Postcard from … Colombia

As the U.S. “War on Drugs” rages on in Colombia, more and more of its farms have been turned into swaths of scorched earth. Aerial fumigation — intended to cut off the production of coca (the plant from which cocaine is derived) at the source by wiping out farms — has unfortunately destroyed much more than a simple illicit plant. Colombia, the second most bio-diverse country in the world, has now had more than two million acres of its land blighted by U.S.-funded spray planes. So how does this happen? Eliminating coca farms is not nearly as easy as politicians made it look on the map. Larger than Texas and California combined, Colombia is an enormous land mass and much of it is covered by dense jungle.

The U.S. and Colombian governments claim they use aerial and satellite imaging to identify coca which is then fumigated by GPS-guided crop dusters. Having visited dozens of fumigated farms over the past seven years, I can attest that vaunted accuracy of U.S. spray planes leaves much to be desired. Aerial fumigation in Colombia is nothing like crop dusting in the peacefully, neatly laid-out farmlands of Kansas. The terrain is hilly and often filled with obstacles like palm trees. Meanwhile, guerillas sometimes shoot at the spray planes when they fly too low. The pilots have only seconds to decide when to release the spray while looking down on green coca bushes that blend into the green jungle. Because of these factors, the pilots often spray from higher altitudes than is recommended which then causes crosswinds to spread the chemicals across large, unintended areas. Thus, coca and food crops alike continue to be destroyed.

The woman pictured here is one of countless fumigation victims. She is one of a hundred widows who have collectively scraped up enough money to buy four hectares of land to plant food crops to feed their families. Even with a legal farm which grew no coca, the women’s crops were directly fumigated leaving them and their land completely devastated. What is even worse, however, is that these women, and other wrongfully fumigated farmers, have virtually no viable means of receiving compensation. Complaints are rarely paid any credence by the U.S. Embassy and even when they are, the security situation in rural Colombia makes investigations of fumigated land limited at best. In Putumayo, one of Colombia’s most heavily fumigated provinces, there has been only one single case of compensation for wrongful fumigation. Thus, even as innocent farmers lose everything, the United States claims absurdly high rates of accuracy and success.

Even after so much scorched land and hardship, there is more coca being grown today in Colombia than there was seven years ago when Plan Colombia began. Ironically, fumigation has served as an unintended form of price support for coca. With two thirds of the Colombian population living below the poverty line (about $2/day), policymakers will never make coca disappear by making it more valuable.

In order for U.S. policy to succeed, campesinos (peasant farmers) must turn to licit crops rather than coca cultivation, but the regions in which they live are remote and undeveloped. Yet we are forcing them to grow hundreds of kilos of legal crops that must be transported on vehicles they do not have; over roads that don’t exist; to sell in domestic and international markets to which they don’t have access; and, to compete against cheaper international agribusiness imports against which they don’t stand a chance. Unless there is a serious, long-term commitment to basic economic development, U.S. policy is doomed to fail. Punishing poor campesinos only drives them away from the state and into the arms of illegal armed actors.

Sanho Tree is a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies, where he directs the Drug Policy project.