Colombia's coca trap
US planes poison farmers' attempts to diversify
A poor-to-destitute peasant farmer from Colombia was in Dublin last week to explain the economic trap the coca growers of the country find themselves in. The experience of meeting him was mind boggling to the assembled community activists, parents' groups and individuals struggling to beat drug addiction in Darndale, Blanchardstown, Tallaght, and Crumlin.
Colombians Gerardo Moreno, a representative of the coca growers' peasant organisation, and David Martinez, a human rights activist from Bogota, were both invited over by the Latin American Solidarity Centre (LASC), as part of Latin American Week. They visited local communities to talk with them, to bring, as it were, the two ends of the drug trade together. around the theme ``Poverty produces producers - Poverty produces consumers''.
They told their story. Perhaps this could mark the beginning of the understanding of who is making money out of the drug trade and of the needs of the two ends of the drug trade, addicts and producers.
Moreno explained that he wanted to grow something other than coca, the basic ingredient for cocaine, as did the other 1,500 families in the Bajo Caguán area. They organised a project to try to phase out coca production and with the help of an Italian priest, Jacinto Franzoi, got a grant of $23,000 from the European Union. With that money they established a cocoa factory and learned how to produced chocolate. The EU responded to their effort by granting another $26,000 more. This went into a credit union which gives credit to the farmers who are involved in the cocoa project.
It was at this point that US planes fumigated Gerardo's three remaining hectares of coca, destroying on their way 15 hectares of rubber trees, four of cocoa, five of sugar cane, six of banana and yuca and two of Amazonian fruit trees. It was much the same for the other families on the valley. Today, there is no cocoa for the factory and coca again marks the line between life and death for the campesino families.
The US policy of poisoning coca plantations from the air is about as selective as their use of Agent Orange in Vietnam. In their effort to destroy the quick-growing coca, they also wipe out the other cash crops which offer the campesinos their only economic alternative to coca, much of which takes much longer to recover.
Fumigation is making these small farmers more dependant on the coca plant and the drug barons. The Colombian government and if they keep doing it is because the government will not support farmers in their effort to eradicate coca through substitution.
The planes come in and spray all around them, killing all the substitute crops the farmers try to grow, like rubber, cocoa, sugar. It takes seven to ten years before a rubber plantation yields latex, and then it produces for another 40 years. The planes came in, indiscriminately spraying all the crops with a `fumigator' which does not differentiate between the crops it kills. The coca plant resumes production in six months after fumigation but the other crops die, the women miscarry, the people develop rashes, which give sores, which get infected, from which people have died.
Moreno comes from the area of Colombia controlled by the left-wing guerrillas, FARC. He explained that the guerrillas discourage coca growing and banned the sowing of new coca plants, but to suit their counter-insurgency strategy, Colombian and US officials prefer to peddle the image of drug-running guerillas to demonise the insurgent movement and excuse US military intervention.
There is more to this drugs business than meets the eye. The drugs trade is worth at least $500,000 million, according to David Martinez, in between the poor peasant who grows cocoa and the poor drug addicts (mostly) who buy it.
Moreno told how one hectare of coca yields 1 kg of cocaine per annum, which earns him $1,000. In Frankfurt this cocaine sells for $150,000, in New York, for $100,000.
The US government wants to spend $1.6 million, the `Colombia Plan' on fumigation. The Spanish prime minister, José María Aznar, will be asking the European Union, Canada and Japan to throw in $1.4 million to help. David and Gerardo, however, want the Irish government to ensure that the money goes to social reconstruction instead of fumigation.
This is one side of the drugs trade - the producers' side. The other side, the people of Dublin know quite well, though opium is far more of a problem here than cocaine. The link is common, however - poverty.
Colombian activist killed
On the 3 May a number of armed men burst into the home of Ramiro Zapata in the Colombian town of Segovia. He was taken away by force and his body was found the following day on the outskirts of the town.
Zapata was the last suriving member of the Human Rights Committee of Segovia to continue to live in the town after the majority of members fled in 1997 when a number of ativists were killed by right-wing death squads. A Colombian Army captain, Rodrigo Canas, was later detained in relation to those killings. The Inter-American court of human rights also intervened, requesting that the Colombian government take measures to protect Zapata's life.
Responding to news of the killing, Gearoid Ó Loingsigh of the Irish Latin America Solidarity Campaign, who had worked with Ramiro Zapata in Colombia, said: ``Once again human rights activists are being killed and nothing is being done about it. Moreover, the US government is about to give an extra military aid package to the Colombian Army, the very people who are behind the death squads.''