Waging War in Colombia’s National Parks

Cecilia walked around her small wooden house pointing to the banana trees and yucca plants that were killed by the aerial fumigation that had occurred eight days earlier. She described how the chemicals blanketed not only the coca crops she and her husband cultivate in order to survive, but also their food crops and two young children. As a result, the family is now struggling to survive in a part of Colombia that has been Cecilia’s home for her entire life: the Macarena National Park. Based on the results of the initial fumigations, it appears that Colombian President Alvaro Uribe’s decision to begin spraying coca crops in the country’s national parks will only intensify the conflict, escalate the humanitarian crisis and increase ecological damage in some of Colombia’s most pristine environments.

The Macarena National Park is situated east of the Andes Mountains in the department of Meta where the wide-open plains of the north, known as Los Llanos, meet the Amazon Rainforest to the south. The park itself is a spectacular mountainous outcropping covered in lush rainforest and filled with rivers and canyons, much of which is only accessible to the hardiest of travelers. In 1989, the Colombian government finally designated this natural wonder a national park, while UNESCO declared it a “heritage of humanity” site.

While the interior of the park is mostly uninhabited, several thousand peasants who colonized the region in the 30 years prior to the creation of the park continue to live within its confines—a common practice in Colombia’s national parks. The original settlers were peasants fleeing government repression in the 1950s and early 1960s, during the period known as La Violencia. The self-defense movements formed by the displaced peasants, in order to protect their lands and families from the Colombian army, eventually became the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in 1966. And now, 40 years later, FARC guerrillas still control the Macarena National Park and its surrounding environs.

It is impossible to accurately describe life in the Macarena without discussing the role of the FARC. Not only because the guerrillas profit from the cultivation of coca—a fact repeatedly emphasized by the U.S. and Colombian governments—but also because they are so organically linked to the local peasant population—a fact that the same governments choose to ignore. The conditions that caused peasants to colonize the Colombian Amazon and form the FARC almost a half-century ago still exist in the Macarena today. It is an area that has been grossly neglected by the state in every conceivable manner but one: military repression. The only national government presence in the region has consisted of aerial bombings, short-lived military offensives and now aerial fumigations.

Over the past 50 years, with no support from the national government, the local peasant population has carved a network of primitive dirt roads throughout the rainforest that are only traversable in four-wheel drive vehicles. They have constructed electrical grids powered by gasoline generators for their villages and small towns. And it is the FARC that has become their government, providing such public services as security, social aid and a justice system among other things.

Unlike in some other regions of Colombia where the FARC—and the military and right-wing paramilitaries—impose their rule on local populations, the guerrillas in the Macarena are clearly a government “of the people.” Many households in the region have at least one family member in the FARC and the local population interacts with the rebels as naturally and comfortably as rural citizens in the global North do with their local government officials and law enforcement officers. As one peasant explains, “When someone has a problem with another person, perhaps a fight or something, they can take their complaint to the FARC. The FARC then investigates and determines who is at fault and what the sentence will be.” He goes on to point out that there are no prisons under the rebels, that the sentences handed down to guilty parties include repairing the roads or working in the fields of communal farms.

For the most part, peasants have managed to survive in the Macarena region through subsistence farming, including raising cows, pigs and chickens, and growing various food crops such as bananas, yucca, papaya and avocados. It was only 20 years ago that small-scale coca cultivation entered the mix in order to allow peasant families to compensate for the lack of infrastructure, which prevented them from being able to transport their food crops to distant markets. It is only during the past five years, however, that the coca plant has become the most prominent crop in the Macarena region. Farmers grow the coca plants, harvest the leaves and process them into coca paste for sale to drug traffickers, who then process the paste into cocaine. The FARC profits from coca cultivation in the Macarena by taking a cut of all drug transactions in the region.

The recent escalation in coca cultivation in the Macarena has coincided with the implementation of the U.S.-backed Plan Colombia, whose targeting of coca crops in southern Colombia has led to a disbursement of coca cultivation throughout the country. In order to respond to this shift in cultivation patterns, U.S counternarcotics officials began urging President Uribe to approve aerial fumigations of Colombia’s national parks, which had remained exempt from spraying operations.

Instead of authorizing aerial fumigations, Uribe announced an alternative plan in December 2005 to send 1,000 manual eradicators under the protection of 3,500 troops to the Macarena National Park. In the ensuing months, more than a dozen military personnel were killed in rebel attacks. In response, the military launched aerial bombardments against FARC positions in the park. The hardship of life in the remotely located park and repeated FARC attacks against the eradication operation eventually caused many of the eradicators to quit and return to their homes outside the region. Finally, after the deaths of six eradicators on August 2, Uribe gave the order to begin aerial fumigations of coca crops in Macarena National Park.

Within days, U.S.-supplied spray planes and helicopter gunships began fumigation operations in the coca growing areas of the park, spraying a chemical concoction that has never been approved for use in the United States: the herbicide glyphosate mixed with the surfactant Cosmo Flux 411-F and other additives. After a week of spraying, Colombia’s anti-narcotics police claimed to have destroyed all 11,370 acres of coca in the park.

It soon became apparent that the Colombian government had exaggerated the success of the aerial fumigation operation; at least in the section of the park visited by this writer eight days after the spraying had ended. While most of the coca had been sprayed, approximately 20 percent remained untouched. Additionally, peasants had saved some of the fumigated coca crops by cutting the tops off the plants before the chemicals could destroy the roots. As a result, these plants will continue to produce five harvests of coca leaves annually. Meanwhile, the spraying also killed many small trees and bushes in the rainforest perimeter around the coca fields.

While fast-acting peasants can save their coca crops by cutting them at the stem, the same process is ineffective on less-hardy food crops such as banana, papaya and avocado trees, and smaller plants including yucca. Nearly all of the coca in the Macarena region is cultivated by local peasants on small farms of 12 acres or less. The money these farmers earn from their coca crops allows them to supplement the food that they grow with other necessities. Consequently, because the cultivation of coca does not provide them with much disposable income, the destruction of food crops has caused a major food crisis for many households.

Additionally, many family members and hired coca pickers were present on the farms when the spraying indiscriminately targeted homes situated in the midst of food and coca crops. As a result, many children and coca pickers, who earn approximately $10 a day harvesting coca, were sprayed with chemicals that caused them to suffer from various gastrointestinal problems. Cecilia described how her two children both began vomiting shortly after the spraying and then suffered from diarrhea for several days.

Children also suffered psychological trauma from the militaristic nature of the fumigation operation. Helicopter gunships swooped down low over farms only minutes ahead of the spray planes to unleash barrages of machine gun fire around the perimeter of coca fields. The earth is pockmarked with holes created by bullets from the machine guns while hundreds of shell casings litter the ground, often dangerously close to homes.

The U.S. and Colombian governments claim that destroying coca crops in the FARC-controlled Macarena will diminish the funding that the rebel group receives from the illegal drug trade, thereby weakening it militarily. Colombia’s Defense Minister Camilo Ospina explained the military objective of the coca eradication campaign, “We cannot pretend that eliminating the checkbook of the guerrillas will be an easy process. The process in La Macarena consists of the eradication of coca in one of the zones of the world with the greatest levels of cultivation, which represents the most important source of financing for subversive groups, specifically the FARC.”

For its part, the Bush administration expressed its satisfaction with President Uribe’s response to its repeated requests that spray planes be deployed to Colombia’s national parks. James O’Gara of the White House’s Office of National Drug Control Policy declared, “If the FARC thought the government would allow coca to grow untrammeled in its national parks, they’ve obviously miscalculated.” But according to a local FARC commander, “The fumigations hurt the peasants more than the guerrillas. They are the ones who are most dependent on coca for their survival.” While the fumigations are probably affecting the FARC’s finances to some degree, more than six years of Plan Colombia has provided little evidence that this strategy is noticeably weakening the rebel group’s military capacity. If anything, such tactics are only further entrenching popular support for the guerrillas in remote regions of the country such as the Macarena.

In addition to Plan Colombia’s counternarcotics operations, the Colombian military has also been implementing the U.S.-backed Plan Patriota, a large-scale counterinsurgency operation intended to seize control of FARC-controlled areas in southern and eastern Colombia, including the Macarena region. But Plan Patriota has proved ineffective, often only consisting of sporadic ground offensives into FARC-controlled areas. According to peasants in the Macarena region, the army often kills civilians during these incursions and then publicly blames the FARC—accusations that are then dutifully reported by the national and international media without any investigation into the crimes.

There have also been several incidents under Plan Patriota of peasants in the Macarena region being arbitrarily arrested by Colombian troops and taken to the army base in Vista Hermosa, located on the side of the Guapaya River controlled by the state. In one incident that occurred in January 2006, the army rounded up eight peasants and took them to the military base. Officials claim that all of those detained were later released although only one of them has since been seen. The other seven were likely “disappeared” by right-wing paramilitaries who, according to several residents in Vista Hermosa, are still active in the area despite their supposed demobilization.

The situation for the peasants living in the Macarena has changed little since they settled the region some 50 years ago. To this day, the policies of the national government in Bogotá have only consisted of military operations that have often resulted in gross violations of human rights. Under Uribe’s Plan Patriota, there has been no attempt to provide peasants who have traditionally lived in rebel-controlled regions with any social or economic programs in order to win the battle for the “hearts and minds” of the local population. The extent of this failure was clearly explained to a U.S. congressional committee in June 2004 by Adam Isacson, long-time Colombia analyst for the Washington-based Center for International Policy:

The last several years in Colombia are full of stories of supposedly successful military offensives. The pattern is familiar: thousands of troops rush into a guerrilla stronghold, the guerrillas offer minimal resistance and retreat into the jungle. The troops stay a few weeks, or even months, but the Colombian government doesn’t commit any resources to bringing the rest of the government into the zone. They can’t stay forever—and since they operate with virtual impunity, that’s not always bad news for the civilians in the zone. When the military eventually has to go back to its bases, though, we find that no moves have been made to bring in judges, cops, teachers, doctors, road-builders, or any of the other civilian government services that every society and economy needs in order to function.

The Macarena region is a perfect example of the process described by Isacson. However, this has not only been the story over the last several years, but over the past half-century. With the complete failure of the government to even attempt to provide any basic services to the local population, it is the FARC that has filled the void by helping to build roads and provide electricity, law enforcement, judges and other public services traditionally supplied by the state. As one local peasant notes, “When farmers or their families get sick and can’t afford medicine, it is the FARC that gives them money to purchase what they need.”

The peasant population of the Macarena region sees no reason to trust a government that has offered them nothing but repression, or at best, total neglect. In August, the government ensured that this distrust would become further entrenched by launching a militarized fumigation campaign that made children sick while destroying essential food crops. Once again, it is the civilian population that has been victimized by the government’s counterinsurgency strategy. For the local peasant population, the only ones they can turn to for help are the guerrillas, which undermines the very counterinsurgency objectives that the government should be trying to achieve: winning the hearts and minds of the people.

Ultimately, it is unlikely that the fumigations will eliminate coca cultivation in the Macarena region. A significant percentage of the crops survived the spraying and many of those that were destroyed will simply be replaced with new ones. Sometimes this replanting will take place on the same plots of land, other times peasants will cut down more rainforest in order to replant. But as one farmer points out, “If you simply start cutting down trees to plant more crops, the FARC will fine you. We must obtain permission from the guerrillas before we can cut down the rainforest.” It is not always easy to obtain that permission because the FARC is attempting to carry out a balancing act between funding its insurgency from coca cultivation, allowing peasants to earn a living, and limiting the destruction of one of the country’s most exquisite ecological treasures.

There is no evidence that the Colombian government is willing to attempt a balancing act of its own in order to implement a more comprehensive counterinsurgency strategy. Until the government offers peasants like Cecilia something more than military repression, the local populations in areas such as the Macarena will continue to see their welfare and survival as inextricably intertwined with that of the FARC. Consequently, violence will continue to wreak havoc on another of the country’s national treasures: its people.


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