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Articles - Supply reduction
Written by Leonel Narváez Gómez   
Monday, 15 April 1996 00:00


april 1996

The Impact of the Drugs Trade and Drugs Control in the Caquetá Region, Colombia
by Leonel Narváez Gómez

Coca Paradise: The Case of Remolinos del Caguán Introduction

You might have heard the story of the thieves who broke into a supermarket and did not steal anything but altered the price stickers on all the articles in such a way that the cost of a motorcycle was only 75 cents, while the price of the biscuit box was US$2,000. From the social point of view, this total overturning of values is what has happened to most of the Colombian Amazon region since the introduction of coca cultivation and cocaine processing.

This case study refers to one of the many huge coca-growing areas of the Vicariato of San Vicente-Puerto Leguzamo. The place is called Remolinos del Caguán. It is a good example of what is happening in the whole area of Caquet and Putumayo. I hope my presentation will lead to discussion around the following questions:

• Why do campesinos grow and process coca? • What are the causes and the impact?

• What is the church doing?

• Is it really possible to implement other agricultural alternatives and eliminate coca production in the Amazon region?

• What is the government doing?

• Are crop fumigation and military repression the solution?

• Are human rights and the environment respected in this process?

• What should be done to eradicate coca with a respect for justice and an eye to sustainable development?

I begin with a bit of history and the geography of the region. Then I go on to the cultivation of coca in the area, government action and the action of the Catholic church. Finally, I will make some proposals.

History and Geography

The Colombian Amazon has always been an area of indirect foreign colonization, that is, the extraction of products for foreign markets through the exploitation of the local people. The products included quinine, rubber, skins, timber and in the last 20 years coca, perhaps the most important example. The demand for cocaine and its price depend entirely on foreign markets.

The way rubber was exploited at the beginning of the century deserves a brief commentary, both because it touches the feelings of an English audience and because its mode of extraction, with a few changes and other actors involved, still continues.

In 1908 some English businessmen managed to make agreements with a famous Peruvian rubber company called the Amazon Company or Arana House. The company duly became registered in London, despite repeated accusations of cruelty to the indigenous population and slavery in the rubber areas bordering Peru and Colombia (now cultivated with coca). It is calculated that more than 100,000 indigenous and colonising people died during that period.

In 1909, referring to the case, the London journal Truth published an article called The devil's paradise: another Congo with British owners' and the Anti-Slavery Society of London took on the job of spreading the news. The situation became such that a London judge ordered the liquidation of the Arana Company. But the damage had already been done to the Colombian people.

What happened to rubber then is happening to coca now. The actors are different but the continual extraction of products to satisfy the demands of foreign markets is still causing an unbearable level of violence and many deaths. It is indeed the devil's paradise' a coca paradise.

Today, in the Vicariate of San Vicente-Puerto Leguzamo there is a population of more than 200,000 colonos or peasant colonisers, and a few indigenous groups widely spread over an area of 98,000 km 2, on .the borders with Peru and Ecuador. Most of the colonos are poor people who were expelled by violence from the main cities of Colombia and are now in search of a bit of land and a better future. The area registers an increasing population growth. Every year over 150,000 hectares (ha) of forest are slashed and burned: 66 per cent of this in the municipality centring on town of San Vicente, which is the centre of the operations of the Vicariate. It is located at the foot of the Cordillera Oriental, or the Eastern Range of the Andes, which feeds the important Amazonian river system. In summer the small airplanes cannot land because of the dense smoke layers produced by the burning of the forest. The government is practically absent from the area, whereas the guerrilla groups are present everywhere. There has been no control of the hectic colonisation process and everybody is left to his or her own fate. The environmental and social cost is incalculable.

Remolinos del Caguán

Remolinos was founded only 25 years ago by colonos who came to the area in desperate search of land. It remains a small village and the focal point for a total of no more than 10,000 inhabitants who live in the settlement itself or the surrounding 20,000 km2 of forest. There are no indigenous people in that area: they have been pushed deep into the forest. Eighty-five per cent of the population is engaged in coca cultivation.

Access to the area is by river only, a journey of eight hours from San Vicente. There is no road and therefore no cars. Drugs traffickers' powerful speed boats provide the normal but costly transport. Hidden forest airstrips and night planes provide extra services for very special people.

In Remolinos nothing happens on weekdays. But on Saturday and Sunday life seems to explode. Even if there, is no public electricity, music tesounds loudly everywhere. The coca buyers, smartly dressed and sporting gold chains, arrive in the village, set up small tables in the middle of the main street, put one sisal bag with millions in local currency on the right-hand side and an empty bag on the left for the cocaine. Campesinos, peasant men and women of all ages, arrive from every direction with small plastic bags of coca paste ready for sale. All the members of a family know how to process coca. Remolinos is supposed to have the best coca cooks' in the area.

While the weekend coca market is in progress, the guerrilla men and women, heavily armed, stroll around asking the buyers to pay coca taxes' or the mordida (bite) as it is called by the local people. Every year the same guerrilla group charges the campesinos an equivalent of 250 sterling for each hectare of coca cultivated. It is easy to calculate that every year the guerrilla groups receive aproximately 1.5 million from the campesinos of Remolinos alone.

CIFISAM data (CIFISAM is the research and information centre of the Vicariate) shows that in Remolinos alone over 500,000 is negotiated every weekend with cocaine paste. Twenty five per cent goes to the guerrillas and the rest is recycled by the drugs traffickers through bars, prostitution, spending on luxuries, and precursor chemicals to process coca again.

In the village there are more than 50 bars and discotheques. People drink mainly whisky. Beer is too bulky to transport and therefore too expensive. Basic commodities are extremely expensive. On weekdays, small airplanes move around the area transporting the coca paste to sophisticated laboratories in the middle of the jungle where it is processed or crystallized' into finished cocaine and packed ready for overseas export.

This has been happening for the last 25 years. Why have the police and the army not reacted more consistently? In 1988, in a huge military operation, the police managed to enter Remolinos and stop all the movement along the Caguán River. After a week the people were starving because of their dependence on outside food. The police had to give up because of the food emergency.

In fact, agriculture for self-consumption was until three years ago practically unknown. Even today, things are not much better. Maize and bananas sometimes provide extra money but costly transport and low market prices discourage cultivation. Coca money provides for everything. When coca buyers do not come for some reason, there is total chaos. Complete dependence on outside markets is indeed another form of slavery,' commented a peasant referring to the similar conditions of the rubber period lived by his grandparents.

Coca paste is the daily currency in the village for most of the people's business. It is not unusual for people to ask local priests to say a mass for their parents or relatives and pay with small bags of coca paste; surreptitiously put in the priest's pocket.

In Remolinos the money may move in millions, but there are no roads and public services and health facilities are practically unknown. In the village there is no legal authority or judiciary; the guerrilla groups provide arbitrary justice. Most guerrillas are women and many are younger than 15. One could say that the law of the jungle' rules. A few months ago, the guerrillas caught a man molesting a boy. In the main street, for the sake of popularity, they asked the public what they should do with the man. When people shouted Kill him!', the priest went to the main street and vigorously affirmed that justice could only be administered by legal authority. The mob and the guerrillas dispersed. But early next daythe man's dead body appeared in front of the priest's house. Everybody is armed and everybody uses two names. Recently during a Eucharistic celebration the priest asked everybody as a sign of respect to leave their arms on a table outside the church. One table was not enough for all the weapons.

More than 1,000 youngsters collect the coca leaf crops every two months. When the coca crop is ripe (four times a year) the few schools (the teachers are paid by the guerrillas and drugs traffickers) empty because parents need their children for the leaf picking. They are called raspachines or graspers. They can easily collect up to 200 kg of coca leaves a day with a pay of 15 pence a kg, making approximately 26 a day by comparison with the normal official minimum salary of 4 a day elsewhere. Naturally the young prefer money to studies. Although coca production is encouraged, consumption ;of cocaine is strictly forbidden and addicts are punished with the death penalty by the guerrilla groups.

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High Level of Output

The Colombian government uses North American satellite data to assess the size of coca areas. This information apparently shows that there are 9,300 ha in the Caquet area and 39,800 ha in all the country. Yet the Vicariate's data, collected through on-the-ground research by CIFISAM, suggests that there are more than 16,000 ha in Remolinos alone. In the whole Amazonian area of the Vicariate there are easily over 100,000 ha. Normally, cultivation is the job of small farmers who have no more than four to five hectares. They are the majority. There are, however, bigger coca plantations in the hands of rich men with private armies, and guerrilla groups.

In Remolinos at this moment the production per hectare is 1,250 kg of leaves every two months, enough for approximately 2.6 kg of coca-base or chlorhydrate (HCI) of cocaine. This high level of production by comparison with indigenous Peruvian cultivations is due to advanced technology and fertilisers. The monthly per-capita profit of coca is 450 against 140 for rubber and 50 for cocoa. The minimum salary in Colombia now is 102 per month. Cocoa and rubber are the main alternative cultivations promoted by the church in the area.

There are already enough financial studies to show that between the price of the coca paste sold by the campesinos in Remolinos and the price of the cocaine sold in Europe there is not even 0.5 per cent profit for the campesino. The socio-economic conditions of the campesino today are certainly worse than 20 years ago when there were no coca cultivations. Families have disintegrated, schools have disbanded, social-community values are minimal, violence is rampant, money disappears and progress is just a word. Indigenous people have abandoned the religious ritual use of coca and now prefer to sell it for money and get drunk like everybody else.

Community organisation is just beginning and is a struggle. Perhaps the most successful examples of organisation are the grupos agrcolas, or agricultural groups, organised by the Catholic church, and the Coca and Rubber football teams, comprised respectively of peasants growing coca or rubber. Guerrilla bosses and drugs traffickers are the only models of socialisation for the young.

Meanwhile, the large estates of rich drugs traffickers are becoming a real hindrance to the development of the poor and a menace to the environment. The same CIA satellite data calculate that the areas where coca is grown is expanding at an annual rate of 80 per cent. The main reason is that a new coca species has been developed which is able to withstand shadow and therefore grow in the forest. Rivers in the area are becoming heavily polluted. To process one gramme of cocaine paste, 15 litres and more of different chemicals are needed. The leftovers normally go into the rivers.

One could easily conclude that coca is both a socio-economic and an ecological tragedy. Even if people see this, it seems that there is no alternative. A very well-known song in the area says:

Soy coquero, me paro y to digo, que solo no estoy hay muchos conmigo que estamos en este trabajo maldito ya estamos adentro y no hay como salirnos.

I am a coca maker, I stand up and admit it, but I'm not alone; there are many with me doing this cursed work we are trapped by it and there's no way out !


Coca has permeated the entire life of the population in Remolinos. We could speak of the coca-culture or narcomentality which thinks that quick money, no matter how it is acquired, is a good thing.

So far, there have been at least two different approaches to the problem: one is the stick and carrot system supported by the United States and the Colombian government. The other is the integrated approach implemented by the Catholic church.

The first one believes in the effectiveness of repression and substitution, while the other believes that awareness, education and economic alternatives together provide a better solution. This implies an integrated approach that includes community and family formation, land acquisition, agricultural technoligies appropriate for the Amazon region (yet to be identified), marketing and transport.

The Stick and Carrot Approach

The Colombian government, in close partnership with the government of the United States, has adopted two quite different but complementary methods: military repression and economic support for the substitution of coca cultivation.

To date, there has been only one quite expensive and ineffectual substitution programme: in Curillo-Valparaso (Caquet ). Some important lessons have already been learnt from there.

a) There was no community participation in the design of the project (all was done by outsiders) and therefore campesinos willingly accepted the subsidies offered in exchange for their coca being destroyed, while starting new coca cultivation near by.

b) People constantly feared military intervention (the stick) always associated with government institutions.

c) Three years of intervention was too short a time to organise the community, assimilate new technologies and organise marketing of products, which is the bottleneck of all the campesinos' economies.

In the Remolinos area at present, the Colombian government is promoting rubber cultivation exclusively to coca growers. It is doing so with a budget of 40,000 per year a pittance by comparison with the opulent weekly coca buyers' money. Rubber takes five to six years to produce. The campesinos are cultivating rubber but keep their coca cultivations as well.

Economic analysts agree that it is not profitability but regular liquidity that makes coca cultivation attractive to campesinos. In fact, even if there are some subsidies for replacement of coca they are so insignificant and bureaucratically tangled that most people are not willing to replace coca, but prefer to cut more forest and grow the alternative crops next to it. The environmental damage is worsening. The substitution of 16,000 ha of coca in Remolinos will entail the destruction of at least double that area of forest because many more hectares of these low-value substitute crops will be needed than would be the case with high-value coca to provide a viable income.

If all the small coca plantations were destroyed now, big ranches and agrarian conflict would certainly increase, along with cattle raising, soil erosion and compacting, unemployment, misery and more violence.

Repressive policies have had a seriously negative impact. It has been demonstrated that repression has been the greatest generator of violence, injustice and violation of human rights; it has been responsible for the corruption of government officials, politicians, judges, and members of the police and the army. Community organisation has been weakened and many community groups have dissolved out of fear. Repression by the army has also forced drugs traffickers to ally with the guerrilla groups, thus creating a very complicated and violent system. Fumigation of crops is today perhaps one of the most common actions of the repressive policies. Although it has not yet started in the Remolinos area it has been going on in neighbouring Putumayo, where it provoked protests from the population. When in February 1995 the church groups in Remolinos heard of a possible fumigation; they quickly organised and sent representatives to Bogota to negotiate with the government. They managed to stop the action with a promise from the campesinos not to plant any more coca. The government, for its part, agreed to provide subsidies for alternative cultivation although these have yet not materialised.

Fumigation, with the chemical glyphosate, is extremely unhealthy and anti-ecological even if Colombian officials maintain that it is harmless. Campesinos say that it is certainly not holy water'. It antagonises the adult population and frightens and traumatises the children. It destroys not only coca, but also garden cultivations, the forest, and animal species. In trying to kill the flea, the government is also killing the dog.

According to Colombian law, aerial crop spraying must be carried out from a height of no more than 10 metres so as to protect the environment. But flying at 10 metres is dangerous because of guerrilla attacks. Two helicopters have already been shot down in the area; and one small plane and other helicopters have been seriously damaged. The International Union for Nature Conservation sent a representative to Colombia, an Englishman called Thomas Danti, an expert in environmental auditing. He confirmed that the fumigation was being carried out from much greater heights.

Fumigation is extremely expensive because it requires a military operation. Four artillery helicopters accompanying a spray plane costs more than US$15,000 per hour. Imagine, therefore, the cost of a single three to four day operation to destroy a few hectares. of coca. With that amount of money the government could usefully increase the support to legal cultivation, technical assistance and marketing.

Fumigation is therefore an entirely useless strategy. Coca is not just a plague. It is a problem of economy, a problem of poverty, a problem of culture and even a political problem.

The Action of the Church

Since the early 1980s, church members in the Vicariate realised that coca was not only an economic problem but also a sociocultural problem. Thus we began an integrated programme of education. This involved many elements of what we are now calling la granja familiar amaznica, or the Amazonian family farm'. It is called farm because it promotes the diversity of agricultural alternatives demanded by the fragile environment. It refers to the family because the re-socialisation of the family is the need most felt by the population. Amazonian' refers to the need to develop local technologies and to fight against the highland, Andean model of agriculture and extensive cattle raising which is the most serious cause of deforestation.

Many campesinos have organised themselves in groups of 10 to 15 families. They are the grupos agrcolas, or agricultural groups I referred to earlier. They usually set apart a communal piece of land on which with the assistance of a group of technicians of the Vicariate they start cultivating not only plants but also family and community values. There are now 45 groups in the Remolinos area alone. Half of them have managed to abandon coca cultivation completely. Other groups still require the financial profits of coca production to sustain the alternative Amazonian cultivations. Because of uncertain resources the Vicariate has for the past six years been promoting the cultivation mainly of rubber and cocoa. Now Amazonian fruits, medicinal plants, fish and precious timber trees are priorities. While aiming to recover human and community values, the programme also aims at providing at least three important elements: food for self-consumption, some weekly income, and some profitability through community marketing facilities.

Rubber, chocolate and processed fruits are the main achievements so far. There are at present more than 1,000 ha of rubber trees and 500 ha of cocoa trees. The government's support has been minimal, and in spite of some technical and management deficiencies, these plantations are in a much better state than those run by expensive government and international programmes elsewhere.

These groups have managed to accept that they will earn less but live more peacefully and constructively. However, the temptation to go back to the easy money of la hoja maldita the cursed leaf is always there. The groups have also developed a concern for justice and peace issues. They have realised that unity produces justice and peace. The guerrillas do not want to take part in such groups. Peace has been built thanks to church initiatives of pilgrimages to the places where people had been killed. There they exhume the corpses and respectfully take them to the village cemetery for a proper funeral, even if years have passed since the deaths. This initiative has become very popular and has helped to recover the meaning and value of life. People keep asking for this service.

One of the most important differences of the church programmes is that they are not only for coca growers but for everybody. This is an attempt to counteract the danger in traditional substitution projects which, by targetting only those growing coca, indirectly encourage non-coca growers to begin planting coca in order to be eligible for subsidies and other support.

The Presence of the Church Leads to: • recuperation of family and community values

• strengthening the organisational and leadership process of the community

• promoting and validating Amazonian sustainable economic alternatives

• training for both production and marketing

• creating environmental awareness and protection

• facilitating research and studies on the reality of the Amazon region

• leading peace initiatives and dialogue with the guerrillas, the government and paramilitary groups

• protesting against unjust actions of both the army and the guerrillas and interceding for people in gaol or those kidnapped.

Some Conclusions and Proposals

While the poor in the Andean countries produce coca to live, in Europe people consume coca to die. However, both are victims of the process.

Even if coca is the only product, so far, that can guarantee the campesino a small profit, it has not contributed to raising his standard of living. Remolinos is as underdeveloped today as it was 25 years ago. And even if there are some relatively positive results for the campesinos of Remolinos (such as halting deforestation, giving financial help towards investing in alternative cultivation like rubber and cocoa,. preventing the selling of land) it has also had dramatic negative consequences. These include: family disintegration, community division, violence, prostitution, alcoholism, truancy from school, reinforcement of guerrilla groups, high cost of basic commodities. The consequences for the consumer are often highlighted while few people seem to know the tragic consequences for the coca producers.

Experience has shown that the violent eradication of coca plantations (either by fumigation or by manual cutting) is a useless process. It generates social unrest and bitterness against the government, corruption among the authorities, violence and the violation of human rights. It has often raised the price of coca leaves and thus has pushed growers to start cultivations elsewhere. The social, political and economic cost of eradication shows that it is pointless. The case of the La Hormiga area, in Putumayo, has been a meaningful lesson.

Most of the priests and campesino leaders of the area believe that the best solution to coca cultivation could be cooperation between the government and the communities for a process of gradual eradication, and substitution with Amazonian alternatives. The success of this proposal depends therefore on community-building and awareness, technical assistance, facilitation of working capital and marketing facilities,' with preferences and subsidies for local production.

However, if foreign demand for cocaine continues at today's level, legalisation would seem to be the easiest, although not the best, solution, for both producers and consumers.

For the past three years in Remolinos del Caguán the coca growers' football team has never been able to beat the rubber growers' football team. This has been a very meaningful and encouraging sign for all the inhabitants of the village. The grupos agrcolas are now strengthening the belief that coca, with all its fatal effects, will never succeed in overcoming the alternative cultivation programme already spreading, slowly but surely, in the area.

Leonel Narváez Gómez is a Colombian priest in the Consolata Order. As development coordinator for a diocese in Caquetá region since 1988, he has pioneered alternative development projects with peasant communities living off coca farming.





Our valuable member Leonel Narváez Gómez has been with us since Sunday, 19 December 2010.