Thursday, May 03, 2007


Since it doesn´t look like I´m going to get this published anywhere, I´m posting it here. Kind readers with connections to legitimate publishing opportunities welcome.


Since 2000, the US led “Plan Colombia” policy has utterly failed to reduce coca production in Colombia or increase the price of cocaine on the streets of America’s cities. To the contrary, cocaine prices are cheaper now than they were prior to the initiation of Plan Colombia and all indications are that coca production is up in Colombia as well.

The current U.S.-led strategy to eradicate Colombian cocaine production has two major components: eradicating coca plantations via aerial fumigation and promoting crop substitution schemes as incentives for rural farmers to end coca production. Both will continue to fail unless Washington changes this strategy considerably. As Congress considers the so-called “Plan Colombia II”, they should take note of several facts.

First, aerial fumigation has driven coca production into jungles and other hard-to-find areas throughout Colombia as well as across international borders - factors which greatly reduce the relevance and success rate of this strategy. Continued spraying would only further negatively impact legitimate plantations by poisoning groundwater and contributing to soil depletion, variables which have a greater negative impact on legitimate crops and thus, are likely to complicate future efforts to build legitimate farming opportunities.

Second, herbicide is often sprayed over legitimate plantations. This is especially troublesome as herbicides can’t discriminate between licit and illicit crops. Due to the threat of attack from the ground, planes have to release chemicals at high altitudes, making targeted plantation spraying impossible. This problem is worsening as locating large scale coca plantations like those that existed in Putamayo department in 2000 is difficult to impossible. Since this practice began in 2000, over 8,000 Colombian farmers have lost legitimate crops to overzealous fumigation, a trend likely to accelerate if crop spraying continues. The result is that legal and legitimate farmers have lost their livelihoods, increasing the likelihood that they shift to illicit crop production.

It can be concluded that while aerial fumigation can increase the difficulty of coca production, it can’t stop it.

On the other hand, crop substitution strategies, while having great potential; also suffer from a lack of vision. While these programs are staffed with legions of capable civil servants, due to safety concerns, USAID ignores large parts of the southern, most vulnerable region of the country. Moreover, it’s clear that these programs alone will not be sufficient to halt coca production as the financial returns from coca far outweigh that of yucca, potato, and corn.

Additionally, USAID has had difficulty persuading farmers to switch from illicit, yet stable income sources to licit crops which endure frequent price fluctuations. Even farmers that express the desire to grow licit crops are reluctant to give up small plots of coca as a means to stabilize their income sources.

The lack of infrastructure in rural, coca growing regions further complicates these assistance efforts. Poor roads and long, sometimes dangerous trips to markets mean that farmers have difficulty converting legitimate crops into economic gains. The absence of a comprehensive rural development strategy often means that farmers have little choice but to opt for an illicit crop that ensures a guaranteed return on investment.

There is still time to fix Plan Colombia II. The US Congress should act now to reorient the program away from the environmentally hazardous and totally failed strategy of aerial fumigation. After six years it is clear that eradication will never be sufficient to alter the very real conditions on the ground. Nor will clever crop substitution schemes be sustainable in the long run absent improved security and governmental presence in rural areas. It’s time to acknowledge that this is a question of nation building and not of simple illicit crop eradication or counterinsurgency.

Reorienting assistance in a comprehensive development strategy to strengthen rural governments and improve public services in under-developed areas is the next step. This move should include a plan that enables farmers to maintain long-term profitability. Linking legitimate crops to export markets and secondary productive chains, for example, would be a good measure. Fortunately, USAID already has the blueprint for this shift in priorities; it just requires a little Congressional will power to refocus foreign assistance toward poverty alleviation.

Equally, success will depend on Colombia stepping up to do its part. President Uribe should rethink the “Plan Patriota” strategy launched in 2004 and realize that military offensives into guerilla strongholds are less relevant than bringing security to rural communities. Traditional military offensives against insurgents, as seen in Iraq, ignore a fundamental reality of armed insurgency – insurgents don’t need to hold land like traditional, state-based military forces. History has shown that traditional war strategies against insurgency don’t achieve long-lasting results. A recent UN report backs up this prediction stating, among other things, that the FARC is reorganizing and the “lull” in violence was due to a reevaluation of strategy, rather than the effectiveness of the Plan Patriota strategy.

Unless and until the Colombian government is able to establish a strong and responsive police and civilian presence in long forgotten areas, rural farmers will continue to face a Hobbesian Choice: either grow coca at the behest of guerilla, paramilitary, or criminal forces or else. A strong governmental presence in rural areas, combined with the help of carefully crafted US assistance could make a real difference.

The left leaning activist will cringe at this characterization as it ultimately places faith in a Colombian government and police force that has a legacy of corruption evidenced by the ongoing investigation into government linkages with paramilitary groups. The right leaning realist will also cringe as the idea of providing material support to a government fighting a leftist insurgency draws up images of Vietnam-style, or more seasonably, Iraq-style entanglement.

Neither of these views, however, acknowledge the enduring reality that the traditional war on drugs is equally oblivious to – namely that the work required to combat insurgency and drug trafficking in Colombia is fundamentally a problem of poverty and a failure of government to respond to the challenges of rural under-development. What is required is a sustained and aggressive strategy designed to boost the presence and responsiveness of rural governments. Police and military forces need to protect rural areas, not just big cities. And rural development plans that make sense, including infrastructure improvements, crop substitution, and integrated development strategies, need to be implemented.

Half measures like those seen under Plan Colombia and USAID development programs provide politicians and taxpayers some emotional assurance that the entrusted authorities are doing their best to eliminate the problem. But, the appropriated funds are ultimately wasteful if they don’t address the root of the problem or attempt to confront the central challenges at hand. Shifting away from the failing military strategy to tackling the problem of poverty will create long term, sustainable results not just for the lives of Colombia’s poor, but also for US national interests.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

So, how can things change? What will get Congress moving? And is there any hope that the Colombian government will take action?

4:14 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

dude if you're so against aerial fumigation why don't you grab a machete, don't worry!.. i'm pretty sure you'll be accepted to Juane's Fundacion Mi Sangre!

Oh yeah, I hope the government does not stop doing it because they will not risk any more lives. You've lived in Colombia for a while, i'm sure you know what "minas antipersonales" are!

Que Viva el GLISOFATO!

Oh, but who cares about the opinion of a judgemental prick like you! i'm soo glad you're not a Colombian citizen!

I love how people criticize Uribe, its even funnier when it's an untouched foreginer criticizing the Colombian government, haha what a joke!, clearly "those" people never lived in Colombia circa late 80's-2002! Someone who has been in power for the past 5 years and still maintain 73% of acceptance is clearly doing an amazingly great job!

finally, dude.. i've said it before, if you're so bothered and concerned, go bacl to the perfect first world!

8:49 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Give the man a break, he is concerned and bothered and thats why he spent his valuable time assessing the situation and analyzing it in a coherent essay. His points are argued eloquently and are well thought out. Which is much more I can say for your comments.

5:19 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh belive me! i know what i'm saying! I lived in that "shithole" during the 90s and it was hell! Since 2002, everything is different and that's why i'm defending the Colombian Government! only people who experienced the pre-uribe era know what i'm talking about, but this prick has no idea and no right to judge what the government is doing. Oh wait! i learned something a while ago in politcal science, he's an inhabitant, not a friggin citizen! apparently he just likes to write shit and complain all the time.

Yeah dumbass, Colombia is a fuckin shithole, dangerous and dirty! Everybody has known that for the past 60 years!

Socialism is next door ;) like 45 min by plane!

2:16 PM  

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