End to fumigation of Colombia coca crops is a victory for guerrilla army

Colombia rolled back two decades of drug-war policy this past week when it suspended aerial fumigation of coca crops – from which cocaine is made – out of concern that the Monsanto weed killer used in the eradication effort may cause cancer.

The government said it will form a commission to realign its anti-drug efforts, but there’s already a clear winner: the peace process with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as FARC.

Government and guerrilla representatives have been meeting for more than two years in Cuba to negotiate an end to their half-century conflict. Among the issues they’ve already resolved is how the guerrillas – who make much of their income off the drug trade – can be part of the solution.

The tentative plan formulated in Havana would require coca-growing communities to voluntarily eradicate crops in exchange for food and agricultural aid. Under the scheme, the demobilized FARC would act as enforcers.

The entire plan is predicated on ending aerial fumigation – one of the FARC’s longtime demands.

In many ways, that approach – pairing the drug fight with concrete development aid -reflects some of the “best thinking” in drug policy, said Adam Isacson of the Washington Office on Latin America.

For it to be successful, however, the government would have to be present in remote drug-growing regions that it has long neglected.

“We think President (Juan Manuel) Santos is making the right moves,” Isacson said. “But if Colombia does not seize this opportunity to get a state presence into those areas, we will see more coca in the next years..And I fear that will get blamed on the fumigation (suspension).”

Aerial fumigation was an imperfect solution to an intractable problem. As the FARC, the smaller National Liberation Army (ELN) and criminal gangs made large much of the country no-go zones for the military, fumigation flyovers were one of the few options to combat the booming drug trade. (Peru and Bolivia, the other two coca producers, never allowed aerial fumigation.)

Colombia’s National Drug Council – it includes representatives from the health, justice, defense and foreign ministries – voted 7-1 Thursday night to suspend the flights.

The vote was no surprise. Santos had asked for the suspension after the anti-cancer arm of the World Health Organization found that the chemical glyphosate is “probably carcinogenic to humans.”

The eradication flights are expected to be phased out slowly through October, but Thursday’s vote means that the long-standing policy – which has sprayed more than 6,700 square miles and cost more than $1 billion by some accounts – is coming to an end.

Farmers and civil society groups have long complained that the spraying was killing legitimate crops and causing skin rashes, respiratory problems, miscarriages and livestock deaths.

The U.S. government maintains that the widely used herbicide, which is marketed under the brand name Roundup, is perfectly safe.

Even so, the U.S said it will stand by Colombia’s decision.

The question remains, however, how effective the spraying was.

Earlier this month, seemingly in response to that debate, the U.S. Office on National Drug Control Policy reported that Colombian coca production had increased 39 percent from 2013 to 2014.

“Several factors likely influenced this,” the report said, “including increased cultivation in areas off limits to aerial eradication.”

And Colombia’s Inspector General Alejandro Ordonez – the only vote in favor of continuing the program – said he was worried that “society would be swimming in coca in coming years” if the fumigation was stopped.

He also accused the commission and Santos of caving in to FARC demands.

“More coca means more money for the FARC, the ELN and criminal gangs,” he said in a statement Friday. “And more money means more capacity to kill soldiers and police, and attack the civilian population and commit acts of terrorism.”

The fumigation data shows mixed results at best. From 2004-2007, when aerial eradication was at its most intense, coca crops in Colombia were expanding. They began to retreat only when the government boosted its manual eradication efforts and pushed development aid into long-neglected communities, WOLA said in a recent report.

Vicente Revelo, the director of the Association for the Development of Farmers, welcomed the decision, as he described the drug problem as simply a matter of economics.

In the Catatumbo region of northeastern Colombia, along the border of Venezuela, where officials have seen a spike in coca crops, traditional farmers can’t make a living, he said.

Getting a cacao or coffee harvest to market along rutted dirt roads is expensive at best and impossible in the rainy season when they’re often washed out, he said. And there’s little state aid to farmers.

Trafficking rings, however, will go directly to the farmers to buy coca paste, he explained.

“They don’t become millionaires,” he said of the growers. “But at least they can make a living.”

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