By Juan Forero
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, May 22, 2009
VISTA HERMOSA, Colombia — Colombia, with $8 billion in U.S. backing since the late 1990s, has tried everything to eradicate the crop used to make cocaine.
Planes have sprayed the country with coca-killing herbicides, and authorities have deployed soldiers and paid laborers to yank the stringy green bushes out of the ground. Record amounts of coca have been eliminated — only to sprout up anew as coca farmers move on and plant again.
Now, Colombia’s government may have found a remedy palatable to a Democratic-led U.S. Congress not only interested in emphasizing social development over military aid for this country but also looking for solutions to consider in Afghanistan, where the Taliban is entrenched and drug crops are flourishing.
The plan underway here is an ambitious state-building effort designed to incorporate a once-forgotten region into the legitimate economy by bringing in police and courts, paving roads, improving schools and offering farm aid. The idea is to provide broad incentives for farmers in this town in the southern state of Meta to stay put and grow legal crops.
Colombian authorities are working to duplicate the plan in five other drug-infested regions, and U.S. officials say it could work in other conflict zones far from Colombia.
The results here are promising: From 2007 to 2008, coca production fell 75 percent in a quadrant of the southern state of Meta that is bigger than Rhode Island, Colombian authorities say. With most hamlets around Vista Hermosa pledging to cooperate in exchange for help, eradication efforts have accelerated this year and the amount of coca here is now negligible. Meanwhile, the amount of land dedicated to the three leading legal crops grew sixfold from last year.
"I see a big change in the last couple of years, 100 percent favorable to us," said Luis Arturo Giraldo, a farmer who used to grow coca, like most farmers here. "The region where I have my farm is much better, much calmer. There is no conflict there."
Officials measure success not in how much coca has been destroyed but in rising land value and confidence — unheard of even two years ago when this area ranked among the country’s top coca-producing regions. Several farmers said in interviews that Marxist guerrillas forced peasants to grow coca, which is then manufactured into cocaine and shipped to the United States. Right-wing paramilitary squads then swept in to fight for control of the crop.
Today, 2,385 farm families are receiving emergency food aid and technical help from agronomists as they start to grow rice, sugar cane and other crops, officials say. Those who have worked on the program, including foreign diplomats familiar with Colombia’s complex and seemingly intractable conflict, said they have never seen hope restored so quickly.
"There’s much more trust in the future," said Marion Kappeyne van de Coppello, ambassador from the Netherlands, which has spent $2 million to assist farmers in the crucial six-month transition period after they give up coca farming. "For me, it was a startling change in attitude."
Under the Integrated Consolidation Plan for the Macarena, named after a national park west of here, the military first drove out guerrillas and other armed groups. In quick sequence, engineers and work crews, technicians, prosecutors, social workers and policy types arrived, working in concert to transform a lawless backwater into something resembling a functioning part of Colombia. All of it is coordinated from a compound, called the fusion center, on the edge of Vista Hermosa.
A stream of foreign visitors, many of them policymakers who work on drug and conflict-resolution issues, arrived to study the outcome.
"The results do the talking," said Aldo Lale, director of the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime in Bogota. Lale said the reduction in coca plantings has "little precedent in Colombia and in the world."
So far, about $90 million has been spent, 15 percent of it from the United States and the Netherlands. The program was put in place in late 2007 after Colombian authorities took a step back to study the results of years of aerial fumigation of drug crops and programs designed to wean farmers off growing coca.
They saw that four times as much coca was being eradicated than in the late 1990s but that the size of the country’s coca crop was nearly the same because farmers replanted. Indeed, new U.N. figures show that coca plantings fell by 18 percent from 2007 to 2008 but that the total amount of coca being cultivated is still more than in 2006.
"We used to think that success was coming in and eradicating with all that we had," said Álvaro Balcázar, an expert on agriculture who is program manager for the project. "We found it did not work."
The key, planners said, was to combine the fight against guerrillas and coca with the state-building plans.
"We had to find a way to solve the security problem and the coca problem at the same time because they feed off each other," said Sergio Jaramillo, vice minister of defense and an architect of the project. "It’s all one problem, and it needs a joint solution."
Susan Reichle, the U.S. Agency for International Development director in Colombia, said the central goal of deploying the military and various government agencies together to bring services is "not something that’s rocket science, but it’s a very, very difficult thing to actually do."
She said the United States helped by rapidly delivering on small "impact" projects, such as new soccer fields and renovated schools, that residents requested at community meetings after the security situation improved. But Reichle said it was important that farmers see it was the Colombian state that responded.
"This is not about putting the U.S. government out in front, but creating confidence in the Colombian government," Reichle said.
This area was chosen for symbolic and practical reasons. It was the heartland for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, a rebel group at war with the government for 44 years, and was considered the country’s most productive coca-producing region. Another consideration was that Vista Hermosa and five other nearby municipalities had some roads and other infrastructure to build on.
Farmers here, such as Leonardo Fabio Cabezas, 29, said the turnaround has been startling from a past long dependent on coca. He recalled how his father was "a founder of coca in this region."
"The tradition was coca, coca, coca," Cabezas said. "That is what people grew here."
These days, the farmers in the region said they no longer think too much about coca but are instead focused on solving everyday problems hampering their efforts to grow legal crops. One major obstacle is that farmers here are squatters; they do not have land titles. They say bureaucrats in Bogota have been slow to grant them despite promises.
"The banks demand land titles for farmers, and without titles there is not much in the way of credit," said Miguel Briceño, the mayor here.
Riquelme Saza is among the former coca farmers here who is supportive of the government’s efforts. He said his land is now worth six times as much as it was three years ago. He now grows cacao, bananas and rice on 14 acres along a river framed by dark purple mountains.
"All this gives confidence to the people, makes them want to invest," he said as he trudged into a rice paddy. "Around here, coca only caused problems, and with all this, we now live at peace."