Plan Colombia Devastates Afro-Colombian Communities

Several hours up the Tapaje River from the Pacific Ocean, the monotony of the lush green rainforest is broken when we round a bend and the remote village of San José comes into view. Most of the buildings on the riverbank are fragile wooden structures precariously perched on stilts. Afro-Colombian women busily wash clothes in the river while their children splash around in the fast-flowing brown water. The motorboat slows, glides past the women and pulls up to the crumbling cement steps that constitute the dock. There is little to distinguish San José from hundreds of other remote jungle villages in Colombia that have suffered from goverment neglect in the social and economic spheres. And, like many other rural communities, San José has also been devastated by the US-backed counternarcotics initiative called Plan Colombia.

An Afro-Colombian community in the southern Colombian department of Nariño, San José has primarily survived for the past 80 years on subsistence farming and fishing. River travel is the dominant form of transportation in this remote region. There are no cars to be found in San José. There are also no vehicles in the nearest town, El Charco, which is four hours away by motorized canoe. There are no vehicles because there are no roads leading in and out of the town. In fact, there are no roads connecting any part of this remote region of western Colombia to the country’s Andean heartland. The lack of infrastructure makes it virtually impossible for peasants to get their crops to market and is a major reason why local communities have historically relied on a subsistence economy.

In recent years, however, a cash economy has emerged in the small communitites of the upper Tapaje River as local farmers have turned to cultivating the coca plant—the leaves of which provide the primary ingredient in cocaine. It is the cultivation of coca that has brought me to San José. More precisely, I have come to investigate the consequences of recent aerial fumigations of the coca crops that constitute the cash income of many of San José’s residents.

In 2000, the Clinton administration launched the multi-billion dollar counter-narcotics initiative called Plan Colombia. The primary objective was to eradicate cocaine at its source: the coca plant. Almost 50 percent of the coca cultivated in Colombia at the time was located in the southern department of Putumayo. In the ensuing years, as increasing amounts of coca were fumigated in that region, cultivation shifted to neighboring departments, including Nariño. Coca cultivation in San José and its surrounding environs began in 2001, suggesting that it resulted from the process of coca displacement caused by Plan Colombia’s intensive aerial spraying in Putumayo.

The continued presence of coca along the Tapaje River illustrates the failure of Plan Colombia to attain its principal counternarcotics objective of reducing coca cultivation by 50 percent in five years. In fact, according to a recently released US congressional report, coca cultivation increased by 15 percent between 2000 and 2006 despite more than $5 billion in US funding for Plan Colombia. Furthermore, the arrival of coca and Plan Colombia in Nariño has resulted in the region having more armed fighters per square meter than anywhere in the world outside of Iraq.

Afro-Colombians constitute the overwhelming majority of the residents of San José and as such, under Law 70 of 1993, the village and its surrounding land exist under collective title. Many residents farm on small plots of land outside the village, cultivating cacao, bananas, papaya, corn and their only viable cash crop, coca. According to many residents, villagers turned to coca cultivation in 2001 in order to improve their dire economic situation. However, Plan Colombia’s aerial fumigation operations soon began targeting the department of Nariño, including the Tapaje region.

According to Colonel Fredy Cruz of the Colombian army’s Special Counternarcotics Brigade based in the city of Tumaco, his units fumigated 32,700 hectares of coca in the first six months of 2008—a total that did not include the number of hectares sprayed by the counternarcotics units of the Colombian National Police. But as has occurred in other parts of Colombia, the spraying killed not only coca, but also food crops.

“Plan Colombia is ruining us; it is killing all of our crops,” declared Wilson, a long-time resident of San José. “The government fumigates and all the food crops are destroyed. The government can kill the coca but it needs to help us grow other crops.” Another local, named Obando, stood in the middle of one of his fields and pointed out the obvious devastation caused by fumigations that occurred several months earlier. “Look at the coca here, it’s all dead. The fumigations killed it all,” he says. “And here are bananas killed by the fumigation. And papaya, avocados and cane, they’re all dead.”

Plan Colombia and President Alvaro Uribe’s Democratic Security Strategy have not only brought fumigations to this remote region, they have also brought violence in the form of the Colombian military. In its efforts to gain control of the country’s remote rural regions, much of which has traditionally been the domain of the FARC, the national government is establishing a presence in many villages. However, this state presence often only consists of soldiers. Such is the case in San José and other communities along the Tapaje River. The arrival of the Colombian army’s 19th Mobile Brigade in 2007 led to massive displacement and killings. More than a thousand villagers were forced to flee their homes and to make their way downriver to the towns of El Charco and Guapi—the latter in the neighboring department of Cauca.

Numerous killings occurred in San José and in the surrounding villages. Many locals blame the military and the paramilitaries for the violence. “I don’t call what the government is doing ‘democratic security,’ in my way of thinking it is increasing the violence.” said one displaced villager who is now living with more than 300 other displaced people in El Charco. “We didn’t have problems with illegal groups before, but under ‘democratic security’ we now have to deal with a single group where we live: the paramilitaries. The government says that there are guerrillas in our communities but that’s not true. Democratic security has only brought us more violence.”

An elderly Afro-Colombian man sitting on the riverbank in San José reflected on the plight faced by his community, “The people of San José are very hard-working, but we made the mistake of turning to illicit cultivation because we didn’t receive any help from the government. But if the government would provide us with another form of work then I believe there would be no need to fumigate. But the government hasn’t helped us find an alternative, it only supports Plan Colombia.”

That situation is now changing as the government has devised an economic development strategy, in conjunction with Plan Colombia, for the Pacific coast region of El Charco and Guapi. A principal component of the Uribe government’s agricultural policies has been the promotion of African palm cultivation in an effort to make Colombia an international leader in agrofuels—also known as biofuels. To this end, he recently called for the introduction of African Palm in the Tapaje region, claiming, “El Charco has excellent conditions but not one palm tree, just coca, which we need to eradicate.”

The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) is helping the Colombian government’s efforts to expand oil palm production by promoting it as an alternative crop to coca. In fact, 20 percent of the USAID crop substitution budget under Plan Colombia is now spent on oil palm projects. For its part, the Colombian Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development (MADR) has agreed to provide credit to Afro-Colombians in the Guapi area who are willing to cultivate oil palm. According to MADR, “The objective is to have 640 Afro-Colombian families sow 15,000 hectares of palm by 2013.”

Residents of San José do not see the introduction of African palm along the Tapaje River as a solution to their economic woes. As Obando pointed out, “We don’t want African Palm here because it will use all the water and dry up the river. I want to grow other crops.” Another local resident offered an even harsher critique of the government’s plans. “African Palm is worse than coca,” he claimed. “In the neighboring municipality of Tumaco, the government convinced people that African palm was the solution. And what did African palm bring? Death, displacement and loss of territory. Those who refused to abandon or sell their territories were killed.” Yet another farmer astutely noted that the substitution of coca with oil palm is simply the substitution of one monoculture crop with another—and both of them destroy the local ecosystem.

In 2006, the community councils, or consejo comunitarios, of Colombia’s Pacific coast regionput forward an ethno-development plan to the national government. According to Harry Caicedo, a displaced community leader living with more than a hundred other refugees in an old slaughterhouse in El Charco, “We proposed to the national government that the communities of the Pacific would gradually replace their coca crops if the government committed to social investment. That is, that they use the money that is being spent on fumigations to fund alternative crops in arrangements made with the consejo comunitarios. This plan would involve the sowing of traditional crops and would include a feasibility study of production, marketing and the commercialization of the products. We’re still waiting for an answer from the government. So far, instead of an answer, we have been subjected to repression, imprisonment and displacement.”

The Colombian government has shown little willingness to consult with Afro-Colombian communities along the Tapaje River with regard to economic development in the region. Instead, it has established a state, or more precisely a military, presence under Plan Colombia and the banner of “democratic security” that has only intensified the violence and resulted in massive displacement. As Caicedo noted, “Plan Colombia is a plan of war that is uprooting communities. There has been no social investment and in the Pacific region, especially the Tapaje, Plan Colombia has destroyed our culture, our customs and the livelihood of the people.”

On my last evening in San José, I sat in the humble wooden house of a local family and watched a movie on DVD. The film was War of the Worlds starring Tom Cruise, and the symbolism was inescapable. The plot consisted of a family in the United States struggling to survive an attack by aliens and their hi-tech fighting machines. For many families in San José and throughout the Tapaje region, they are engaged in their own war of the worlds. The only difference being that the aliens in their war are US-backed Colombian soldiers using US-supplied hi-tech weaponry such as Black Hawk helicopters and spray planes.

As a result, Afro-Colombian communities on the country’s Pacific coast are fighting not only for their lives, but also to preserve their traditional cultural practices and the ecosystem upon which they depend. As one local stated, “The government speaks of terrorism, but I ask you, ‘What is terrorism?’ It is not only killing people with a Galil rifle; fumigation is also terrorism. It is terrorism that displaces us from our lands and it is terrorism that forces us to work on palm plantations.”

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