The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime reported Monday that 102,000 hectares of coca were being grown in Colombia at the end of 2002, a 30% reduction compared to the 145,000 grown a year earlier. The reported reduction in Colombia has contributed to the first overall decline in coca production in the Andean region for more than a decade, the UN report added.
Drug warriors and the Colombian government hailed the figures as a victory, but some experts question the numbers, while others point out that the reported reduction in Colombia has come at a great cost in terms of displacement of civilian populations and environmental destruction caused by widespread and increasing aerial fumigation.
"This is a major achievement in the international fight against illicit drugs and related crime," Antonio Maria Costa, executive director of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, said at a celebratory press conference in Brussels. "The world production of coca has been persistently above 200,000 hectares: this decline will subtract over 100 tons of cocaine from world markets."
The Colombian government greeted the announcement as "a major victory." At a joint UN-Colombian government press conference in Bogota, Colombian Interior Minister Fernando Londono vowed to wipe out coca in Colombia. "President Uribe's pledge to permanently eradicate coca from our territory is irrevocable," he said. "It isn't about dealing with a problem, but ending a nightmare for the Colombian people."
However, a March 6 editorial in the widely read news magazine The Economist pointed out that hectares under coca production in neighboring Bolivia and Peru have increased, and that more productive varieties of coca are in use in both countries -- fundamental factors ignored by the UN's measuring stick of choice. The editorial, titled "The Balloon Goes Up," notes a "hollow quality" to the so-called victory, stating that "the 'drug war' has imposed its own costs." The pro-market magazine explains the functioning of supply and demand in the drug trade by pointing out that "one [of those costs] is known as the 'balloon effect': local squeezes simply move the industry elsewhere, spreading violence and corruption with it."
And although the UN Office on Drugs and Crime was coy about how the Colombian reduction was achieved, referring to "government-sponsored eradication," in key Colombian coca-producing provinces, it is the Uribe government's wholehearted embrace of aerial fumigation that has killed the coca crop -- along with food crops and farm animals.
Last September, numerous scientists and policy experts attacked fumigation as dangerous to plant and human life alike and a disastrous policy approach in practice. "Aerial spraying, whether through drift, accident or intention, is destroying the food crops of farmers who have agreed to eradicate drug crops and, even worse, of farmers and indigenous communities who are innocent of drug production," said Lisa Haugaard, executive director of the Latin America Working Group (http://www.lawg.org), attacking US government compliance with its own reporting and compensation requirements. "The compensation system required by Congress exists on paper, but not in practice. Of 1,000 claims filed by Colombian farmers for damages, 800 were dismissed sight unseen, and the only claim determined to be valid has not yet been paid."
In the same joint statement questioning the fumigation program, Janet Chernela, chair of the Committee for Human Rights of the American Anthropological Association, condemned the practice as detrimental to some 58 indigenous groups living in areas affected by the spraying. "These nations have lived in their territories for hundreds, and in some cases, thousands, of years. Displacement caused by herbicidal spraying and violence seriously threatens the rights of aboriginal peoples to inhabit lands belonging to them; it also brings about social and economic disruption affecting every aspect of life."
"The problem of illicit cultivation can't be solved by a military response," said Dr. Miguel Angel Rubio, a technical advisor to Putumayo Congressman Guillermo Rivera Flores at a congressional hearing in Bogota last month. "They can fumigate what they fumigate, and they can say there is no coca in Putumayo, but we know it is there, and the plots are also migrating to Amazonas as they are pressured," he said.
Even the UN's Drug Control Program Colombia head, Klaus Nyholm, said that fumigation cannot stop illicit cultivation as long as the black market keeps prices high and farmers face few alternatives. "It has to be backed up with alternative or rural development programs and it hasn't been so far. I don't think you can fumigate yourself out of the problem," he said.
And in a joint statement greeting the report, Member of the European Parliament and coordinator of Parliamentarians for Antiprohibitionist Action Marco Cappato (see newsbrief below for more on Cappato) and Marco Perduca, executive director of the International Antiprohibitionist League (http://www.antiprohibitionist.org) questioned both the substance and the recommendations of the report. "While we commend the UN and the government of Colombia for having attempted such a survey, we would have welcomed a clarification that it was carried out on the basis of all the available estimates, and not real figures, as the Country is facing civil war and substantial parts of its territory are not necessarily under the full control of the Government. At the same time, it needs to be emphasized that if the number of hectares dedicated to the illicit production of coca leaf might have been diminished, coca growers have been developing more potent qualities of the substance as well as fast growing plants," said the anti-prohibitionists.
Rather than continue to generate huge social and economic costs attempting to suppress the drug trade, policymakers should find alternatives, they added. "The main challenge that needs to be met by those who are working to control illicit drugs are an effective scientific, economic and political evaluation of current policies that have not been able to reduce the production, consumption and sale of illicit substances, all over the world, and the initiation of a process of review of the UN Conventions on Drugs. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime should be instrumental in opening this type of debate at the upcoming Vienna 'review' conference."
In the meantime, as the spraying continues apace in Colombia, coca follows the path of least resistance. To adjacent provinces, to adjacent countries, and back to old homes in Peru and Bolivia, coca is once again on the move.
Visit http://www.unodc.org/odccp/press_release_2003-03-17_1.html and http://www.unodc.org/pdf/colombia/report_2003-03-01_1.pdf for the UN's report and press release.