Catatumbo is a small Colombian city in the Norte de Santander department, which borders Venezuela, that is used as a corridor for international drug trafficking and where paramilitary violence between 1999 and 2004 resulted in the death of about 11,000 people.
In June 2013, about 20,000 coca growers blocked the roads for 53 days. The confrontations with the Mobile Anti-Disturbance Squadron (ESMAD) resulted in the death of four peasants. The farmers demanded that the government finance alternative solutions to growing coca, a coordinated substitution for the plant and the creation of a Peasant Reserve Zone, a legal entity that would guarantee rights to farmers, such as formalizing land property rights.
For the Catatumbo peasants, growing coca is a forced choice. Until the end of the 1980s, many of them grew foodstuff, but then the distance between cities made it impossible to sell their products. The roads in bad shape made transporting products to markets cost more than the expected profit from sales.
The Colombian government never offered them another option to growing coca, whose buyers — the paramilitaries of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), and the guerrilla members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), and the National Liberation Army (ELN) — would come to their doors to buy.
The situation of the Catatumbo peasants got worse when the free trade agreements with Canada (2011) and the United States (2012) went into force. Canada and the United States subsidize their agricultural sectors, which allows them to sell products in the Colombian market at a cheaper price than the cost of local products. In fact, the decline in the price of vegetables coincides with the increase in coca cultivation in Catatumbo.
According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), 2013 Coca Monitoring Survey, released on June 26, Colombia has 48,000 hectares of land cultivated with coca, the same amount of land as in 2012. In some regions, coca cultivation has decreased while in others it increased, such as in Catatumbo, which experienced a 41.6 percent increase. According to the UNODC, the estimated productive area of the region is 5,604 hectares, and the average production of fresh coca leaves, which in 2009 was 13.8 tons in 2013 rose to 30.8 tons.
As a result of the government’s noncompliance with the agreements with the Catatumbo Peasant Association (ASCAMCAT), after the June 2013 demonstration, the coca growers of the region decided to take part in the nationwide agricultural strike last May.
“On May 9 a new massive demonstration took place to demand the government’s compliance with its commitments,” tells Leonardo Rojas Díaz, ASCAMCAT representative at the dialogue table with the government, to Latinamerica Press. “We were able to pressure to create a national space that would allow advances in the discussion of peasant issues.”
The coca growers are not only the ones who receive the lowest profits in the supply chain from production to retail sales of cocaine, but they can also be jailed, according to the 1986 Law 30 — which codifies the cultivation of crops for illicit use as a crime. The farmers are also exposed to the consequences of aerial glyphosate spraying.
Glyphosate is the main ingredient in Roundup Ultra, a Monsanto herbicide used to exterminate coca plants. These fumigations are provided by the Plan Colombia, a bilateral agreement with the United States in force since 2000 and aimed at fighting drug trafficking.
Colombia is the only country in the world that fumigates crops for illicit use. Yearly, the fumigated area spans more than 100,000 hectares. The practice persists despite Colombia’s State Council Dec. 11, 2013 ruling establishing that the fumigations violate the principle of precaution, which calls for the suspension of human activities whose dangers are known.
“14 years ago they fumigated my land with planes. After the third time they came I stopped growing coca,” tells Romaira G., a Catutumbo coca farmer, to Latinamerica Press. “You feel bad after the fumigation. My whole body itched.”
Attacking the supply but not the demand
The dermatological problems caused by fumigations were shown in a 2012 investigation of the University of the Andes Security and Drugs Research Center (CESED) in Bogotá, conducted by professors Daniel Mejía Londoño, CESED Director, and Adriana Camacho. The study also reveals a higher rate of abortions in fumigation zones, while other works found negative effects on the environment and on people’s trust in institutions when living in fumigated municipalities.
Another strategy used to eradicate coca crops is manual eradication, which in 2012 was carried out on more than 30,000 hectares.
“Manual eradication has a high cost. Many eradicators died because of the anti-personnel mines planted by the FARC or the paramilitaries,” told Mejía Londoño to Latinamerica Press. “Even if it were an efficient strategy, I don’t see why so many Colombians ought to die so that less cocaine reaches the United States and Europe. They are transferring the entire cost to the producing countries.”
As a result of the peace talks, on May 16 President Juan Manuel Santos and the FARC announced the signing of an agreement on the cultivation of illicit crops, which would come into force only if the parties reach an agreement on the other points on the agenda.
“On the May 25 presidential elections, Santos was chosen because he is part of a peace process, that is why the democratic sectors support him,” explained Rojas Díaz. “Santos represents the traditional Colombian right. What is tragic about this moment is that [Santos] was a better option than Uribista candidate Óscar Iván Zuluaga. My only hope is that the Colombian people have the capacity to pressure so that the peace process concludes in a coherent fashion.”—Latinamerica Press.