Aerial Spraying and Alternative Development in Plan Colombia

Two sides of the same con or two contested policies?

by | May 15, 2005

A boy on fumigated farm. Photo by Sanho Tree.

After one year of negotiations with the U.S. Government, President Pastrana presented Plan Colombia in 1999 as A Plan for Peace, Prosperity, and the Strengthening of the State “…to ensure order, stability, and compliance with the law; to guarantee effective sovereignty over the national territory; to protect the state and the civilian population from the threats of illegal armed groups and criminal organizations; and to break the existing ties between these groups and the drug industry that supports them.” (Contraloría General de la República, Bogotá, Colombia, August 2001).

By 1999, Colombia was already the third largest recipient of U.S. military assistance in the world and, for the first time, the United States had provided a small amount of alternative development assistance. Plan Colombia’s six-year budget was set at US$7.5 billion. Colombia would provide $4 billion and the international community, including the United States would provide US$3.5 billion. During the Clinton administration, the U.S. Congress approved a special supplemental appropriation of US$1.3 billion. Known collectively as “Plan Colombia,” the bill included $860 million for Colombia, $180 million for several of Colombia’s neighbors, and $260 million for the counter-drug efforts of several U.S. agencies.

Of Colombia’s share, 74% went to the armed forces and the police. The centerpiece of Plan Colombia, which administration documents called the “push into southern Colombia,” was the addition of two counter-narcotics battalions to the one created in 1998-1999, to form a new Counter-Narcotics Brigade within the Colombian Army. Equipped with 45 helicopters, advanced communications and intelligence-gathering equipment, and light infantry training, arms, and ammunition, the 2,300-strong brigade would ease the way for the massive fumigation of coca crops in Putumayo in southern Colombia. The remaining 26 percent of Plan Colombia was allocated to alternative development, assistance to displaced population and strengthening the rule of law and democracy. These socio-economic programs executed by USAID are also intended to ameliorate the consequences of militarily conceived and executed anti-drug policies.

Since 2000, the security focus of the aid package has been maintained; in any given year, between 68 and 75% of the aid has gone to the military and police. The U.S. budget for the 2006 fiscal year presented to Congress by President George W. Bush February 7, 2005, proposes to keep military counter-drug aid to Colombia almost unchanged, despite calls by some members of Congress to spend more on social programs. Social investment projects have taken a back seat, since the strengthening of state institutions and the counterinsurgency struggle have been seen as prerequisites for their success. Plan Colombia economic and social aid has been provided through the International Narcotics Control budget at the State Department, underscoring the aid’s link to drug control objectives, which poses a significant paradox.

But while the composition of the aid has not changed, the counterinsurgency and/or counterterrorist objectives have become more and more explicit both in U.S. and Colombian policy. After 9/11, Colombia’s guerrillas became “narco-terrorists,” and the over- emphasis on a military response was reinforced with the authorization given by Congress and signed by President Bush in August 2002 (supplemental appropriations bill) to use counterdrug assets for counterterrorist purposes, reversing the Clinton executive order banning the sharing of non-drug intelligence.

Furthermore, President Álvaro Uribe Vélez (2002-2006) has wholeheartedly embraced the discourse of counterterrorism, implementing the aid package he inherited with a counterinsurgency logic. As the antiterrorist struggle took priority, coca came to be viewed solely as a source of financing for terrorism. Small growers’ social and economic problems were given no further consideration. As a result, the Uribe government intensified fumigations, allowed the use of higher concentrations of the active herbicidal agent glyphosate and declared fumigation non-negotiable. Indeed, the fundamental U.S. drug control goal under Plan Colombia is to eradicate coca and opium poppy crops through police-led fumigation operations or aerial spraying of chemical herbicides. These efforts have been highly controversial because of the possible negative impacts of fumigation on the environment and on the health and welfare of the populations in areas that are sprayed. Despite these concerns— unlike in Perú and Bolivia where aerial spraying is prohibited—fumigation efforts in Colombia dramatically increased during the late 1990s. During 1994,13,240.8 acres of coca were sprayed, increasing in 1999 to 113,400 acres. Under Plan Colombia the figure tripled to a record of 358,605.9 acres in 2003.

Aerial eradication has punished those who make up the weakest link in the drug production chain: the small coca growers. In June 2004, the United Nations Office on Drug and Crime-UNODC estimated that “93% of all coca fields [in Colombia] were small than 3 ha (8.1 acres), accounting for approximately 69% of the total cultivation.” Additionally, the highest concentrations of coca crops are found in the poorest departments. Since the beginning of fumigation, the government’s attitude toward small cultivators has been ambiguous. In the first place, Law 30 of 1986 specified that the cultivation of marijuana, coca, and opium poppies in excess of 20 plants was a crime. Law 599 of 2000, which revised Colombia’s penal code, reaffirmed that growing these crops is illegal and increased the penalties for violations. This law makes criminals out of small peasants growing coca and poppies, placing them in the same legal category as large-scale traffickers, without considering the structural economic, social and political aspects that cause peasants to resort to illicit crops. In the second place, policy initiatives throughout the 1990s differentiated between “industrial” or “commercial” production (areas as large as 300 hectares. (810 acres) or more, directly controlled by drug traffickers) and “small coca growers” or coca cultivators” (peasant and indigenous farmers cultivating coca on parcels of land between two and five hectares (5.4 and 13.5 acres). Thus, small coca growers were eligible for alternative development plans to substitute illicit crops.

Under the War on Drugs guidelines, alternative development programs are implemented only as compensation after fumigation and forced eradication. As such, they do not occupy a central place, either financially or politically, as a strategy to combat coca cultivation through the promotion of a comprehensive rural development plan. Consequently, a report from the United States´ Accounting Office on USAID’S alternative development activities in the Andean Region states that “alternative development interdiction and eradication efforts must be carefully coordinated to achieve mutually reinforcing benefits.” (US General Accounting Office Report on Drug Control, February 2002:2).

Along these lines, the place of alternative development in the Colombian Government anti-drug strategy is also ambiguous: on the one hand it is part of the reduction of supply component, along with spraying, interdiction and strengthening of the military. On the other hand it is a component on its own that seeks to promote social development and the economic restructuring of an illicit economy into a licit one, aim that goes beyond just reducing the supply of drug to the United States.

Decisions that determine the campesinos crop substitution practices are made in accordance with global anti-drug strategies. An undemocratic and authoritarian framework is closing off the spaces for political participation only recently opened by the campesinos cocaleros or small coca growers. In its third report on Plan Colombia, the Contraloría General de la Republica, which is Colombia’s equivalent to the Government Accountability Office (the former General Accounting Office), stated that citizen participation and transparency were lacking in the control and oversight of Plan Colombia resources being channeled to alternative development in peasant communities. Although peasant participation in adopting development projects is important for the political empowerment of communities, peasants also stated that they had not participated in choosing projects and characterized the process of project selection as weak. As a result, much of the development aid does not even directly reach the affected communities. (Contraloría General de la República, Julio de 2002: 47).

Fumigation efforts, which indiscriminately impact large-scale and small coca growers alike, increase local suspicion of the national government in areas where state presence has been historically weak. The lack of confidence in the government’s promises also undermines the effectiveness of aerial eradication because farmers are reluctant to give up coca with no guarantees that something else will fill the economic void. The delegitimation of the State role is even more grave given the activities of non-state armed actors in the region and the degree to which they actually control territory. In effect, armed conflict legitimizes fumigation, which in turn erodes state credibility, first because alternative development projects have been destroyed by spraying and second because fumigation programs have generated forced displacement of families. However, Colombian law provides for aid to displaced persons only as a result of armed conflict. The “criminal” status of fumigation victims makes them ineligible for these programs.

In addition, the Colombian government has reduced investment in alternative development and diverted funding from areas with illegal crops to areas that enjoy the most advantageous agro-ecological conditions and the least difficult access to agricultural support services due to the agro-industrial nature of the programs promoted. At the same time, USAID has increased international cooperation funds to sustain the alternative development projects located in marginal conflictive zones where illegal crops are grown. However, these programs cover only a subset of the small coca growers whose crops are targeted for fumigation because the ultimate aim of these alternative programs is still to reduce the number of acres planted in coca, complying with the measurement of success established by the U.S. State Department. Accordingly, the presence of drug crops in a municipality is an obstacle to benefiting not only from alternative development programs but from USAID’s municipal governance programs, at the same time that it provides the rationale for extending the military’s presence.

USAID reported that 61,368 acres of illicit crops had been manually eradicated by September 30, 2004. This achievement has not been accorded its rightful importance in any evaluation of the efficiency of the aerial fumigation policy. Manual and gradual eradication has been a principal campesino demand since fumigations started. Thus, the political commitment to fumigation on the part of both governments has made failure impossible to consider. It has also precluded serious consideration of very different but more promising options such as a concerted effort at comprehensive rural development. On the other hand, as the Alternative Development Plan is seen as one of the social components in a larger effort to control the drug supply chain, its role in the Rural Development Program is limited to conjunctural activities that complement interdiction.

In order to evaluate the outcomes of this fumigation policy, it is worth to take into account the following recommendation of the Council on Foreign Relations Center for Preventive Action, in the report “Andes 2020: A New Strategy for the Challenges of Colombia and the Region:” “the sustainable success of aerial crop eradication efforts is undermined by structural problems of inequality, poverty, and politically disenfranchised rural populations in the Andes. Simply put, eradication will never be completely successful so long as there are poor people on the ground whose only viable option to support themselves and their families is to grow coca or poppy…Improving the legitimate economic opportunities of the rural poor will be a critical step toward redressing the structural problems that inhibit the efficacy of the current supply-side counternarcotics program” (Andes 2020 2004:20).

After six years of implementing Plan Colombia under a military and forced eradication policy, a question has to be posed: Is it time to consider returning to the original version of Plan Colombia as a policy of investment for social development, the reduction of violence and the construction of peace? In other words, it is imperative to tackle the structural causes that cause peasants to resort to illicit crops.

Spring/Summer 2005, Volume IV, Number 2

María Clemencia Ramírez is a Senior Researcher at the Colombian Institute of Anthropology and History in Bogotá, Colombia and the Santo Domingo Visiting Scholar 2004-2005 at the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies at Harvard University. The Spanish version of her Harvard doctoral dissertation Between the Guerrillas and the State: The Cocalero Movement, Citizenship and Identity in the Colombian Amazon has been published in Colombia.

Related Articles

DRCLAS and IDB Launch Book Series

DRCLAS and IDB Launch Book Series

The Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) and DRCLAS have signed an agreement to create the “Latin American Development Series,” a peer-reviewed English-language books series on…

New Executive Director

New Executive Director

Biorn Maybury-Lewis made his first trip to Latin America when he was only an infant. Brazilian Air Force pilots left him and his anthropologist parents in the middle of the central highlands of…

Print Friendly, PDF & Email