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Jun 192007

This is a translation of the lead editorial in today’s edition of Colombia’s most-circulated newspaper, El Tiempo. It argues that long-overdue adjustments are needed in the U.S.-funded counter-drug strategy in Colombia.

(The text refers to a 50 percent drop in coca cultivation in Colombia; UN Office on Drugs and Crime [UNODC] estimates showed coca dropping sharply from 2000 to 2003, though this progress has since stagnated. U.S. government estimates have found no reduction; in fact, in 2006 the U.S. government found twice as much coca in Colombia as the UN did.)

Let’s just admit it (Por qué no reconocerlo)

Between 2000 and 2006, Colombia reduced the area of coca cultivation by 50 percent; if it weren’t for the immense [U.S.-supported aerial herbicide] fumigation effort – 172,000 hectares last year – and manual eradication – another 41,000 hectares – we would be overrun with coca. At least this is the defense of the current anti-drug strategy’s supporters as they scream to high heaven because the Democrats in the U.S. Congress want to reduce this “effort” by $100 million.

After a decade of fumigation and more than five years of Plan Colombia, however, there is plenty of reason to conclude that aerial spraying has failed and the current anti-drug policy has not produced the expected results. The recent report of the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC) includes more than a few relevant facts.

The relation of cost to benefit is ruinous: between 1997 and 2007, 983,000 hectares have been fumigated, yet Colombia has the same area of coca. The level of effectiveness is even worse: in 2001, for every hectare of reduced cultivation, 3 were fumigated; in 2006, 21.5 hectares had to be fumigated to reduce one hectare of cultivation.

The strategy doesn’t work: fumigating doesn’t eradicate. The plant does not die and will return to produce. The farmers invent tricks to lessen the effect of the glyphosate. Every year, the plots are smaller and harder to spray.

Fumigating displaces the crop. Colombia is a dramatic case of the balloon effect: 2 sites that five years ago didn’t even make it on the coca map are today the two largest coca producers: Tumaco (Nariño) and, in the department with highest production potential, Cumaribo (Vichada). In Putumayo the policy’s supporters proclaimed not too long ago that there wasn’t even “a leaf of coca” left; today there are more than 12,000 hectares. In 1999 there were 12 departments with coca; now there are 23.

Fumigation is a recruitment weapon for the FARC: every gallon of glyphosate helps to maintain 67,000 families and thousands of itinerant ‘raspachines’ [coca-leaf pickers] captive at the margins of the agricultural frontier.

The area cultivated in Colombia may be half of what it was during 2000; but not so for cocaine production. The Andean region produced 950 metric tons of cocaine in 1996; now it produces 984. Colombian production increased from 300 to 610 metric tons. What is gained in one country is lost in the others, and the region has gone three years with cultivation steady at around 155,000 hectares. Those who allege that without fumigation the county would fill with coca forget that narco-trafficking also obeys the laws of economics and that it will harvest – and produce – what is necessary.

Instead of clamoring for help on a program that seems more inappropriate every day, the government should take advantage of this moment to redirect and rethink its anti-drug collaboration with the United States. Fumigation should be suspended and only used in extraordinary cases. Manual eradication has increased ten times in recent years and should be strengthened. Alternative development should stop being the little sister charity-case of the anti-drug strategy, and a substantial part of assistance should go to rural development.

One formula could be to concentrate efforts in critical municipalities, like the ten that, according to the chief of the UNODC in Colombia, produce 46 percent of the coca. Sticking with what works – aerial interdiction and maritime seizure – and outlining what’s missing – a real policy of supply control – could constitute a new approach that replaces the purely repressive strategy of today, just as flawed as it is costly. It’s time, finally, to just admit it.

One Response to ““Let’s just admit it,” says El Tiempo”

  1. PoliBlog ™: A Rough Draft of my Thoughts » Poppy Cultivation Soars in Afghanistan Says:

    [...] (On the topic of coca cultivation, there is an excellent column translated from El Tiempo over at Plan Colombia and Beyond that I had meant to note several days ago. While I am not sanguine about the policy recommendations [...]

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