Colombia’s forced eradication of illicit crops

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In an effort to decrease drug trafficking, many countries have resorted to a forced eradication of illicit crops.  There are two main methods in which crop eradication takes place: aerial spraying of toxic chemicals and forced manual eradication. It is assumed that the eradication of the crops will stop and prevent the trade of drugs. In practice however, there’s not proof that it’s had positive consequences. Over more, human rights, traditional uses and the environment have not been given due consideration in crop eradication campaigns.

The only country where aerial fumigation takes place is in Colombia. Colombia, the world’s largest producer of cocaine, has been embroiled in an internal armed conflict and humanitarian emergency since the mid 1960’s.  It is assumed that most of these armed forces raise their revenue from coca plantations. Therefore, the government has hoped to destroy their sources of income by destroying the crops. In the 2000’s the “Plan Colombia”, aid program offered by the US, gave millions of dollars to the Colombian government (back then under president Pastrana) to be spent mainly in the military. The plan funded most of the forced eradication that took place in the following years.

On the one hand, manual eradication involves teams of eradicators accompanied by police or military that pull coca bushes from the ground. Unfortunately, they often don’t work out as well. In Colombia many farmers have reported theft of food, livestock and sexual abuses. On the other hand, the consequences of aerial fumigation have been disastrous, damaging health, food crops and the environment, and causing massive internal displacement in the country.

The people affected by the fumigations are generally local farmers and rural communities that are forced to grow illicit crops because of the military or economic conditions they live in.   Farmers without coca plantations are often left with no alternatives to support themselves, thus susceptible of joining guerilla groups or engage again in coca plantations. And while coca can easily grow back in the fumigated areas, some types of food crops rarely do. Therefore, it seems that for an effective and durable end of illicit crops production, alternative development methods are needed. Farmers must be given the right incentives and be offered the right opportunities to make the transition from illegal to legal crops.

And while aerial fumigation damages farmers and the environment, it is seldom an effective measure to stop coca plantations. Too often, the only thing that happens is that growers move to other cultivation areas and therefore destroy a larger portion of Colombia’s tropical forest, and introduce more chemicals to the environment.

In Colombia, alternative development programs have been hindered by a lack of infrastructure. With the so-called Plan Colombia, the US Congress and Colombian government have spent over half billion on aerial fumigation. This spending could be redirected to provide a safe income or insurance to the farmers who quit the cultivation of illicit crops, and to offer them service and compensation for doing so while offering assistance to create sustainable communities. This would have a better short term and long term effect, as it could simultaneously re-establish the trust between the state and farmers and decrease poverty.

It is well recognized that for alternative development programs to succeed there is a need to be accompanied by investment in infrastructure, and trade justice. But as long as farmers find it easier to sustain their lives cultivating coca leaves than other legal crops, the problem will be hard to eradicate.



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