Victory (for Now) for Protesting Coca Farmers in Colombia
Weeks of Intense Protest End with an Agreement to Switch to Legal Crops in Return for Government Support
By Dan Feder
Special to The Narco News Bulletin
March 10, 2008
BOGOTA: In the last week days, thousands of coca growers that had been occupying town centers in northern Colombia to protest the forced eradication of their crops have begun returning to their villages after three weeks of negotiations with local authorities. Their occupation of four large towns showed that Colombia’s much-demonized producers of the raw material for cocaine are willing to move to alternative, legal crops – if the government will treat them as partners rather than enemies. It also brought to the surface, once again, the suspicious, uncaring and hateful attitudes so many officials hold toward the country’s rural population, a political and cultural divide that has kept a civil war going here for half a century.
The first campesinos (peasant farmers) began arriving in Valdivia, a town in the northern part of Antioquia department known as the Bajo Cauca, on February 7, as the magazine Semana would later report on its website. “More than 3,000 campesinos took over Valdivia’s two school buildings and main plaza, classes were interrupted and all the administrative work at the town hall had to be suspended.” Three other towns – Puerto Valdivia, Tarazá and Nechí – were also occupied. In total, at least 8,000 farmers and family members had mobilized. But it took nearly two more weeks and the arrival of the notorious ESMAD national riot police for the media to take notice.
The coca farmers of Bajo Cauca and Northern Antioquia already had been facing an onslaught of herbicide fumigations for years. But as it has become more and more apparent that fumigation is essentially ineffective, causes widespread economic and environmental damage, and as it has become more and more controversial internationally, Colombia has been gradually moving toward more “manual eradication” – ripping the plants up by hand. As the Colombian daily El Tiempo reported on February 18:
It’s not like eradication is anything new around here. Five years ago, the planes came through fumigating once a year, and as coca can be harvested every three months, they had plenty of time to recover before the next flight.
Gilberto Vera, a coca field worker (respachín) who “landed” in the village of La Siberia 8 years ago after failing as a coffee grower in Briceño and searching for something new in Medellín, tells how last year they sprayed with glyphosate every three months and even then he pushed ahead with the few plants that survived.
But two weeks ago, the aircraft didn’t bring poison but rather plant arrancadores (“pullers”) and soldiers. They don’t let anything get past, moving implacably from plant to plant.
While an end to fumigation has been a demand of many social movements here, forced manual eradication brings its own problems. The army or police escorts that accompany and protect arrancadores essentially militarize whatever area they’re working in, creating tensions and anger, especially where the people have suffered historically at the hands of the armed forces. But most of all, forced eradication, as opposed to a shift to legal crops accomplished through agreements and understandings between farmers and government agencies, still devastates communities economically.
And so for three weeks, the farmers essentially paralyzed the towns of Tarazá and Valdivia. Schools had to cancel classes as they were occupied and used as housing for the protesters. On February 18, protesters clashed with police and took over a highway, damaging a tollbooth. Police claimed that FARC milicianos – guerrillas who live among the civilian population and do not wear uniforms – were among the crowd, and shot at police. Some 30 people were injured in the scuffles.
For the next several days, tensions continued, with more national riot police arriving. On February 24, El Tiempo reported more violence between Tarazá townspeople and police:
It all seems to have begun when a group of people threw stones at a riot squad.
A half-hour later, in order not to be seen by the several uniformed men driving about on several motorcycles, three boys, ages 13, 14 and 15, who according to their families had nothing to do with the coca farmers, hid behind a bridge’s metallic columns.
“When the police got off their bikes, they jumped into the Cauca River, and the police shot a them three times. One hit my son in the back and damaged his lung,” said Frankelina García, mother of the injured boy who was attended in the Caucasia hospital yesterday.
With schools now out for two weeks due to the protest, and the towns in the national spotlight, there was enormous pressure on the government to resolve the situation. Several times, agreements were announced that immediately fell apart. While leaders said this was because the government was still not giving them the guarantees they needed, the departmental government cited this as evidence that the farmers were not in control, but rather the FARC, pulling the strings from behind the scenes.
The Shadow of the FARC
From the beginning, the movement faced claims that it was not an authentic citizen protest, but rather a move by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC in its Spanish initials) to relieve pressure on its coca operations in the area. Typical of the earlier coverage was this report from the Spanish news agency EFE:
The FARC guerilla group is preventing the return of more than 4,000 coca growers, who were displaced to the urban centers of three towns in northeastern Colombia to protest the eradication of their crops, regional government sources reported today in Medellín.
The insurgents have resorted to “different mechanisms of coercion of the population” to avoid the campesinos’ return, claimed the government of Antioquia, the department (state) whose capital is Medellín, in a public communique.
Another article ran with the headline “Campesinos create destruction and blockade in Tarazá” on the website of Caracol, one of the two Colombian commercial television networks:
Tarazá is one of the three municipalities that in recent days have been an epicenter for the displacement of campesinos who protest, apparently under pressure from the FARC, an eradication and fumigation campaign against illicit crops…
According to Antioquia authorities, the protest – both in Tarazá and Valdivia, and probably also in the protest also occurring in Nechí – is being sponsored by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia.
For example, it has been denounced that two campesinos were murdered for not obeying the order to mobilize toward those towns.
Virtually every rural protest receives the same, immediate denunciation of FARC involvement from Colombian authorities. Other versions had the FARC murdering the campesinos for trying to return to their land before the protest was over.
Now, there are certainly guerrillas in northern and eastern Antioquia, and it is not impossible that two farmers could have died at their hands. A few days later, a FARC unit ambushed an eradication team working in the area, killing two policemen and wounding four others. But these two supposed dead, and another two the government claimed to be “confirming,” were never named or mentioned again. No evidence was offered to demonstrate that these alleged deaths had anything to do with the protest at all, let alone that they were perpetrated by the FARC.
This region, known in Antioquia as the Bajo Cauca, is one that suffers from heavy paramilitary presence. It was occupied for years by para boss “Cuco” Vanoy, and it was Cuco, along with his 1,000-man right-wing, private army that controlled and profited from the cocaine industry, to a much greater degree than the FARC. Though Cuco demobilized in August of 2006, his former soldiers and their new recruits are among the “emergent gangs” of former paramilitaries who continue to control the country’s drug trade.
The government immediately blaming the FARC for civilian deaths – when it is often paramilitaries, petty criminals or the army itself that are truly responsible – is a pattern nearly as old as this war. The media will repeat the claims without looking for independent confirmation (after all, it could be true, so what’s the difference?) and even if they later turn out to be false, the damage has been done. In this case, the doubt was placed that a stunning act of civil resistance to brutal drug policies was perhaps no more than a carefully choreographed act of guerrilla subversion.
Reading Colombian government propaganda is a strange exercise. The last few months – and especially the last few days with the killing of FARC commander Raul Reyes – have seen repeated claims that the guerrillas are “almost finished.” Government ministers say their social base has completely dried up, that its militants are starving in the mountains or forced to take refuge in neighboring countries. Yet by demonizing this protest, the government is arguing that this supposedly near-extinct group has the power to organize an enormous mobilization right under its nose. Something doesn’t add up…
Jorge Mejía Martínez, former government secretary (the top position in a governor’s cabinet) of Antioquia, recently reflected on the question of guerrilla or paramilitary involvement in the protest, in an article for the weekly analysis magazine Caja de Herramientas:
The official press releases minimize the protest’s dimensions by talking of its sponsorship by the FARC, who obtain profitable uses from the coca plantations and their illegal commerce, and as such, are the group most affected by their eradication with glyphosate herbicide. Other versions have placed responsibility on calls by so-called emergent [paramilitary] gangs, who rename or recycle themselves to appear to be new organizations, but really their membership and activities are always the same. As the government believes that there is no forced displacement going on there, it suspended any humanitarian aid, leaving the townspeople at the mercy of not only pressure from violent groups, but also of the harshness of the weather, poor health conditions and hunger…
Whatever the cause of the mobilization or displacement, the campesinos of Valdivia and Tarazá demonstrate the serious limitations of the government’s “democratic security” policy for the countryside, and the equally serious failures of national and international policies against drug production and trade…
The official indifference or contempt for the 5,000 [protesters] from Valdivia and Tarazá could be worse than the pernicious influence of violent men within their ranks. The concentration’s magnitude is the best proof there is that the problem is a social one. Other coca-growing municipalities such as Briceño have anounced that they will join the protest. Entire regions such as the Bajo Cauca, Northeast and Northern Antioquia, and part of East Antioquia, find in their illicit crops the main source of income for thousands of townspeople and for illegal groups.
It should be said that, while it seems clear that rebels do require peasant farmers to plant coca whether they want to or not in some cases, in other cases the opposite is true. This reporter has been told several times, by people from different regions of the country, that the FARC guerrillas in fact discourage or even prohibit farmers from planting too much coca, and try to protect the environment as much as possible. To those who believe the FARC incapable of doing anything that could be considered good, this will seem unthinkable, but it makes a certain amount of strategic sense. Food crops are so unprofitable in the remote countryside that most campesinos need little convincing to take up coca farming and processing. And while the guerrillas raise much of their funds from taxing this, the most lucrative cottage industry in the world, they also need local sources of food, a healthy wilderness in which to operate, and a reasonably stable local economy.
Cocaleros: Looking for Alternatives
But that point aside, the indifference Mejía Martínez speaks of has been the hallmark of the U.S.-designed and funded Plan Colombia since it began in 2000. While the cocaleros occupy the lowest rung on the drug trafficking ladder – of the $50,000 or more that a kilogram of cocaine ultimately ends up earning, they rarely keep more than about $1,000 – an enormous amount of resources is put into destroying their meager livelihoods.
Nearly every press report on Colombia mentions how violence has “waned” under President Álvaro Uribe’s administration, but statistics on forced displacement show that year after year, people continue to flee the countryside for the cities at the same staggering rates, and crop 5eradications play a big part in this.
A new study from the Advisory Office for Human Rights and Displacement (CODHES), a widely respected Colombian non-governmental organization, shows that 2007 was one of the worst years ever, with 305,966 people displaced. The group’s February 26 press release explains:
There are also individual, single-family and massive displacements in areas of aerial fumigations or manual eradications of coca crops, especially in Nariño, Cauca, Putumayo, Caquetá, Norte de Santander and Antioquia.
The problem is that the government does not recognize the people displaced by fumigations as such, and denies them emergency humanitarian attention, says CODHES. The organization warns that the raspachines, as workers of these crops are called, have no one to defend them. The guerrillas and paramilitaries, as well as sheer necessity, oblige them to cultivate, the Army and the police persecute them, Social Action [the government agency charged with providing services to the displaced] does not recognize them and the Fiscalía (prosecutor’s office) views them with suspicion.
State agencies do not recognize those who abandon their fields due to the damages to their food crops from indiscriminate fumigations, or the economic damages of losing their coca – their only source of real income – as refugees, since they technically “chose” to leave their lands rather than starve. They arrive to the cities as destitute as their fellow desterrados, but without having been lucky enough to be forced off their land at gunpoint.
In fact, the report lists Ituango, where many of the protesters are from, as among the 101 Colombian municipalities most affected by displacement in 2007, a dubious honor that only five other Antioquia municipalities share (the department counts with 126).
This was the fate these protesters sought to avoid.
Narco News was not able to speak directly to anyone involved in this protest, which was apparently coordinated between several local village councils (the “Community Action Committees,” or JAC in their Spanish initials) without any formal organization. However, in the eastern department of Arauca last September, a campesino leader spoke to us about a similar but failed struggle to eliminate coca crops in a way that would benefit, not harm, rural communities.
José Antonio Amaya, president of the Peasant-Farmer Association of Arauca (ACA), explained that after a massive meeting with local farmers in 2003, as they realized that fumigations were on their way, they decided to make a serious proposal to the national government:
The proposal was that the coca could be eradicated, but it should be in a manual and gradual manner, based on agreements with the farmers. Manual, because then there would be no damage to the environment, or to food crops. And gradual because the farmer would have the chance to substitute the crop. If he had a hectare of coca, he could plant a hectare of plantain. And when that hectare of plantain finally became productive, he could get rid of another hectare of coca… But the Colombian government completely rejected the proposal.
According to José Antonio, the anti-narcotics police general at that time told him that, if he really wanted this plan to be adopted, he would need to go to the Washington and ask for the change, as that was where Colombia’s drug policy was really defined.
While the ACA eventually gave up on their alternative eradication campaign, the Bajo Cauca area is much more dependent on coca than Arauca. And as in all areas that have become economically dependent on coca, the economic effects of large-scale eradications can be devastating to everyone – not just the coca growers themselves. El Tiempo reported on February 26:
The majority of the 34,000 residents of the two counties [Tarazá and Valdivia] have had coca as their main source of work and income for years. Those who don’t work directly in the planting and trade of the drug, profit from it in other ways such as local commerce.
Merchants handed their customers food and other goods with the promise that they would pay every three months, when the coca leaves mature and the narcotic can be extracted. But since the aerial sprayings began – and then, in January, the manual eradications, and three weeks ago the coca-growers’ march, the money stopped circulating and the owners are not as willing to give to their old customers on credit.
This situation led to the protesters being received warmly in the town centers where they camped out. On February 20, El Tiempo reported from Tarazá:
Despite the fact that the demonstration by 5,000 peasant farmers has paralyzed school activities and provoked a curfew and ban on all liquor sales, the townspeople are showing solidarity with it. Tarazá merchants have sent food and supplies, and of the official count of 2,173 coca growers protesting, many are staying in the houses of people who are not even their relatives.
When one asks any local resident about the clashes Monday and Tuesday in which the tollbooth was damaged, trucks were looted and 20 people were injured with 30 arrests, he or she will respond that it wasn’t the farmers who did these things, but rather local street kids.
And so the occupations and the negotiations continued. Each municipality held its own talks; at times it seemed progress was being made in some areas, while in others they were stuck. Much of the dispute hinged on how much the campesinos would be compensated for giving up their lucrative crop. Switching to food crops is all well and good, but the people need to eat something as they wait for the first harvest.
The Medellín daily El Colombiano interviewed a number of protesters:
“The food rations they are offering have, for example, 6 kilos of rice. We’re asking for every family to receive two arrobas (50 pounds) of rice and two arrobas of panela, among other things. You know that in the country, the people eat more because they work harder, that’s why we want them to help us with more groceries,” explains César Rendón, from the village of Pensilvania.
The protesters from Valdivia insist that they need a subsidy for at least eight months, or access to credit for the next two years, when the new crops begin to produce.
Finally, on February 28, an agreement was reached with the farmers in Valdivia:
The director of the Antioquia Disaster Prevention and Attention System (DAPARD), John Fredy Rendón, announced yesterday in Medellín an agreement that would allow 700 families to return to their villages in return for a payment of 150,000 pesos ($80) for transportation costs and for buying tools.
In addition, they will receive food security programs, integration into the national government’s Families in Action initiative, and bean, corn and yuca projects to substitute for the coca plantations, which have reached 9,000 hectares (22,000 acres) in the Bajo Cauca.
By March 4, the government had reached agreements with all the protest groups, and anyone still left in the town centers headed home.
Whether the coca cultivation in the area really ends, though, remains to be seen. Many “alternative development” programs in the past have failed to provide a living for the hopeful who have enrolled in them, and in the worst cases the government has come back and “accidentally” fumigated the alternative crops themselves. And even if alternative development does succeed, and the majority of Bajo Cauca’s people give up coca for good, there are sure to be other farmers in other parts of the country willing to fill the vacuum, just as these same farmers did eight years ago.
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