program that allows farming communities to wipe out their coca crops 
unilaterally in return for money, food, and technical assistance in 
developing legal crops. Simultaneously, the government has promised to 
develop new markets, build farm-to-market infrastructure, and provide 
complementary social services. The United States has agreed to give Peru 
$300 million in alternative development money in the next five years.

The government has implemented the program in only one area of the country, 
and it's not the Apurimac River Valley. But the recent disturbances and 
flowering of rebellion in the region have illustrated the difficulty of the 
carrot-and-stick approach, particularly in this historically lawless part 
of Peru.

Fiery activist raises government concern

The moving force of the valley's opposition - and the focus of government 
concern - is Nelson Palomino, 40, a charismatic leader of the region's coca 
growers whose incendiary speeches have captured the attention of the 
region's peasants, many of whom are illiterate and live well below the 
poverty level here on the eastern edge of the country.

"You can see the budding of the whole Evo Morales factor here," said a 
foreign diplomat in Lima, referring to the indigenous leader of Bolivia's 
coca growers who narrowly lost a presidential bid in August to a 
US-educated candidate. "It's worrisome."

Critics in Peru's government and civil society suspect Palomino is 
receiving encouragement, if not financial backing, from the valley's 
narcotraffickers, an allegation the activist denies.

During an interview earlier this month, Palomino, who is of indigenous 
Quechua descent, explained that he supports the cultivation of coca for 
traditional uses permitted by Peruvian law, such as tea and medicine, but 
that he also supports the war on narcotrafficking - as long as government 
officials deliver on their promises of social development for farmers and 
viable, profitable alternatives to coca.

"We say welcome to the social development organizations that want to help 
solve the coca problem," Palomino declared while standing in a coca plot on 
the outskirts of Kimbiri, a village that faces San Francisco on the 
opposite bank of the Apurimac River.

"But we want the money to be well invested," he said. "We want the use of 
the funds to be transparent."

Palomino says years of half-baked social development projects have not 
improved living conditions for residents in the region.

Authorities said that while they agree with Palomino's comments, his 
messages are often hostile and threatening, making it more difficult to 
work with him. He has accused government officials of misusing funds meant 
for development projects and warns that officials are preparing to release 
a coca-fungus in the area - but offers no proof.

In late July, Palomino led a convoy of hundreds of farmers and residents 
from the Apurimac River Valley to the town of Ayacucho, about 160 miles by 
road from San Francisco. The purpose of the march was to protest coca 
eradication, demand revisions to the coca cultivation laws, and decry the 
management of the alternative development programs in the region.

But Palomino's most inflammatory act to date has been to demand that 
representatives of DEVIDA and all nongovernmental organizations abandon the 
valley entirely.

In a letter drafted by Palomino and his collaborators earlier this month, 
the group warned of "disagreeable reactions among the population which 
could escape the control of local officials."

"We're no longer in the zone for security reasons," explained Miguel 
Ordinola, a spokesman for CARE in Peru. "The federation of coca growers was 
interfering with our work."

Rebels aid traffickers; Palomino loses support

Indeed, this is a restless and troubled territory where the government 
doesn't have full control. A remaining column of the Shining Path guerrilla 
army still lurks in the cold highlands. The insurgency has continued its 
long-term alliance with the nation's narcotraffickers and provides them 
with armed protection along clandestine trade routes, according to Peruvian 
and international authorities.

In addition, public facilities in this far-flung region are poor. Only one 
unpaved road winding through high Andes and Shining Path territory links 
San Francisco and Kimbiri to Ayacucho, a seven-hour drive away. Rather than 
cart their legal goods by this uncertain route, farmers prefer to sell coca 
leaf directly to buyers who come to their door and pay more than the 
farmers would receive for other crops in Ayacucho.

Wilmer Aranzamendi, the government's regional Commissioner of Peace and 
Development, says Palomino has made political mistakes and his 
aggressiveness has cost him potential allies.

"At the beginning he had full support," the peace commissioner said. "But 
he ran up against the press, against democracy, against the state, against 
civil society."

Palomino's biggest blunder, Aranzamendi said, was to anger some of his 
neighbors and divide the community.

A dissenting group of farmers has broken away from Palomino and tried to 
isolate him politically.

Some government and development officials say this valley could be on the 
cusp of violence.

"For now, we're trying to do this by diplomatic means," said Marco Antonio 
Espinoza, a leader of the splinter farmers group and a leader of the 
"ronderos," the self-defense groups that beat back Shining Path.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom