NY Today
August 20, 1998

In Colombia, Plan to Replace Coca Is Scorned

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    SAN JOSE DEL GUAVIARE, Colombia -- The optimism of a fresh start. The sweet talk of reconciliation. The promise of a respectable way to make a living instead of growing coca. Dagoberto P. has heard it all before. And this year, he is not buying.

    Dagoberto, who owns some 40 hectares planted with coca, remembered earlier proposals that went by the names of "alternative development" and "crop substitution" that never materialized. Now, Colombia's new president, Andres Pastrana, is calling for a Marshall Plan to bring the coca-growing hinterlands of Colombia into the present.

    "It wasn't crop substitution at all," he recalled of an earlier administration's pledge. "It was forced fumigation."

    There is still no highway from here to Bogota, a 275-mile journey that takes a truck eight days, so vegetables rot by the time they reach market.

    Pastrana's "Marshall Plan" is part of an ambitious array of ideas he has formulated to curtail drug trafficking and recover a nation reeling from decades of war.

    With government coffers empty, the new administration is proposing a new kind of bond. The bonds would create a fund to bring electricity, water, roads and technical expertise to forgotten rural areas where poverty and government indifference have allowed coca-growing and rebel movements to thrive.

    Here in the coca-growing heartland of Colombia, where the U.S.-backed war on drugs is fought with herbicides and helicopter gunships, coca growers remain skeptical. Any plan's first obstacle might well lie with the growers themselves, embittered by years of fumigation and confrontation with government authorities.

    "In one way or another, they've been saying that for years, and we've been asking for it," said Antonio R., another coca grower and father of five. "But all we've ever had are expectations." Like other growers interviewed, he asked that his full name not be published out of fear for his safety.

    The Pastrana administration is asking for international help, and U.S. administration officials appear willing to listen. Peter Romero, acting assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs, said Washington had "several hundred million dollars on the table for Colombia," some of which could be available for alternative development.

    "What Colombia has to do is put together a strategy," Romero said on a recent visit here. "We're just waiting to see that strategy, to evaluate it."

    Pastrana has also made a priority of negotiating peace with rebels who protect coca growers, acceding to rebel demands that government security forces temporarily leave five municipalities, covering an area twice the size of El Salvador, as a condition for beginning peace talks by early November.

    The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as FARC, is believed to number 15,000 combatants and 10 times as many quiet supporters who provide logistical help. The president vows that he will personally lead the talks with them.

    The rebels are suggesting they would be willing to abandon their drug revenues, which some analysts estimate at $100 million a year, as part of a peace agreement that would provide other ways for coca-growing peasants to make a living.

    U.S. officials are skeptical that the rebels will actually give up the coca revenues. "There'd have to be some powerful reward and punishment algorithm to make that happen," Gen. Barry McCaffrey, the White House anti-drug chief, said earlier this month, just before Pastrana's inauguration. But Pastrana, who eluded his security guards to secretly meet the FARC's top commander last month, seems willing to take the rebels at their word.

    The potentially fatal stumbling block lies in the price for signing a peace accord and pledging to control the drug trade. The rebels are likely to demand local autonomy and control over the government budget in their regions.

    Although U.S. officials publicly contend they are interested in Colombia's civil conflict solely because of the drug trade, privately they admit they are also concerned about the conflict spilling over Colombia's borders and causing regional instability. Officials in Bogota and Washington balk at the notion of funding a rebel state within the state in Colombia.

    "In the past, there hasn't been sincerity on the part of either side," said Alejandro Ovalles, a restaurant owner who runs a local business association. "War is a business in any part of the world. There's lots of mistrust on all sides."

    Nevertheless people here say that the insurgents are the only actors with the presence, muscle and local respect who can put a rapid end to coca growing. They say that at one time the rebels banned commercial fishing at a local river that was being rapidly depleted, and fishermen obeyed. Another time, they forbade coca growers to cut down trees in a part of the rain forest, and again, nobody dared to defy them.

    "It's about educating people," the local Roman Catholic parish priest, the Rev. Jorge Vargas, said. "But it's based in fear."

    Though their lives are intimately affected by U.S. policies, the growers complained of feeling invisible to decision makers in Washington. When McCaffrey visited the anti-narcotics base here recently, the town became "militarized" and people said they stayed shut in their homes.

    "We're not the kind of people you like to deal with, but we're human beings." said Antonio.

    This year the U.S. has doubled the pace of chemical fumigation to kill coca crops, but the governor of Guaviare, for one, does not expect results. "After seven years of fumigating, there's more coca than ever," said Gov. Hernando Gonzalez Villamizar.

    Now growers say they would be eager to give up coca growing if they could earn a livelihood elsewhere, perhaps here in the city or even elsewhere in the country. Since many of them started growing and processing coca here 15 years ago, the cost of processing coca has soared, while the prices paid for cocaine have stayed the same.

    It takes 55 gallons of gasoline and 110 pounds of cement to process a kilo of cocaine. Dagoberto said growers collect $1,000 for a kilo. Upon hearing that a gram of cocaine sells for $100 by the time it reaches New York, he looked at the floor and shook his head. Here it sells for a dollar.

    The state secretary of culture, Pedro Arenas, said that the rain forest could not sustain the estimated 20,000 growers living in it. The growers, many of whom came here to escape violence and hopelessness in other parts of Colombia, should be sent back home and given land, he said.

    "The Marshall Plan here would be called agrarian reform," Arenas said.

    The jungle is scarred, burned and polluted with the astonishing quantities of cement and gasoline involved in producing the Guaviare's 240,000 kilos of coca paste each year.

    "The white man," said Dagoberto, "doesn't know how to live in the jungle."

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