Pubdate: Fri, 12 Feb 2016
Source: Guardian Weekly, The (UK)
Copyright: Guardian Publications 2016
Author: Sibylla Brodzinsky


In Colombia, Peace Deal With the FARC in Sight

But Herbicide-Resistant Coca Production on Rise

In the lowlands surrounding the town of La Hormiga, coca was once king.

Fields of the bright green bushes stretched to the horizon in every 
direction and farmers were flush with cash. The surrounding 
municipality was the one with the most coca crops in the country that 
produced the most cocaine in the world.

This was "ground zero" for Plan Colombia, a massive multipronged 
effort funded by nearly $10bn in US aid that started in 2000. The 
plan aimed to recover a country that was in the grips of drug mafias, 
leftist guerrillas and rightwing militias, and whose institutions 
malfunctioned and economy faltered.

Fifteen years on, cattle graze where coca once grew by the side of 
the road and cacao is more easily spotted than coca. Farmer Fulgencio 
Quenguan traded his coca for fish farming. "I don't make as much 
money but no one can take this from me," he says as he scales a few 
tilapias for a customer in his own shop in town.

Today, Colombia is a country transformed. It has one of Latin 
America's healthiest economies, violence has dropped dramatically and 
the country is on the verge of ending more than half a century of 
internal conflict with Farc guerrillas who appear prepared to sign a 
peace deal in coming months.

At a White House ceremony on Thursday, Barack Obama and Colombian 
president Juan Manuel Santos will make a pitch for increased aid for 
Colombia once a peace accord is signed, while celebrating the 
successes of Plan Colombia.

But here in Putumayo, Plan Colombia has a mixed legacy.

Plan Colombia's first target was to reduce the amount of coca in 
Putumayo by half in five years. It did that and more. The total area 
planted with coca dropped from just over 66,000 hectares (163,020 
acres) in 2000 to less than 9,000 hectares (22,230 acres) in 2005.

But the crops and related violence moved elsewhere in the country, 
and after some 4m hectares (9.88m acres) of coca were sprayed with 
herbicide in 15 years, coca production is on the rise again and 
Colombia remains the world's top producer of coca and cocaine.

"Coca is stubborn," says farmer Quenguan. He hasn't grown coca on his 
12-hectare (30-acre) farm in the village of Los Laureles for more 
than 10 years. But there's one bush that, no matter how many times it 
has been sprayed with herbicide, no matter how many times he cuts it 
down, keeps popping back up.

"Bad weeds never die," he says, reciting an age-old Spanish adage.

Plan Colombia has become a catch-all phrase for several different 
strategies. It is most widely understood as a US aid package to 
Colombia which has totaled about $10bn since 2000. More broadly, it 
was a joint US-Colombian strategy to strengthen the military, state 
institutions and the economy.

"There is this idea that it is some vast orchestrated project but 
Plan Colombia doesn't exist as such," says Winifred Tate, author of 
Drugs, Thugs and Diplomats, a study of US policymaking in Colombia. 
Rather, it has been a series of programs whose emphasis has expanded 
and recalibrated over the years, she says.

Initially, Plan Colombia was described as a counter-narcotics and 
military strengthening strategy and the focus was on massive drug 
crop spraying, building up military capacity and offering some 
incentives to coca growers to switch to legal crops.

Andres Pastrana, the Colombian president under whom Plan Colombia 
began, says the strategy was a turning point in the country's 
decades-old war. "Before the Plan, security forces were on the 
defensive and on the verge of military defeat [by guerrillas]," he 
told the Guardian in an emailed response to questions.

Afraid of getting bogged down in a Vietnam-style quagmire, Congress 
initially restricted the use of donated helicopters and other 
hardware strictly to fighting drug production and trafficking. A 
battalion of 3,000 men trained by US special forces could not be used 
to combat the guerrillas or paramilitaries unless their targets were 
clearly protecting drug labs or coca fields.

"Those limitations ... on the use of Plan Colombia caused 
(operational) problems," said Pastrana, who will also be at the White 
House ceremony.

That ended after the 9/11 attacks in New York and Washington, when 
the US became openly engaged in fighting "narco-terrorism" in 
Colombia. That is where Plan Colombia did succeed: in helping the 
Colombian government take control  in some areas for the first 
time  of its territory, fighting back guerrillas to mountain and 
jungle redoubts and driving them to begin peace negotiations with the 
government in 2012.

But the security gains came at a high cost. In the first three years 
of the plan, 1.8 million people were forcibly displaced from their 
homes as violence and aerial spraying peaked. The military, which 
received the bulk of US aid, was embroiled in a scandal in which 
soldiers executed as many as 3,000 civilians and presented them as 
combat deaths to inflate the body count.

For Quenguan, Plan Colombia is synonymous with aggressive crop 
dusters dumping herbicide on his crops and weak offers of alternative 
development programs. Until 2004, his entire farm was planted with 
coca. Every six months, he would harvest 17,000kg of coca leaf, which 
he would then process into coca paste. With every harvest, he would 
make $15,000 profit, even after the cut he had to give Farc 
guerrillas who controlled the area.

Plan Colombia was heralded by a brutal incursion of rightwing 
paramilitaries - often working in collusion with military forces 
against suspected or real members of the guerrillas - in which 
hundreds were killed or disappeared.

"First came the paramilitaries and then came the fumigation," 
Quenguan says. "The fumigations ruined our food crops but the coca 
would just grow back stronger." As the herbicide rained down on their 
farms, NGO's with Plan Colombia cash offered coca growers were 
offered incentives to substitute coca for legal crops. They were 
encouraged to plant yucca, which would be processed in a new drying 
plant. The yucca flour would then be bought up by a new animal feed plant.

Today, the equipment at the yucca plant is silent and rusting. All 
that's left of the animal feed factory is a vast empty shell of a 
building in the town of Orito, where a plaque offers gratitude to the 
US development agency for its donation to build the plant that would 
"generate for our farmers a legal economy".

Miguel Alirio Rosero, the town's mayor at the time the plant was 
built, says it cost $3m to build and was in operation only eight 
months before being abandoned. "There was a certain degree of 
improvisation in the design of the [alternative development] 
projects," Rosero says.

"Millions of dollars just melted away in that," said Tate.

Later programs seem to have got it better and convinced Quenguan to 
pull out of coca. In 2004, he signed onto a Colombian government 
program  with Plan Colombia funds  that allowed him to save enough to 
uproot his coca and dig three artificial ponds on his farm to 
cultivate fish. Today, he makes $250 a month selling fish at a small 
shop in town.

But hundreds of farmers continue to plant coca throughout the 
country. In 2014, the last year for which figures are available, 
Colombia had 113,000 hectares (279,110 acres) of coca, only slightly 
below 1999 figures.

Santos has said that warrants a change in drug policy. "It's like 
being on a stationary bicycle. We make a huge effort, we sweat, and 
we end up in the same place," he told a recent forum in Bogota.

In October, Colombia halted its aerial spraying program after a World 
Health Organisation body found the herbicide used, glyphosate, was 
probably carcinogenic. The United States balked at dropping the 
spraying program but said it would respect Colombia's decision.

Colombians dare to hope as end of decades-long civil war appears in sight

As part of peace negotiations, Farc guerrillas - who have lived off 
taxing the drug trade - have agreed to support the government's 
anti-narcotics strategy, which it says will be more holistic than 
past policies, investing heavily in rural development, including 
badly needed roads, while going after big time traffickers rather 
than coca growers.

"We must stop confronting the farmers and turn them into our allies," 
said Eduardo Diaz, head of the new agency that will lead crop 
substitution efforts.

Aside from celebrating Plan Colombia, Santos's Washington agenda also 
includes making the case among congressional leaders for increased US 
aid in a likely post-conflict scenario, including regional 
development and demobilization and reintegration of Farc fighters as 
well as de-mining. Currently, US aid to Colombia stands at about 
$300m a year. Obama plans to seek an increase in aid for Colombia in 
the next budget.

A senior US official said the Obama administration would seek an 
additional $100m to back the peace effort. "We were with them in a 
time of war; we should be with them at a time of peace," the official said.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom