Pubdate: 23 Oct 1998 
Source: San Francisco Examiner
Copyright: 1988 San Francisco Examiner
Author: Kirk Semple
Note: Our newshawk writes: This article correlates beautifully with another
posted earlier this week from Australia. Taken together, they give us a
clear picture of the changes which have occurred in the global heroin market.


Tough Woman Helps Colombian Peasants Return From Poppy To Traditional Crops

SPECIAL TO THE EXAMINER - PITAYO, Colombia - Eight people were murdered
last year in this small mountain village of Paez Indians. At least six of
the deaths are blamed on a flower.

Townspeople also tell of the advent of prostitution and the rape of more
than a dozen girls, all in the past few years. 

Same poppy cause: "La flor," the opium poppy from which heroin is made for

Since the beginning of the decade when the opium poppy arrived in this
indigenous Indian reservation wedged high in the Andes in southwest
Colombia, the community of 5,200 residents has been disintegrating.

Now the town, led by a woman bucking a male-dominated society, has rejected
the threats of drug traffickers and the lure of good money to join a U.S.-
and government-financed program of voluntary opium crop eradication.

Ironically, the scarlet-blossomed poppy is a useful and ethereally
beautiful plant; for generations certain varieties were used to decorate
houses and make balms against body pain. But then intermediaries for drug
traffickers showed the Paez farmers how they could double, triple, even
quadruple their meager seasonal incomes by sprinkling a special - and
illegal - kind of poppy seed amongst their corn and other crops.

When it was harvest time, the farmers would drain the unripe flower pods of
their milky juice, and someone would come around to exchange the sap for

Suddenly, the reservation, whose economy had been dependent on barter, was
awash in an unusual amount of cash. A rise in alcoholism and the
proliferation of firearms followed: Most of the town's recent murders have
stemmed from alcohol-fueled arguments over poppy deals gone awry, said the
governor of Pitayo, Jairo Soscue.

Consumerism took hold - bicycles, then motorcycles, began to replace
donkeys and horses on the village's dirt roads. Edible crops disappeared,
as did self-sufficiency.

Even more insidious, Pitayo residents say, the reservation suffered a
collapse of familial and political authority. "There was a loss of
authority in the father, a loss of authority in the

school; it was a total loss of social control," said Masedonio Perdomo, a
primary school teacher.

The complication of money also accelerated the disappearance of the Paez
culture. Years earlier, the villagers had thrown off their ponchos and
wide-brimmed hats in favor of T-shirts and baseball caps. But these newer
losses went much deeper: The younger generations weren't learning the
language or history of the Paez, said Perdomo, who three years ago started
a program to replant a Paez curriculum in the local schools.

'Loss Of Pride'

"There was a loss of pride," said Maria Lastenia Pito, vice governor of the
reservation's cabildo, or governing council. "The whole community was
falling apart."

Pito, a weaver who had founded a cooperative of female artisans, had
already seen some of her colleagues abandon their crafts for the easy money
of the poppies. She wasn't about to watch her entire community go, too, so
she launched a campaign to eradicate the plant.

"There was a lot of resistance because I was a woman," said Pito, a short
woman who, when she talks, narrows her eyes as if she's staring into smoke.
"Pitayo is a very male-chauvinist culture: The concept of the woman was
that she was limited to the kitchen and to having babies and to staying in
the house washing clothes nothing more."

Still, Pito prevailed, and last October, in cooperation with a government
agency devoted to the process of voluntary eradication, the farmers agreed
to wipe out their 865 acres of poppies and return to traditional, legal
crops such as potatoes, corn, wheat and onions. In return, the government
promised to give more than $200,000 to set up a local fund to support
community projects and the renaissance of Pitayo.

Though relatively isolated - Pitayo is a rugged halfday trip by plane and
truck from the capital city of Bogota - the village has become a closely
watched front in the international battle against illicit-crop cultivation
in Colombia, the source of as much as 75 percent of the U. S. cocaine
supply and 70 percent of its heroin stock, according to Klaus Nyholm,
director of the U.N.'s International Drug Control Program in Bogota.

U.S. Financing

The U.S. government recently agreed for the first time ever to finance
development programs in communities such as Pitayo to help coca and poppy
growers switch to legal crops.

The proposal is "an important step forward," said Juan Carlos Palou, former
director of Plante, the govenment agency sponsoring the eradication program
in Pitayo. According to Palou, a political appointee who recently stepped
down from his post, Plante has only received $4.5 million in international
aid in the past four years, a fraction of total expenditures that
themselves haven't been enough to realize the potential of the program, he

Palou and the U.N.'s Nyholm are among an increasing number of experts who
maintain that "alternative development" is the most effective approach for
small farmers, who account for about half of the coca and opium poppy
production in Colombia.

The more aggressive approach of military-assisted aerial fumigation, a
cornerstone of the U.S. anti-narcotics efforts here, only tends to make the
peasants more intractable, they assert, even compelling some to seek
protection from guerrillas, who have been at war against the government for
more than three decades.

"This system of alternative development is based on the hypothesis that if
the farmer has access to legal opportunities, he will abandon his
illegalities," Palou said.

Pitayo was only the second community to decide as a whole to rid itself of
its illicit crops, The decision followed three months after Guambia, a
neighboring Indian reservation, decided to abandon the cultivation of
poppies. Though separated by cultures, vastly different native tongues and
a mountain ridge, the two indigenous communities shared the same corrosive
experience: consumerism, alcoholism, firearms, "a loss of authority in the
cabildo and in the kitchen, a loss of values," said Mario Calambas,
Guambia's vice governor.

On its face, Guambia appears to have preserved its traditions better than
its Paez neighbor. Nearly the entire population, for instance, dresses in
traditional, brightly colored Guambiano clothing, which is most
distinguishable by the striking irisblue cloth women wear as shawls and the
men as skirts, and by a thin-brim derby that tops all outfits - an
improbable accouterment inherited from Spanish colonists.

But against the erosive and powerful forces of poppy money, even those
centuries-old sartorial customs were threatening to fall.

Hermes Yalanda, the reservation's planning coordinator, said: "We knew that
if we didn't cut this problem at the root, we would disappear as a culture."

And after a trying "awareness"campaign spearheaded by the cabildo, the
Guambia community agreed to raze its poppy fields, more than 1,200 acres in
all. In return, the Colombian government promised to provide the village
with $1.33 million in loans, developmental aid and land purchases.

Threats From Traffickers

In both Guambia and Pitayo, though, maintaining commitment to the program
hasn't been easy: promised funds have been slow in arriving, and farmers
have had to work harder for less financial reward while the sirenlike poppy
beckons, a lure that has been too much to ignore for at least 15 percent of
Pitayo's farmers and 30 percent of their counterparts in Guambia, cabildo
officials say.

Furthermore, drug traffickers and their representatives have been
pressuring the farmers in both reservations to return to poppy cultivation,
according to townspeople in both Guambia and Pitayo. "I have heard from a
lot of people that (the drug traffickers) have threatened to get rid of
their children," said Olivia Velasco, the treasurer for the Pitayo cabildo.

Plante officials have also been bullied, said Juan Carlos Campo, a Plante
coordinator for the Pitayo project and a Paez by descent. He has received
two death threats, both conveyed in anonymously written notes. "But I don't
worry about that," he said. "It's very important that these threats don't
stop us."

Palou, Plante's former director, knows there's a lot riding on these
projects and has been urging perseverance on the part of the Plante staff
and patience within the Indian communities. "If this fails, it won't only
fail the (reservations)," he said. "It may also kill the possibility of
peaceful solutions to the problem of illicit crops."

But try telling that to Avelino Morales, a Pitayo farmer. He gave up
cultivating poppies last year, along with his neighbors, but is finding it
hard to support his wife and five children on potato and yucca alone, and
to also pay off the money he owes on a 22-year-old, fumespewing Dodge truck
he recently bought.

"I may start growing poppy again," he admitted a bit sheepishly. "I'm
thinking about my children."

Three times during his life Morales has traveled to Bogota. This fact, by
local standards, makes him a worldly guy. And unlike many of his neighbors,
he knows that the poppy he grows ends up reconstituted as a drug that is,
more likely than not, consumed in the United States - "I've heard about
that on TV," he said.

But about the drug itself, he knows nothing.

"What does it do?" Morales asked. Told how it is consumed and the dreamlike
state it creates for a user, the farmer squinted into the middle distance.
Then, eyebrows leaping with comprehension, he asked: "So, it makes it
easier to move through life?" 
- ---
Checked-by: Richard Lake