Six years and $5 billion in US assistance after the Colombian and US governments embarked on a program of mass aerial fumigation of Colombian coca fields in a bid to dry up the supply of cocaine, the Colombian government announced late last month that it will now accentuate manual eradication of the country's biggest cash crop.
While aerial fumigation was touted by drug warriors as a "silver bullet" that could put an end to the Colombian cocaine business, it hasn't worked out that way. According to official US figures, the amount of land devoted to coca production in Colombia has decreased only slightly since 2001, when major spraying began. That year, some 420,000 acres were planted with coca; in 2006, the number was 375,000 acres.
In addition to not reducing coca cultivation, aerial eradication has led to friction with neighbors, particularly Ecuador, which is concerned about drift-over. It has also excited intense opposition from Colombian peasants and their supporters, who charge that glyphosate, the pesticide used in the spraying, has harmed the environment, livestock, and people.
Now, with the Republican grip on power in Washington slipping and Democrats in control of the House and Senate, the Congress is showing signs it wants to back away from aerial eradication. Colombian President Alvaro Uribe is not waiting.
''Instead of uniting Colombians around the idea of eradicating drugs, [aerial spraying] causes complaints and provokes reactions against eradication,'' Uribe said in a July 20 speech in which he announced the shift. Spraying would remain only a ''marginal'' part of the counter-drug strategy, he said.
''It's an evolution of the policy... We are going to give more importance to the manual eradication than to aerial fumigation,'' Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos confirmed last week to reporters in Washington, where he was discussing the new plans with US policymakers and lobbying Congress to allow more flexibility in the use of US counter-drug aid. ''Manual eradication can be more effective and, at times, cheaper,'' Santos added.
aerial eradication operation
The policy shift was cheered by Colombia's most important newspaper, El Tiempo, in an editorial last week. "Announcing a reduction in aerial spraying and reinforcing manual eradication is the first step for Colombia to formulate an anti-narcotics strategy that answers to more than just 'recommendations' from Washington,'' the editorial said.
The announced shift is the result of both Colombian unhappiness with the results of spraying and the new balance of power in Washington, where congressional Democrats are much more reluctant to provide a blank check to the Bush administration on Colombia, American analysts told Drug War Chronicle.
In Congress, Democrats are proposing deep cuts in military assistance to Colombia and attempting to shift priorities from security to economic development. One House bill would do just that. Meanwhile, the Senate version of the Foreign Appropriations bill earmarks $10 million of the military aid for providing security for manual eradication and it would restrict aerial fumigation to specific areas where the State Department has certified that manual eradication cannot be done.
"One reason for drawing it down is there will be less money for it coming out of Congress, but even the hard-line Colombians were never that thrilled with fumigation," said Adam Isaacson of the Center for International Policy, which monitors Plan Colombia spending. "The Colombian military doesn't like it because it doesn't help them win hearts and minds. Uribe is saying that they are trying to increase the government presence in those areas, and fumigation makes that harder to do, so they will try doing more manual eradication," he said.
While Colombian disappointment with the results of spraying is a factor, it is the new era in Washington that is making the difference, Isaacson suggested. "The change in Congress has been the deciding factor," he said. "Year after year, we've seen these disastrously disappointing numbers for eradication, and the Colombians had to swallow it because every voice in power in Washington said they had to do it. Now, the Colombians have a chance to say what they really think about that policy."
"The Colombians are doing this in part because aerial fumigation simply has not worked," said Annalise Romoser of the US Office on Colombia, a Washington, DC, nonprofit that consults for the State Department on Colombia issues. "Since 2000, when we first started the massive aerial fumigation campaign, there has been a massive increase in production," she said.
"The Colombians are also responding to the message they are hearing from the US Congress," Romoser noted. "It is clear that both the House and the Senate are prepared to drastically slash funding, and the Colombian government is neither interested in nor capable of assuming the cost of aerial eradication without the US support they've been receiving."
But simply shifting from aerial eradication to manual eradication is not enough, said Romoser. "Manual eradication will only be successful when carried out in consultation with affected communities. We need consultation, not forced eradication. The communities I work with in the south are opposed to forced eradication. If they do that without social and economic development programs in place before it begins, it can end up being very divisive."
Eradication without development is a recipe for instability, agreed Isaacson. He pointed the experience of Bolivia a decade ago, when the government of Hugo Banzer unveiled Plan Dignidad and embarked on a campaign of forced eradication without consultation. The resulting chaos in the coca fields led to years of political instability.
"When Plan Dignidad hit, the coca growers went crazy," he recalled. "Road blockades, demonstrations, and the next thing you know, the head of the Chapare coca growers union is the president of Bolivia."
That's an unlikely outcome in Colombia, where coca growers have neither the relative numbers nor the institutional strength of their counterparts in Bolivia. But with the Colombian government ready to switch from aerial spraying to the "kinder, gentler" manual eradication of crops, the potential for more social conflict remains high, especially if eradication is not part of an integrated, holistic economic and social development program. So far, neither the US nor the Colombian governments have shown much appetite for that.