CANTAGALLO, Colombia — It was eight years ago the last time planes came to spray poison on Noralba Quintero’s coca crop in the jungled foothills here by the mighty Magdalena River.
Until recently, she thought those days were over.
Quintero’s community here, eight hours north of Bogota, was one of thousands that relied on the plant from which cocaine is made to survive through Colombia’s decades-long civil war. With the historic peace accord of 2016, the government was supposed to help the farmers transition to legal agriculture.
But that pledge remains unfulfilled — and coca has proliferated. Now President Iván Duque, pressured by the United States, is pushing hard to resume aerial fumigation with glyphosate, the controversial practice that officials here say is the most effective way of eradicating the illicit crop that helped fund the war.
His administration is challenging a 2015 court ruling that ended 25 years of U.S.-led flights; a decision is expected as early as this month.
“It’s a necessary tool,” Duque told reporters on a recent visit to London. “Especially in parts of the territory that are difficult to access and where many of the eradicators are expelled by anti-personnel mines or snipers.”
Quintero, a local leader of Colombia’s coca growers association, fears a return to the days when the lush landscape turned black, food crops withered, people grew sick, animals died and farmers ran to hide when they heard the rumble of the planes approaching.
“We won’t accept one more fumigation,” she said. “This is nonnegotiable.”
Critics see the drive to resume fumigation before farmers have been switched to other crops as another setback to a faltering peace process. They note that the conditions that have long made Colombia a crucible for violence — rural unemployment, the illegal economy, a lack of trust between the government and the poor — have improved little since the war ended.
“This will radicalize the opposition,” warned Sergio Guzmán, founder of the business consultancy Colombia Risk Analysis in Bogota. “Colombia is a country that’s ripe for insurgencies.”
A spokeswoman for the president’s office noted that coca cultivation leveled off in 2018 after rising for six consecutive years (White House numbers showed it fell from 209,000 hectares to 208,000) and credited Duque’s crackdown.
Since August 2018, she said, Colombia’s manual eradication squads grew from 22 to more than 100, with 66,528 hectares of coca uprooted in that period. The state also seized 332 tons of cocaine and destroyed 5,072 cocaine production labs.
A spokeswoman for the U.S. Embassy said that resuming aerial fumigation “is the sovereign decision of the Government of Colombia.”
“As we have said previously, aerial eradication is a safe and effective way of eliminating coca and the herbicide glyphosate is licensed for commercial purposes in both Colombia and the United States,” the spokeswoman said in a statement. “Colombia’s earlier reduction of coca cultivation, between 2007 and 2012, was due in large part to sustained high levels of forced manual and aerial eradication.”
Duque was elected last year on promises to crack down on the drug trade that has continued into Colombia’s fragile peace. Coca cultivation here grew from 78,000 hectares in 2012 to 208,000 hectares last year, according to the White House.
“More coca, more cocaine,” U.S. Ambassador Kevin Whitaker tweeted in April. “It’s necessary to respond with fumigation, interdiction and finishing off the criminal groups.”
Poor farmers in isolated areas say they have no choice but to sell coca leaf to earn a living. In the small riverside community of Corregimiento la Victoria, Ricardo Rueda’s field lies an hour’s walk uphill. His 10,000 coca plants, which he says he uprooted in 2018, could be ground into three pounds of paste and sold for $800 every two months.
To grow plantains or corn would mean carrying hundreds of pounds to market on his back to sell for a fraction of the price that coca brought — not enough to be worth hiring a mule. For now, he’s relying on subsistence crops — a few plants of yuca, corn, squash, oranges, cilantro and mango to feed his family — and a government cash assistance program to coca farmers that’s due to expire this year.
Rural reforms laid out by Duque’s predecessor, Juan Manuel Santos, were supposed to address the challenge, but weren’t fully implemented. In 2016, the FARC, the country’s largest insurgency, agreed to lay down its arms for promises of rural developmental programs that would finally enable poor farmers to earn their living in a legal economy.
Alfonso Mendez, a 49-year-old former FARC commander, was this region’s local coordinator for the government’s voluntary crop substitution program.
He spent months visiting families here to describe the benefits the state promised if they uprooted their coca plants: help raising cattle, lumber, yuca or plantains; new roads and bridges to get their products to market; new teachers for their children; legal title to rural land they now own only informally.
He implored them to place their faith in a peaceful, growing, drug-free Colombia.
About 2,500 families in Southern Bolivar province uprooted about 2,500 hectares of coca plants, he said. But they’re still waiting for the government to keep its end of the bargain.
“People feel that they were tricked,” Mendez said. “They ended up without coca. Now they don’t have any means to survive. Many people have now replanted.”
Duque, who took office last year, took his request to renew aerial fumigation to Colombia’s constitutional court in March.
The restrictions that the court placed in 2015 — the government had to consult local communities before spraying, and show scientific studies proving that it didn’t affect people’s health adversely — were so stringent that the practice was effectively halted.
Over 25 years, fumigation planes piloted by U.S. military contractors and escorted by Colombian helicopters had sprayed nearly 1.8 million hectares in coca-growing regions with glyphosate, which a California jury this year linked to cancer.
The program, which peaked in 2006, accomplished a drastic reduction in coca cultivation. But in rural regions, it’s remembered as a dark time.
“To return to fumigation is to return 20 years back in progress,” said Javier Aymala, a local spokesperson for the coca farmers association. “It’s a massive rejection of everything we’ve accomplished.”
A small group of farmers sat in the shade of a mango tree and recalled the years of fumigation.
The planes came here three times, they said. Whoever was sprayed would break out in sores and grow skinny and sick for months. The animals and fish vanished. The corn, yuca and plantain died. The water became undrinkable, and strange illnesses lingered for years.
“If they do it again, innocents will die,” Ana Cecilia Sepulveda Moreno said. “Because there will be war again: the campesinos against the government.”