Colombia's Initiative Cuts Down On Coca Planting
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Let's stay for a moment in Latin America, where authorities think they have found one way to resolve a problem that has lasted for decades. It's the problem of drugs in Colombia. America has spent billions of dollars in aid to Colombia to destroy the coca plant used to manufacture cocaine. Each year the crop is poisoned or yanked from the ground, and each year farmers simply replant.
This week, Colombia announced it had dramatically reduced coca production in one remote town. The government did this by building roads and schools where none had existed before. NPR's Juan Forero has this report from Vista Hermosa, Colombia.
(Soundbite of running water)
JUAN FORERO: Fresh mountain water flows through Miguel Sassa's(ph) farm in southern Colombia, a once lawless region crawling with drug traffickers. The water flows into a rice paddy, and Sassa runs his weathered hands through the bright green stalks.
Mr. MIGUEL SASSA (Farmer): (Spanish spoken)
FORERO: He says his rice is nearly halfway to being harvested. Not long ago, Sassa grew another kind of crop earning him good money but bringing Marxist guerillas, paramilitary fighters and cocaine buyers. Coca made Vista Hermosa and the surrounding Macarena Mountains a local epicenter in the cocaine trade.
SASSA: (Spanish spoken)
FORERO: Sassa says that coca brought heartache, but that now peace has come. A big reason is that the amount of coca produced here and in surrounding regions fell by more than 70 percent from 2007 to 2008, according to government and U.N. statistics. Nationwide, Colombian police figure show a 20 percent drop in coca plantings, though Colombia is still by far the world's biggest producer of the crop and cocaine. Still, Colombia's government says the results in Vista Hermosa show it might have found the right tactic to fight drug crops, one it hopes to duplicate nationwide.
And Colombian and American officials say it could be a model for Afghanistan. There too drug crops are flourishing and insurgents are entrenched. Here, the initiative, begun two years ago, targeted one of Colombia's most narco-infested areas. Colombia's government first came in militarily using helicopters to ferry in troops. They drove out guerillas, paid eradicators and volunteers, then pulled up coca bushes.
State agencies arrived next. They paved roads, built schools and offered health services. Other countries, like the United States, have helped. Perhaps the most crucial component has been providing coca farmers with emergency food aid, along with seeds, fertilizer, technical help, and capital to get started growing other crops. Sergio Jaramillo is the vice minister for defense and one of the coordinators of the programs.
Mr. SERGIO JARAMILLO (Vice Minister of Defense, Columbia): What used to happen is that we would just go after the coca trees. So we would eradicate one area and the coca growers would go somewhere else and plant again.
FORERO: Jaramillo said the goal is to create incentives for farmers to stay put and build new lives. That's far more ambitious than many foreign-funded programs in Colombia. Jaramillo says those try to wean farmers off coca, but provide little in the way of aid or infrastructure.
Mr. JARAMILLO: This is not about alternative development, this is about development. This is about making this area a real part of Colombia. And that means that we don't simply give people some seeds and a spade to go on with the life and plant something.
FORERO: Big bureaucratic obstacles remain. A major one is that the Agriculture Ministry has yet to handout titles to farmers and those titles are vital if farmers are to get state loans.
(Soundbite of music)
FORERO: Out at Sassa's small farm, (unintelligible) all around, listening to music. Two years ago, this farm was at the center of Vista Hermosa's drug war.
SASSA: (Spanish spoken)
FORERO: Now Sassa trudges proudly past fields planted with sugarcane and cacao. He says peace has brought prosperity. This land has skyrocketed in value.
SASSA: (Spanish spoken)
FORERO: He says that's generated confidence and investment. And he says he's hopeful the farms here will be incorporated into Colombia's legal economy. It's something, Sassa says, he thought would never happen.
Juan Forero, NPR News, Vista Hermosa, Colombia.
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