Even as Bush administration officials, their congressional allies, and their chorus of inside-the-beltway chest thumpers move to widen US involvement in Colombia from a limited counter-narcotics campaign to all-out involvement in the Colombian government's war against leftist guerrillas, the US is abandoning alternative development efforts that were supposed to be a key component of Plan Colombia. Instead, US officials told the Los Angeles Times last week, they plan to step up aerial fumigation of peasant coca crops, a program that has drawn criticism worldwide for its destructive impact on legitimate cash crops, small subsistence plots, wildlife, human beings and the environment.
The decision to abandon alternative development programs comes in the wake of two government reports, one from the General Accounting Office (GAO) and one from the US Agency for International Development (AID). The GAO report, released in February, found that voluntary coca eradication programs in southern Putumayo province could not succeed because the Colombian government did not effectively control the area.
"Congress should consider requiring that US AID demonstrates measurable progress in its current efforts to reduce coca cultivation in Colombia before any additional funding is provided for alternative development," it said.
But after the Los Angeles Times obtained a copy of a confidential US AID report last week, the Bush administration pulled the plug without waiting for Congress. According to that report, farmers in southern Colombia who signed voluntary eradication agreements have failed to do so and have no intention of doing so.
Part of the reason for that is that of the 37,000 peasant farmers who agreed to uproot crops in exchange for compensation, only 9,000 have been paid. Another part of the reason is that no legitimate crops have the farm-gate value that coca has.
"There's nothing we can offer the farmers as an alternative that comes near to the value of coca," admitted US AID's Colombia head, Ken Ellis, to the Times.
Now, the US government will attempt to win hearts and minds by spraying poison on the estimated 100,000 peasant farmers and their families who make a living growing coca. Officials said also that some of the $50 million in alternative development funds would be redirected to infrastructure projects and social programs for communities that embrace coca eradication. But those plans remain sketchy.
Development experts warned that the change could have disastrous consequences for small farmers. They could face food shortages if spraying kills their food crops, which are often planted near to coca crops. Similarly, experts warned, peasants would simply move to areas not being sprayed and sow new coca crops.
"You can spray all you want, you can spend all the money in Europe and the United States, but the problem of coca will continue," said Jesus Bastidas, head of an alternative development program in Colombia.
The retreat from presenting any sort of alternative to Colombia's peasant farmers also bodes ill for US war aims in the country. With this move, US policy shifts ever closer to all stick, no carrot.