Colombian Farmers Get Broad Incentives to Forgo Coca Crops

A worker shows an uprooted coca shrub to a Colombian army officer. The government finds that incentives are more effective than eradication.
A worker shows an uprooted coca shrub to a Colombian army officer. The government finds that incentives are more effective than eradication. (By Luis Benavides -- Associated Press)
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By Juan Forero
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, May 22, 2009

VISTA HERMOSA, Colombia -- Colombia, with $8 billion in U.S. backing since the late 1990s, has tried everything to eradicate the crop used to make cocaine.

Planes have sprayed the country with coca-killing herbicides, and authorities have deployed soldiers and paid laborers to yank the stringy green bushes out of the ground. Record amounts of coca have been eliminated -- only to sprout up anew as coca farmers move on and plant again.

Now, Colombia's government may have found a remedy palatable to a Democratic-led U.S. Congress not only interested in emphasizing social development over military aid for this country but also looking for solutions to consider in Afghanistan, where the Taliban is entrenched and drug crops are flourishing.

The plan underway here is an ambitious state-building effort designed to incorporate a once-forgotten region into the legitimate economy by bringing in police and courts, paving roads, improving schools and offering farm aid. The idea is to provide broad incentives for farmers in this town in the southern state of Meta to stay put and grow legal crops.

Colombian authorities are working to duplicate the plan in five other drug-infested regions, and U.S. officials say it could work in other conflict zones far from Colombia.

The results here are promising: From 2007 to 2008, coca production fell 75 percent in a quadrant of the southern state of Meta that is bigger than Rhode Island, Colombian authorities say. With most hamlets around Vista Hermosa pledging to cooperate in exchange for help, eradication efforts have accelerated this year and the amount of coca here is now negligible. Meanwhile, the amount of land dedicated to the three leading legal crops grew sixfold from last year.

"I see a big change in the last couple of years, 100 percent favorable to us," said Luis Arturo Giraldo, a farmer who used to grow coca, like most farmers here. "The region where I have my farm is much better, much calmer. There is no conflict there."

Officials measure success not in how much coca has been destroyed but in rising land value and confidence -- unheard of even two years ago when this area ranked among the country's top coca-producing regions. Several farmers said in interviews that Marxist guerrillas forced peasants to grow coca, which is then manufactured into cocaine and shipped to the United States. Right-wing paramilitary squads then swept in to fight for control of the crop.

Today, 2,385 farm families are receiving emergency food aid and technical help from agronomists as they start to grow rice, sugar cane and other crops, officials say. Those who have worked on the program, including foreign diplomats familiar with Colombia's complex and seemingly intractable conflict, said they have never seen hope restored so quickly.

"There's much more trust in the future," said Marion Kappeyne van de Coppello, ambassador from the Netherlands, which has spent $2 million to assist farmers in the crucial six-month transition period after they give up coca farming. "For me, it was a startling change in attitude."

Under the Integrated Consolidation Plan for the Macarena, named after a national park west of here, the military first drove out guerrillas and other armed groups. In quick sequence, engineers and work crews, technicians, prosecutors, social workers and policy types arrived, working in concert to transform a lawless backwater into something resembling a functioning part of Colombia. All of it is coordinated from a compound, called the fusion center, on the edge of Vista Hermosa.

A stream of foreign visitors, many of them policymakers who work on drug and conflict-resolution issues, arrived to study the outcome.

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