Weaning the yanks off the drug war

U.S. prefers military offensive to peaceful alternative crop strategies

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Vietnam had Agent Orange. Colombia may soon be getting fusarium oxysporum, a fungus the Yanks are considering unleashing on the coca and opium fields of Colombia in the name of their ever-growing and obsessive war on drugs.

As plant-killers go, fusarium’s toxic, root-eating properties have potentially devastating environmental and health side effects.

A proposal to use a strain of the fungus on illegal pot operations in Florida was overruled after the head of that state’s environmental protection branch warned that the fungus is difficult to control and can cause disease in a large number of legal crops.

But when it comes to the U.S. war on drugs in Colombia, it seems anything goes.

Yet all the spraying the Yanks have done thus far hasn’t slowed drug production any. Colombia currently accounts for 80 per cent of the world’s cocaine and 70 per cent of all the heroin sold in the eastern U.S.

Because the U.S. agencies driving the counter-narcotics agenda abroad are dominated by the military, the idea of putting money into education, health, housing, electricity and agro-industry as a way of moving Colombian peasants away from coca and opium farming is getting short shrift.

Such alternative development is working well, but slowly, in Bolivia and Peru.

Time, however, is what the Americans won’t allow. Under Plan Colombia, the $1.6 billion aid package winding its way through Congress, the Yanks are mandating that all coca and opium crops be eradicated by 2005.

So while $270 million has been tabbed for development programs, millions of dollars more have been earmarked for military training and equipment.

Complicating the issue is the fact that the FARC guerrillas waging war against the government depend on the drug trade to fuel their military machine.

Winifred Tate, a spokesperson for the Washington Center on Latin America, says the U.S. is obsessed.

“The logic behind these efforts tends to be one of repression,” says Tate, “not ‘How do we meet the needs of rural communities?'”

If history is any clue, this approach will do more to exacerbate the volatile political and social situation than to stem the drug flow.

As Aldo Lale-Demoz, the United Nations’ chief of programs in Latin America, tells NOW over the phone from Vienna: “The attitude has been that the only thing we can do in Colombia is spray our way out of the problem. That has been shown not to be very productive in the long term.”

The cultivation of coca, opium and marijuana for medicinal and traditional uses among indigenous populations is actually legal in Colombia on plots of up to three hectares.

The law, however, is often applied arbitrarily, and the police do not distinguish between peasants’ plots and those run by drug traffickers.

The problem confronting peasants who have lost their crops to spraying is how to survive. Often, they turn to picking coca at plantations run by traffickers.

The coca and poppy frontier expands. This dynamic also creates sympathy for the FARC and deep animosity against a government the peasants view as hostile.

The massive eradication campaign envisioned by Plan Colombia raises the spectre of massive social unrest as well as the potential for thousands of peasant refugees.

Lale-Demoz says development programs like the kind the UN has sponsored in such drug trouble spots as Bolivia and Peru would go further to stem drug production.

Transition zones

“It’s always been our policy to diversify economies,” he says.

In Bolivia, “legal space” legislation that divides the country into traditional zones (where coca can be grown in defined amounts), transition zones (where peasants are given financial incentives to change to food crops) and illicit zones (where coca is illegal) has cut dependency on drug crop production.

Colombian president Andres Pastrana has launched an alternative development pilot project in the FARC-held demilitarized zone.

It focuses on strengthening local farmers’ organizations. But lack of infrastructure is a major impediment. There are only trails where roads are needed to get crops to market.

In some areas, extensive pesticide and fertilizer applications have rendered the soil nearly unusable, so any long-term development program would require the relocation of large numbers of peasants, a very tricky proposition that brings up the issue of land reform.

James Jones, a former Colombia adviser for the United Nations, says the U.S. government tried to get Colombia to seize land owned by narco-traffickers and turn it over to peasants as part of a land reform proposal. But nothing ever came of it.

“It’s a dire situation,” Jones says. “An enormous number of peasants basically don’t have any way of making a living.”

Time, meanwhile, is not on Pastrana’s side. The U.S. State Department is intent on pushing its fungal fusarium solution.

“The highest priority,” the department calls the effort in an unclassified May 99 “action request.”

The State Department has set aside $400,000 for a research station to conduct field trials in Colombia, where use of the fungus is also being made a condition of U.S. military aid.

One State Department official, who asked not to be named when reached by NOW, tries to downplay the U.S.’s fusarium push but acknowledges that at some point testing will have to be moved out of the laboratory and into the field.

“We’re willing to let the science determine whether it’s something we should favour,” he says.

Closer to the ground, in Bogotá, UN Drug Control Program representative Klaus Nyholm says that despite ecological concerns, fusarium is still very much an option.

Is the State Department using the cash-strapped UN as a cover to wage its biological war?

“You’ll have to ask the State Department about that,” says Nyholm. “If we do get into this, it would be in a very controlled way. We don’t want nasty surprises.”


U.S. prefers military offensive to peaceful alternative crop strategies

Weaning the yanks off the drug war

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