Seven Years of Plan Colombia … and Little Has Changed in Putumayo

By · September 24, 2007 · Save & Share

In December 2000, fumigation planes began to fly over Putumayo as part of a massive aerial eradication campaign under the newly signed and recently delivered Plan Colombia aid package. The spray planes first came to Putumayo in 1997, but the spraying occurred on a much smaller scale. Their arrival in 2000 brought increased levels of sickness, human displacement and an overwhelming destruction of legal crops, all of which, like the fumigations, were not new to Putumayo. And now, seven years later, Putumayo continues to see fumigations and war. However, manual eradications have recently been added to the mix. They are conducted by a team of 125 men, guarded by anti-narcotics police, which goes from farm to farm uprooting entire coca field’s in a matter of minutes.

Despite the recent injection of manual eradication, aerial fumigations remain the dominant eradication strategy. While the Colombian authorities and the mainstream media have heralded these new manual eradications as the great new tactic in the war on drugs, they still lack any significant alternatives for campesinos. And despite the fact that much press coverage has been given to the manual eradications, El Tiempo reported that 85,000 hectares of Colombian countryside had been fumigated this year as of July 24. Meanwhile, between January 1 and August 27 just over 31,000 hectares had been manually eradicated, according to National Police statistics. This year’s target for manual eradication is 70,000 hectares, while for fumigations it is 160,000 hectares. As of the end of July, neither aerial fumigations nor manual eradication were on pace to achieve their targets. However, the planes were much closer to reaching their objective than were the manual eradicators.

Plan Colombia has also brought alternative development programs to Putumayo. These projects are intended to persuade campesinos to switch from cultivating coca to growing licit crops. Under what are called “social pacts,” campesinos have one year to get rid of their coca in exchange for monetary aid. Campesinos can replace their coca with legal crops that are supposed to be purchased from them and transported to processing plants. They can also sign up for local projects set up by various international agencies. However, Plan Colombia has placed much less emphasis on alternative development programs than on the aerial fumigations. Consequently, nearly all of the alternative projects established in Putumayo have subsequently failed, often before they could even have any positive impact on the local communities.

Because aerial fumigation still dominates as the main strategy, its side effects continue to be evident in Putumayo. In August of this year, one farmer in the village of El Prado explained that he had taken out a loan to purchase a farm and seed in order to cultivate pasto, a particular grass used in cattle-raising. He then watched as 14 of his 18 hectares were damaged heavily, if not totally destroyed, by the aerial fumigation that was targeting small coca fields belonging to other campesinos in the village. And while the pasto turned yellow and died, the nearby coca appeared unaffected. It had either survived or had been re-planted.

Another farmer in rural Putumayo was working in his house one August morning when he heard the spray planes. He explained that there were four of them, flying just above the trees. The planes passed over twice, one time in opposite directions. Little by little the poison drifted down until it landed on his plants, including his yucca, peppers and cocoa. Luckily, it rained heavily that day, which helped some of his stronger crops survive, but the more delicate ones were heavily damaged. “There was no coca,” he claimed.

The same day that the author visited the fumigated farm, manual eradicators were working on the other side of a line of trees that marked the border between that campesino’s land and that of his neighbor’s. The presence of the eradicators raised three questions: Were the spray planes targeting the coca on the other side of the trees? And if so, why manually eradicate if it had already been sprayed? And if the spray planes were not targeting the coca in the neighbor’s field, then what were the planes doing spraying this man’s farm when it had no coca? Giving the benefit of the doubt to those doing the spraying, one could suggest that there exists the possibility that the planes were targeting the coca on the adjacent farm and an error was made.

In yet another incident, a school in a small town received a visit from the spray planes one morning. The teacher who was present at the time described what happened: “I was in the casa de formación (Formation House) for young girls, where we were working, when one plane flew very close over the school. It passed and then returned…it fumigated far away [from the house] but the wind forced the spray towards the house. We closed all the windows and the doors to protect ourselves.”

According to the directors and teachers at the school, this is not the first time that they have been fumigated. Last year around the same time, they said the planes flew overhead while the children were engaged in a cultural performance. After the spraying incident, many students and some of the teachers fell sick, suffering from diarrhea and vomiting. According to the teachers, this year’s spraying also resulted in some of the students becoming ill with stomach problems and rashes on their skin.

The school is typical of many in the area, not in that is has been fumigated, but that it contains numerous hectares of land in order to teach farming techniques to the children. According to the school’s director, they have 48 hectares, two-thirds of which are mountainous, eight are for cultivating pasto, three for vegetables and the remaining five hectares are for the school’s buildings and recreation areas. Walking through the vegetable plots five days after the fumigations, the damage was evident. Some plants were turning yellow and others were already dead. Many more were struggling to survive as their leaves withered. One teacher stated, “They’re not just fumigating the coca, they are also fumigating the people.” Another commented, “It’s an absurd fight, this war on drugs.”

Reports of these “indiscriminate” fumigations and their effects are numerous and consistent. While driving along a road in Putumayo, the author watched as the fumigation planes flew over the countryside and proceeded to fumigate a farm. The planes flew above tree height, so high that it was practically impossible to pick out exactly what part of the ground was the intended target of the spray. The spray hung in the air and then dispersed as it dropped to the ground and and became invisible. At such a height, even if all possible precautions are taken, one gust of wind could move the spray far from the targeted ground area. Furthermore, when sprayed by planes with multiple spray nozzles, the aspersion forms a distinct shape in the air behind the plane because of the wind that comes over the wing of the plane, which itself may effect where the spray falls. When talking to campesinos in the department, many stated that the smell of the spray lingered for 10-15 minutes, but how long it took the chemicals to adhere to things is unclear as many campesinos gave different time frames.

While these examples, and other documented cases, tend to focus on licit crop destruction, another issue with the fumigations is its effects on human health. In early August, about 50 indigenous Kofán from a reserve that straddles the municipalities of Orito and La Hormiga arrived at the local hospital in the town of La Hormiga. They said they were ill from the fumigations. Because they had arrived from the part of their reserve situated in Orito municipality, the hospital in La Hormiga told the Kofáns that they actually needed to go to the hospital in the town of Orito. That afternoon they traveled to the hospital in Orito where blood and urine samples were taken. Afterwards, they stayed in the Indigenous House in the center of town.

“The health situation is bad,” commented the Indigenous Governor. “Many people have the same thing.” He explained that the four most common symptoms were diarrhea, vomiting, headache and fever. As we sat and talked, one woman holding her child began to cough heavily. Another woman walked up and passed a small child to her husband next to me as she declared to no one in particular, “The fever’s fallen.” According to community members, the children were the worst affected by the fumigations.

The indigenous Kofán stated that they were going to remain in the Indigenous House as they couldn’t return to their lands because their food crops had been destroyed, including their indigenous herbal medicines. The governor stated that they also had about five patches of coca, anywhere from one-quarter to one-half of a hectare in size and while they had been fumigated four times before, the health situation was worse this time around. The indigenous Kofán requested that someone come to the area to guarantee their food security because, as they stated, the government has not attended to the people in the region.

The Colombian government has stated that manual eradication is better than aerial fumigation and so it has increased the projected number of hectares to be manually eradicated each year. The weekly news magazine Semana looked at the make-up of the US aid destined for Colombia and came to the conclusion that the primary motivation for the shift in policy is money. US aid to Colombia has been cut for 2008, and the amount of funding for fumigation operations and the military component of Plan Colombia have been the most affected by the cut. According to Semana, it costs $700 to aerially fumigate one hectare of coca, but only $325 to eradicate that same hectare manually. Thus, Colombia has decided to invest in the strategy that costs less, both monetarily and politically, but will still allow for the maintenance of high levels of eradication.

While in Putumayo, the author heard various reports, including from regional leaders of ANUC, a national campesino organization, of manual eradication occurring on a farm and then that same farm being fumigated days or weeks later. These reports remain unconfirmed, as verification at the farms was not possible at the time. These occurrences would represent what one leader called a “double investment” totaling $1,025. This double investment, though, included no money for alternative development or any other program to help farmers shift to legal crops.

Adding to the misery and poverty in Putumayo is the continuing war between the government, the FARC and new paramilitaries groups in the region. According to National Police statistics, there were 381 murders in Putumayo in 2006, which translates into a departmental murder rate of 98 killed out of every 100,000 people. This number is on par with the 378 murders in 1999, which occurred when the regional offensive launched by paramilitaries belonging to the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) was at its height. For the first six months of 2007, the police have registered 204 murders in Putumayo, an eight percent increase over the same period the last year.

Putumayo will continue to experience fumigations and war if US foreign policies and Colombian domestic policies do not change. While the Democrats have increased the percentage of US aid earmarked for social programs—military aid still constitutes the majority—one must remember that alternative development in Putumayo has failed miserably. Campesinos in the region are demanding that the funding be given directly to them and not to NGOs who come to Putumayo with little knowledge of the region. What people need are better roads—or roads where none exist—electricity, aqueducts and a state presence that supports them rather than persecutes them. They need a way to earn a living from legal crops that, according to countless campesinos in the region, could generate greater profits than coca with the right infrastructure. One campesino whose farm is a 20 minute walk through the jungle, mud and over car-sized ant hills summed up the issue as he saw it: “Here, we live abandoned …but there’s money for war.”

What the future holds for Putumayo is unclear. While aerial fumigations may drop, manual eradications are likely to increase. Alternative development projects may grow in number, but campesinos may not sign up for them for a variety of reasons. Or the projects may simply fail as in previous years. One candidate for his local town council provided a bleak analysis for the status quo: “What they are doing here is killing the food crops with the [aerial] fumigations and getting rid of the illicit crops with the [manual] eradications.”

Many policymakers suggest that the Free Trade Agreement (FTA) between Colombia and the United States will provide farmers in Putumayo with the chance to export tropical fruits. However, many local organizations predict that the FTA will prove devastating to Colombia’s agricultural economy. In rural areas, where 85 percent of the population lives in poverty and good roads are scarce and the state’s presence is weak, the economy is almost entirely agricultural. When the author discussed the proposed FTA with a group of farmers in Libano, Putumayo, the difficult road that lay ahead became immediately evident. After mentioning the supposed benefits of their growing tropical fruits for export under the FTA, I asked them if they would grow such fruits. One farmer immediately responded, “No. Coca.”

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