Cultivation of Illicit Crops

One of the claimed objectives of the more than one billion dollar US aid package Plan Colombia, which makes the Andean nation the 3rd biggest recipient of US aid in the world, is to slash Colombia’s coca production by 50% before 2005. Yet the proposed method of aerial fumigation is not new to the jungles of Colombia, which are home the second highest biodiversity rate in the world after Brazil. During the nineties huge areas of coca plantations were fumigated with the same chemical - Glyphosate - that is presently being used. Despite these large-scale operations illegal cultivation tripled in the same period, and it seems unlikely that the even larger fumigation programs of Plan Colombia will prove more effective. The glaring problem with the whole policy is that very little attention is given to the economic and social reasons that force Colombian peasant farmers to grow illicit crops.

The Colombian peasants, known as campesinos, that grow coca are not, in reality, the wealthy drug-traffickers that they are sometimes portrayed to be, but rather poor families desperately trying to provide for themselves. The prevalence of neo-liberal economic policies over the last decade has greatly increase the misery of campesinos in Colombia and it is well documented that the total number of people now living in poverty in both Colombia, and indeed Latin America as a whole, has increased during the same period. These new economic policies have led to the dwindling of traditional crop prices such as coffee, cacao and cassava - through price agreements, the decrease in trade restrictions, the abolitions of subsidies, etc - to such an extent that these crops, in many areas, cannot any longer provide even basic levels of subsistence. Reports recently out of Peru indicate that farmers in certain areas of the country receive $2.74 per kg for coca, but only $1.05 for coffee, $0.11 for cassava and $0.77 for cacao.

The fate of Colombian coffee producers indicates perfectly the effect of neo-liberal economics on campesinos. After the International Coffee Agreement was signed in 1989 (which cut prices by a quarter) over 350,000 small coffee farmers, as well as a nearly 2 million strong workforce, saw a dramatic decrease in their incomes. As a direct result of this there was subsequently a 92% increase in opium poppy production in the following 3 years in the worst affected Colombian departments of Huila, Tolima and Cauca. And things don’t seem to be improving. Only two weeks ago coffee prices again fell to a record low. (It is interesting to note that despite the huge decrease in coffee prices on the world market, coffee prices in the cafes and supermarkets of the West have, if anything increased. The savings are not in anyway being passed on to the consumer as some would like us to believe and are certainly not being used to benefit the coffee producing communities of the developing nations).

Decades of neglect by the governments of the Andean nations, particularly with regards to infrastructure programs and social services, are also a reason for peasant cultivation of coca. The lack of a developed transport network (roads, bridges, ports, airports, etc) makes transferring produce very difficult and costly for peasants. In this respect coca cultivation is obviously more advantageous than legal crops - the buyers, who bring hard cash with them, collect the coca leaves directly from the peasant who in turn does not have to worry about transportation expenses.

The lack of any kind of social services leaves campesinos (the majority of whom live below or near the poverty line), with little or no choice but to turn to coca - especially when a legitimate income is effectively unavailable, there is a lack of other employment opportunities or, as regularly happens, legal crops fail due to climatic conditions, disease, etc. The absence of an education system and social programs (providing loans, advice, local cooperatives, etc) also makes it very hard for the peasants to drastically change their way of life, and therefore most remain scratching out an existence in the guaranteed-to-be-commercially-viable cultivation of coca.

Furthermore, the austerity measures implemented as part of the 1999 IMF-agreed $2.7 billion dollar loan has only increased the isolation of rural communities. As a result of the IMF conditions on the new loan, government farming subsidies were cut back, education spending was cut by $350 million dollars, and other federal expenditures on rural departments and municipalities were trimmed. This has only been detrimental to rural communities - where, in areas of conflict, the state already fails to provide 2/3 of children with secondary education. This scenario is no doubt set to worsen with the forth-coming US-imposed Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) agreement.