The FARC, in the shadows? Paramilitarism, aid on hold, peace talks
Apr 172007

In early 2004, colleagues at the Colombian human-rights group MINGA gave us a very interesting, and potentially useful, CD. It contained several videos of interviews with people in the southern Colombian department of Putumayo – farmers, indigenous leaders, teachers, health workers, alternative-development workers, a mayor.

They tell what happened to them and their communities after Putumayo – which in 1999-2001 was Colombia’s number-one coca-growing department – became the first battleground for the new “Plan Colombia.” With hundreds of millions of dollars in U.S. funding, the Colombian government expanded its military and police presence, carried out several waves of massive herbicide fumigation, and hastily threw together some alternative development programs. Meanwhile paramilitaries multiplied their presence in the towns, competing with the guerrillas who had long carried out an iron-fisted rule.

MINGA gave us the CD three years ago with the intent that we distribute it far and wide, adding English subtitles to the footage. We made a few dozen copies and sent them to congressional staff, journalists and colleagues. It’s not clear how many of these very busy people – if any – took the trouble of inserting that CD into their computers, installing the special software needed to read the video’s unusual file format, and viewing their content. Judging from the lack of feedback, the number was small.

But that was in 2004, a long-ago, pre-YouTube era. A couple of weeks ago, we unearthed the CD of MINGA’s Putumayo testimonies, and found that they are still very much worth sharing and viewing. They are now available right here.

Take a moment to view some of these. They are quite typical of what we have heard in our own research in Colombia’s coca-and-conflict zones: indiscriminate fumigation, dysfunctional alternative-development efforts, and civilians caught in the middle of the violence. This glimpse into Plan Colombia’s first zone of operation makes pretty clear why the strategy has failed to achieve its goals.

2003 testimony from a woman in El Placer about being caught in the midst of conflict and fumigation:

2003 testimonies about U.S.-funded alternative-development projects being fumigated by U.S.-funded narcotics aircraft:

2003 testimonies about food crops and alternative-development projects sprayed with herbicides:

2003 testimonies about citizens, including children, being fumigated with herbicides by U.S.-funded aircraft:

2003 testimonies about the social impacts of fumigation:

2003 testimonies from indigenous people caught in the fighting between armed groups:

2003 testimonies about the frustrating experience with initial alternative development programs:

2003 testimonies about the impossibility of getting restitution for victims of wrongful fumigation:

5 Responses to “Video testimonies from Putumayo”

  1. jcg Says:

    Very interesting and, as such material often is, very human(e) stories. Thank you for making it available, Adam.

    Granted, there’s always some inevitable amount of subjectivity involved. When mostly oral testimonies are collected and retransmitted “as is”, it has to be understood that many of the finer details have already been lost somewhere along the line. It’s inherent to the format.

    But that is nitpicking. It doesn’t erase the true value of these testimonies and what they represent.

    They clearly reveal many of the underlying flaws of the entire fumigation program and how the U.S. and Colombian governments have failed to implement. That has been true for a long time, and is made even more clear by these videos, in spite of anything else one may want to add.

  2. caracho Says:

    This is very disturbing. I had no idea that glysophate KILLS children. If there were just some way to demonstrate that with valid science or actual medical proof instead of three-year-old anecdotes, we could stop this madness once and for all! Strange that not one of these people was actually growing coca, but they all got fumigated (they must be furious at their neighbors). Bizarre that the spraying only seems to work against food crops and never kills any coca. Curious that the interviewees don’t like fumigation, yet they don’t like alternative development either, and in the end they just want to be left alone like back in the good old boom days when “there was no law… we didn’t suffer from anything… we sold and bought whatever we needed.” Amazing that the Kitchua (sic) Indian Governor forgot to mention that the Kofan leadership accepted on behalf of its people more than one million dollars in good faith Plan Colombia alternative development assistance from Colombia and the U.S., yet failed demonstrably to use it to actually remove coca from the “protected” Kofan territories.

    Perhaps the sarcasm is inappropriate here, since horrendous and inexcusable things really do happen to many small actors in places like southern Putumayo. But to swallow these MINGA interviews without at least a grain of salt is just plain illusory. The link to violence in the daily lives of these interviewees is coca, not government oppression. I don’t mean to suggest in any way that they have “asked for” or “deserved” armed gunfighters storming through their very homes. But to encourage these folks to characterize themselves simply as helpless victims of dark forces outside of their control (or of a “wrongheaded” drug policy) is counterproductive, even though it sure makes a compelling video storyline. To strip the coca grower – who you will remember is also a coca base processor in Colombia – of any decision-making capacity is both disingenuous and disempowering.

    Disingenuous in that for every Colombian coca grower who is in the business because the paramilitaries or the FARC have a gun to his/her head or because there honestly is no other way to feed his/her family, there are 100 more who are doing it because they are seasoned, rational decision makers who are choosing to try for more income over less. Disempowering because to champion on “behalf” of the Putumayo coca grower-processor this kind of yo no fui fatalism undermines his/her independence. Even though MINGA might argue that its aim is the opposite, this strategy of projection of blame has in fact encouraged coca growers in Putumayo and elsewhere to narrow their list of acceptable solutions to something bestowed upon them from the outside, instead of individually attainable and socially acceptable options they might create for themselves. Promoting the yo no fui mentality is a disservice to the very people CIP hopes to assist, as well as an insult to the millions of other impoverished Colombians who scrape every day to get their families by without manufacturing poison for a profit.

    Undoubtedly more could be accomplished if less energy were spent creating heroes and villains and a little more honesty were injected into this debate.

  3. jcg Says:

    “This is very disturbing. I had no idea that glysophate KILLS children. If there were just some way to demonstrate that with valid science or actual medical proof instead of three-year-old anecdotes, we could stop this madness once and for all!”

    This is one of the things I was thinking about in a currently unpublished message when I mentioned the “finer details”.

    These testimonies alone are not scientific, nor should they be expected to be. They do, however, reveal true stories of human drama, but it may be necessary, in this particular case for example, to corroborate that relationship scientifically. That glyphosate harm is no secret, but that it directly caused death is a serious claim that would need urgent verification.

    “Strange that not one of these people was actually growing coca, but they all got fumigated (they must be furious at their neighbors).”

    Again, we have absolutely no way of confirming which of them, if any, actually was or wasn’t growing coca. But that, IMHO, isn’t the main issue at stake.

    “But to swallow these MINGA interviews without at least a grain of salt is just plain illusory.”

    I definitely don’t believe that we should “swallow” all the finer details without asking any questions either.

    But the stories, even if we interpret them in the vaguest possible manner, remain powerful as evidence of several things going horribly wrong. Even if specific aspects of their claims could be contested or at least would require further study.

    “Promoting the yo no fui mentality is a disservice to the very people CIP hopes to assist, as well as an insult to the millions of other impoverished Colombians who scrape every day to get their families by without manufacturing poison for a profit.”

    I believe that the “yo no fui” mentality is definitely counterproductive too. But it is also true that the governments, both U.S. and Colombia, have a lot of things to answer for, both through action and omission.

    That doesn’t eliminate the individual responsibilities of coca growers and others, who should be encouraged to take action on their own side as well. But the governments should still try and find a better strategy that, at the very least, makes up for the flaws of the current one.

    “Undoubtedly more could be accomplished if less energy were spent creating heroes and villains and a little more honesty were injected into this debate.”

    All other things above considered, I suppose I ultimately agree.

  4. Adam Isacson Says:

    I just want to clarify here that "caracho" is not a "sock puppet," but a real person somewhere out there. I could not have invented such a grotesque caricature of the arguments the other side uses in this debate. If I did, the other side could justly accuse me of inventing a "straw man" to kick around.

    Unfortunately, though, I’ve heard opinions like caracho’s expressed in numerous conversations with U.S. government officials over the years (and caracho may even be one of them). There really are people in positions of decisionmaking power who still believe that coca farmers in places like Putumayo are conniving narco-criminals despite

    (1) rural poverty rates in excess of 80 percent throughout Colombia, higher in coca-growing zones;

    (2) UNODC estimates that coca-growers themselves only net $200 per month per hectare;

    (3) An utter lack of government presence to make possible even the rudiments of a legal economy – and what presence there is too often under the influence of criminals or armed groups;

    (4) A population that is very young demographically – what are these kids going to do when they grow up?

    Of course the MINGA videos, like any such testimony, must be taken with a grain of salt. But caracho really loses us with this breathtaking (but often heard) statement:

    for every Colombian coca grower who is in the business because the paramilitaries or the FARC have a gun to his/her head or because there honestly is no other way to feed his/her family, there are 100 more who are doing it because they are seasoned, rational decision makers who are choosing to try for more income over less.

    These people aren’t victims of statelessness and poverty, this tells us. They deserve to be sprayed with poisons.

    Maybe that helps the architects of the fumigation policy sleep at night. But it hasn’t reduced coca-growing in Colombia or the Andes.

    Statements like that one belong on the same pile of crap as "We’ll be greeted as liberators," "Travel controls will bring an opening in Cuba," and other recent chestnuts of massive foreign-policy failure.

  5. Adam Isacson Says:

    This from Caracho, who was having trouble posting his/her comment and sent this by e-mail:

    I guess my last sentence didn’t really sink in, but I’ll take your response to mean: “Welcome to my blog!” anyway. In the spirit of even more constructive debate, let’s agree on some common ground: Coca is a lousy development model and a poor way for individual, family, and community to escape from poverty, hunger, and physical insecurity. Almost always, it doesn’t work as a get-rich-quick scheme and growers are simply used and discarded by the intermediaries and traffickers who orchestrate the system and absorb the lion’s share of the profit. We all wish fewer people got stuck in the tar pit, for numerous reasons. Still with me?

    Our difference of opinion lies in assessing the motivation for why individuals would participate in that system. You argue that there is no other way but to be sucked in to the voragine and that making coca base as fast as you can is entirely understandable and apparently condonable, due to state neglect and poverty. I think that it is a mistake to close eyes to the additional role played by personal choice, particularly in the context of a historical near total absence of any stigma attached to growing/processing and a serious lack of enforcement of Colombian law (an important part of state neglect).
    By your logic, every one of the conditions (1-4) above could just as easily apply to Ugandan ivory poachers and traffickers in exotic species, yet I expect you wouldn’t be an apologist for elephant slaughterers. Besides for the pace at which they extinguish endangered species, s it just the safety in numbers that makes coca production in Colombia different?

    Hard data on what the underlying motivations are for growing coca are scarce. Most foundations shy away from funding field research in dangerous places. The target audience is hard to survey. Questionnaire format and survey methodology can steer witnesses or bias the interpretation of answers. To fill the void, conclusions are most often drawn from anecdotal sources. They are often based on a journalist’s research for one page of copy and an interview or two with someone who meets the description before that fast-approaching deadline. Other times they derive from material gathered by interest groups, many of which arguably have a dog in the fight, encouraging them to seek out opinions that reinforce their own conclusions already reached before embarking on the research.

    The best publicly available, methodically collected source of grower motivation is probably the UN, which has recently published its analysis of agro-cultural characteristics of coca production in Colombia, based on almost 1,400 interviews of coca growers throughout Colombia. See http://www.biesimci.org. When field researchers asked respondents for their principal reason for growing coca, guess which answer came in at the top? Profitability (33%). See page 76. “No other options” did come in a close second (28%), but I’d probably say “no other options” too if I were approached by several strangers asking me why I was engaged in an illegal activity. Interestingly, a strong number four (17%) was that coca growing is a “regional custom,” which could also be interpreted as a euphemism for “everybody else is doing it.” (Number three [21%] was easy market access).

    The UN, in its most recent Colombia coca cultivation survey (published in 2006 for 2005), also disagrees with you about the strength of the correlation between coca growing and poverty. It is a passage worth repeating here: “However, if Colombian poverty indicators are compared with those of other Andean Countries, the argument of a strong linkage between poverty of livelihoods and cocaine production seems weak. In fact, if poverty were to boost coca cultivation, largest coca crops should move to poorest Andean countries, which is not the case.” See page 41 of the Survey, accessible at http://www.unodc.org/unodc/en/crop_monitoring.html

    I never said that the coca grower deserves to get sprayed by poisons, but I would argue that his weeds deserve to be sprayed with weed killer. He also needs to be encouraged – from all sides – to look at coca as a dead end road. Telling him that the government is his enemy and to blame for his ills doesn’t seem to me like the best way to do that.

    Don’t distort my argument by acting as if my aim is to demonize the little guy. I’m doing the opposite by saying that you too often take him for a fool and assume that he/she isn’t making deliberate economic decisions for reasons that go well beyond state neglect and poverty. Call it the law of conservation of effort or call it common sense. If we don’t work harder to really understand why they’re growing, we’re not going to get better at proposing solutions for how to end the practice.

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