- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 15, 2002

CANA BRAVA, Colombia Surveying his charred landscape that once contained a promising harvest of "lulo," a pulpy, orangelike tropical fruit, Victoriano Mora admits that he used to grow coca like thousands of other farmers in Putumayo province.
But after the first U.S.-financed aerial sprayings destroyed his coca crops last winter, Mr. Mora said, he, like many other farmers in Putumayo, began eradicating his coca plants and cultivating legal crops such as lulo, plantain and yucca on his 12-acre farm deep in the Colombian Amazon.
But on Aug. 10, five U.S.-provided spray planes came anyway, turning his food crops into a scorched-earth nightmare. "There is nothing of coca," Mr. Mora said of his current farm. "I feel tricked."
Mr. Mora is one of 37,000 farmers who signed voluntary eradication pacts in Putumayo with the Colombian government in exchange for help growing legal crops and marketing them. But in recent interviews with dozens of farmers in that province, the heart of Colombia's coca growing region, they say that their legal crops are being sprayed in the most ambitious U.S.-driven effort to date.
"Here the majority of the people complied with the pact," Mr. Mora said of the voluntary eradication. "There are some that have tiny [coca] crops, but with one plant, they damage the rest of us."
However, the reality of the Putumayo situation is more complex. On a tour of his farm, Mr. Mora pointed to an intact coca plant, which he said had long since been abandoned. But sophisticated U.S. technology, which is able to distinguish coca plants from other crops by detecting the light their leaves reflect, is designed to target all coca to radically reduce the amount of drugs grown in the region by 2004.
Under the auspices of Plan Colombia, the United States has spent $584 million on drug-eradication efforts in southern Colombia. Most U.S. officials concede that the effort has yet to produce the intended results.
American officials blame the failure on the policies of former Colombian President Andres Pastrana, who halted spraying in Putumayo for what they term "political considerations." But with a nod from Colombia's President Alvaro Uribe Velez and an additional half-million dollars from the Bush administration, aerial crop destruction in Putumayo began again at the end of July, and U.S. officials believe that with a sustained effort it will succeed.
"By 2004 you're going to see cultivation has gone down significantly," said one U.S. official involved in the spraying efforts. He indicated that it will take one more year of intense spraying to eliminate most of the coca in Putumayo.
Coca farmers "can sustain their losses once. Some of them can sustain them twice, but none of them can sustain them three times," he said.
Mr. Uribe said, "The goal is to destroy 100 percent of the coca crop. We will not stop. We will spray and spray."
U.S. and Colombian authorities waited exactly a year from the date the last voluntary-eradication pact had been signed in July 2001 before embarking on their latest efforts. In an aggressive operation that will involve 16 U.S. aircraft by the end of the year, the goal is to destroy 300,000 acres of coca in 2002, up 30 percent from last year.
As for farmers like Mr. Mora, the American official said, "Nobody gets an amnesty."
Human rights ombudsman Eduardo Cifuentes is demanding a halt to the U.S. sprayings after 6,533 complaints from farmers.
"With one hand, they give us resources, and with the other they fumigate," he told El Tiempos newspaper, referring to the United States.
Mr. Cifuentes said there have been 318 complaints of spraying legal crops, affecting 6,076 families and 12,500 acres in Puerto Asis, Orito and the Valle del Guamez.
The governor of Putumayo, Ivan Gerardo Guerrero, also wants the aerial spraying stopped and says 5,000 acres have already been manually cleared of coca plants. According to statistics provided by Plan Colombia, more than 100,000 acres have been sprayed this year in middle and southern Putumayo province.
In Puerto Asis, a frontierlike town where the war against drugs is based, Edison Trujillo, the Colombian army's anti-narcotics chief for the region, said the farmers who say they have eradicated their coca crops are lying.
"They are not complying with the pacts," Mr. Trujillo said.
He believes that fumigation with a controversial substance called glysophate the active chemical in the herbicides Roundup and Rodeo which the State Department recently certified did not pose "unreasonable risks" to human health, is winning the war on drugs.
"It is working," Mr. Trujillo said in an interview at his office. "We are not even seizing a gram of coca."
He dismissed complaints by farmers that the spray-plane pilots commit errors, saying that the "strategy" of the farmers is to grow smaller plots of coca within larger fields of legal crops, hoping they are not detected by the spray planes.
Mr. Trujillo estimated that as many as 80 percent of the farmers who agreed to voluntarily stop growing coca were cheating.
Another measure of the U.S. strategy's success, according to Mr. Trujillo, is the city's declining economy. Rubber boots, worn by farmers working their fields, are in short supply, as is liquor in the bars and discotheques. Crime is up, including murders and robberies.
"There is going to come an economic crisis," Mr. Trujillo said. "There is no money because the coca is gone. There is nothing to buy because there is nothing to produce. The land is sick."
Nevertheless, Mr. Trujillo backs widespread aerial spraying of herbicides as a way to get out of the "labyrinth" of narco-trafficking, and free up his anti-narcotics forces to go after the Marxist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, which occupies the countryside, and the anti-Marxist paramilitaries who dominate towns such as Puerto Asis.
"For me, it is a good strategy because the fumigation attacks the problem at the source," he said.
Despite disagreement on whether coca production rose or fell in the past year, there is no question that aerial spraying in Putumayo is having a devastating effect. Interspersed with green hillsides where cattle graze are seared patches of brown landscape with neither coca nor any legal crop.
Farmers in the area say it takes about eight days for green hillsides to turn brown after fumigation. They say that spraying herbicide has effects other than destroying the coca crops. It leaves cattle with little but contaminated grass to graze on and nothing of legal crops that provide food for people.
They say the chemicals used in the spray, glysophate and a surfactant used to help it stick to the coca leaves called Cosmo Flux-411, cause illnesses including skin and eye irritation, respiratory problems and fever.
A recent Environmental Protection Agency report found no conclusive evidence linking sickness in Putumayo to aerial spraying efforts.
In Buenos Aires, on the road from Puerto Asis to Orito, Jesus Eduardo Gomez was tending his yucca crops when the spray planes arrived at 2:30 p.m. Aug. 1.
He said he was sick with fever for a month after the mist enveloped his 110-acre farm which is made up of mostly palmetto trees that would have yielded hearts of palm, a food crop.
"Here we don't have coca. They fumigated food. We don't know what we're going to do," Mr. Gomez said.
Like Mr. Mora, Mr. Gomez said he stopped a decade of coca-growing after the first fumigation, in 2001. But his farm had had five to seven acres in coca, which he said is dead and abandoned, and this may be the reason the spray planes still target him.
No matter what, Mr. Gomez said, he won't return to coca farming.
"If there is a way, we have to move forward," he said. "With this damage, we aren't going to return" to cultivating coca.
Mr. Gomez doesn't blame the government as much as he does his neighbors, who he said have not pulled up their coca to plant legal crops.
He said the spray from the fumigation planes then drifts down to his farm, leaving his 25 cattle to graze on dry grass and destroying his papaya, yucca and palmetto.
In Orito, the offices of Fundacion Huairasachac, a nongovernmental organization that is helping farmers manually eradicate coca, was filled recently with angry farmers complaining that their legal crops had been destroyed in the latest round of aerial spraying.
Manuel Meneces, the president of a farmers association in Las Americas that has promised to do away with coca, said his land has been fumigated three times, twice in 2001 and once this year.
He said he quit growing coca two years ago and now harvests only corn and plantain.
"The animals have died from the poison," he said. "The government of the United States has to put its hand over its heart. They are fumigating us like rats."
Like many other farmers, Mr. Meneces can think of no other reason the government has fumigated his land than to force him to leave it. "If the government of the United States doesn't help us find work in another way, the coca won't go away. The people have to survive."
Unlike most people, who are skeptical of whether they will ever be compensated, Mr. Mora, the lulo farmer, has filed a formal complaint with the Colombian government about the damage to his crops.
But the complaint was filed Aug. 20, and nobody has arrived to determine its veracity, citing the dangers from armed groups in the area.
Looking down at a mud road that is soon to be paved with the same American dollars that sprayed herbicide on his land, Mr. Mora said with irony that the road is the "reward that they are giving us for the fumigations."
But like other farmers, Mr. Mora said he doesn't plan to go back to his old way of life, even though his new one is in jeopardy.
"If you grow coca three times, three times it will be fumigated," he said.


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