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Plan Colombia

Monsanto produces "Round Up" for spraying on Columbia.

U.S. war on drugs in Colombia is ravaging farmers and land

 Monday, March 26, 2001
 By Constance Garcia-Barrio
 The Philadelphia Inquirer

The United States has pledged $1.3 billion to help Colombia wipe out drugs. Congress approved the funds in 1999 to help halt cocaine production, or so it said. The government claims that its billion-dollar drug war will help keep cocaine off our streets.

But U.S. money must compete with floods of money from another source. "Drug traffickers have flooded the Amazon Territory with money so that farmers will grow coca there," said Carlos Alberto Palacios, a representative of Colombia's Peace Informers' Network. "Coca brings farmers three times what, say, cassava would," said Linda Panetta, director of the School of the Americas Watch/Northeast, an organization that educates the public about human-rights abuses associated with the U.S. military's training of Latin American soldiers. "It's easy money."

Panetta went to Colombia in January to learn firsthand what our tax dollars are doing. What she saw suggests that the drug war is a horrific disaster at best, and at worst, a disaster and a cover-up.

"Colombia's military uses helicopters and airplanes to spray rainforests with glyphosate, a chemical manufactured by Monsanto," Panetta said. "They're supposedly killing coca plants, but they spra indiscriminately. In La Hormiga, a small city in the Amazon Territory, the spraying killed medicinal plants and food crops such as yucca. Yet, the adjacent coca fields flourished. Glyphosate seeps into the soil and water. Fish die in contaminated rivers."

People of the Amazon Territory's Putumayo region lose cows and other farm animals to glyphosate. "We have no birds or butterflies," said Palacios.

Residents, often indigenous people, develop diarrhea, fever and other ailments. Besides dead crops and livestock, paramilitary soldiers, working closely with the military, kidnap, torture and massacre people to force them off the land. "Indigenous peoples leave their sacred ancestral lands," said Palacios, who lives in Putumayo.

"If farmers stay, the paramilitary forces them to grow coca to finance its operations," Panetta added. "The farmers must also pay taxes to the paramilitary. But when the guerillas, who want reforms, find out, they attack the farmers as collaborators."

Similar things are happening on the Pacific coast, another drug-war zone. "We . . . have lived here for 500 years," said Oscar Gamboa Zuniga, a representative of Federation of Municipalities on the Pacific Coast of Colombia. "Now violence drives our people away, mainly to big cities. They face double discrimination there because they are black and because they are poor. Many turn to crime to survive and end up in prison."

For all its attendant upheaval, the war on drugs has had poor results. Palacios rates it as 15 percent effective in killing coca plants. Gamboa Zuniga also sees a wasted effort: "Think about this: years have been spent fighting coca, but its production continues."

Meanwhile, the violent war on drugs has driven 1 million Colombians off their land. That may be the whole point.

"The U.S. has a hidden agenda in the war on drugs," Panetta said. "It is getting and keeping control of Colombia's resources: gold, silver, copper. Colombia may have the largest oil reserve in the Americas. The U.S. wants to control it." Gamboa Zuniga agreed: "The armed participants in this conflict are fighting for control of strategic places for business."

But the so-called "drug war" continues. "Research has yielded new chemicals such as a mutating fungus which would adhere to vegetation better," Panetta said. "Since it wouldn't wash off in the rainforests' downpours, it would wreak ecological havoc. We must urge our legislators to oppose this destruction . . . We don't need mutating fungi. We need anti-drug and drug-treatment programs here [in the United States]. Stop the demand and you stop the supply."

Palacios stressed pressuring legislators.

"We ask the American people to make a radical, frontal opposition to Plan Colombia," he said. "Tell them to find ways to support farmers' growing alternative crops. Also send food and clothes to displaced Colombians but not through the government of Colombia, because we know what will happen in that case. Send help through churches." 

Germantown writer Constance Garcia-Barrio (cgarciabar@wcupa)
teaches at West Chester University.

Copyright 1991 The Akha Heritage Foundation