DRCNet Interview: Dario Gonzalez Posso, Cofounder of Mama Coca 6/27/03

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Colombian social scientist Dario Gonzalez Posso has been working on issues of war and peace in his home country for more than 20 years. He founded the Colombian Institute for Peace and Development Studies (INDEPAZ in its Spanish-language acronym) in 1984, and was more recently a cofounder of the loose network of academics and activists known as Mama Coca (http://www.mamacoca.org). Along with María Mercedes Moreno, Henry Salgado and the Mama Coca collective, Posso played a critical role in placing drug policy on the agenda of the Global Social Forum's special thematic meeting in Cartagena, Colombia, last week. DRCNet spoke with Posso in Cartagena on Sunday.

Week Online: The Global Social Forum in Cartagena described its themes as being democracy, human rights, war, and the drug trade. Did that accurately describe what you and Mama Coca hoped to do at the forum?

Dario Gonzalez Posso: The organizers of the forum wanted to talk about the drug trade, but what we were really more interested in was specifically issues related to the cultivation of illicit crops -- what we prefer to describe as "proscribed cultivation." The theme of the drug traffic is, of course, important, but that is not what we wanted as a central focus, and that is not what the panels and workshops we organized focused on. Instead, we studied the problems related to proscribed cultivation, but we also looked at the role of consumers and, of course, human rights. Human rights is key; we are very interested in the rights of peasants to grow their crops and in the rights of drug consumers to be left in peace. This means we are against prohibitionism, and we believe we are seeing a growing anti-prohibitionist consensus. Not everyone is anti-prohibitionist, and it is not necessary that everyone be anti-prohibitionist, but that is where we stand.

WOL: Was the conference a success in your view?

Gonzalez Posso: I cannot talk about the forum in general. There were many, many events that we did not have the time to participate in, but organizationally, I think you have to say it was a success. More than 4,700 people registered for the forum. Still, I think it is too early to say how successful it was. We have to see what comes from it.

For us, there were very important practical results with potentially great political importance. We were able to forge agreement among diverse sectors to push for an international commission to evaluate current anti-drug policy and form alternatives. That commission will be formed by all who participated in the Mama Coca axis at the forum, or at least by all who want to participate. Not everyone sees the utility of working to reform the UN drug conventions, especially when some groups must measure how best to use their limited resources.

Still, I think we share a common base and a commitment to pluralism, and while there are different visions and different interests, these differences don't exclude groups if they don't want to participate in the commission. The Brazilians, for example, said they don't want to participate in the commission because they would rather focus their energies at home. I think I can understand that, given the Lula government's foreign policies, which are directed toward a sort of regional or sub-regional integration. That has implications for the entire continent, and our Brazilian friends can and will support anti-prohibitionism from that perspective. It is not necessary that we be homogenous; in fact, we seek pluralism.

WOL: Is there an identifiable common ground even within these differences?

Gonzalez Posso: Even if we have our differences, I think there are some basic criteria on which we all agree. First is human rights. We need to advance and support proposals based on the human rights, and in my view, that entails ending prohibition. We must confront the criminalization of peasant farmers who grow prohibited crops and the criminalization of drug users. This is a human rights issue of the most fundamental sort. Also, there is the strong interest in repealing or amending the UN anti-drug conventions. Toward this end, we have a proposal to revalorize, to explicitly recognize the virtues of prohibited crops in their cultural, medical, industrial, creative and alimentary uses. As far as the UN is concerned, crops like cannabis, coca and opium are simply prohibited substances, and that's that. The centers of world power think they can execute policies that will result in zero coca or zero cannabis, but I think this is very illogical; it cannot be done. It is absurd and arrogant to think you can eradicate a species; it is a gift from god.

We know that all of these crops have long and varied histories. Take cannabis, for example, since it is more familiar to North Americans and Europeans. It has been used for thousands of years. It has been used to make clothing, its seeds and oils are used in various products, and, of course, it has a long history of recreational use. In the Andes, coca is associated with the beginning of Andean agricultural civilization. The indigenous people of the Andes never had cocaine, but they used coca in its natural form as a food, and also as a substance with cultural significance for them. Chewing the coca leaf is incorporated into indigenous life in many ways and has many uses. And as Peruvian expert Baldomero Cáceres pointed out, each leaf you chew is one leaf that doesn't go into the drug trade.

The indigenous use of coca is not as important in Colombia as in Peru, but here we have a minority of indigenous people who use coca in the traditional manner and the culture is the same. Throughout the Andes, when the Europeans came, they brought with them the attitude that coca is something taken by backwards people, by Indians, by primitives. Even some indigenous people identified with this thinking. The plant was demonized, and it is still being demonized today. This is why we think it is so important to include the recuperation of the cultural role of coca as one of our goals. Our countries are multicultural and multi-plural, and I believe we have to accept that there are differences among cultures within a nation. Here in Colombia, for example, we are African, indigenous, European, mestizo, and none of these cultures is superior, just different from the others. The recognition of and respect for other cultures is the very foundation of human rights.

WOL: Is there a political base in Colombia for anti-prohibitionism?

Gonzalez Posso: In some of the more democratic sectors, for some time there has been a search for responsibility -- who is to blame for the proscribed crops? And the tendency is to say that it is the fault of the consumers, the North Americans and Europeans. This is a mirror image of the discourse from the North, which blames us, blames the producers. They say we must stop the supply at the source to eliminate demand.

Neither of these positions is valid. They both ignore the fact that the origin of all these problems is prohibition. Prohibition created the drug trade. Prohibition stimulates the creation of networks of organized crime. And ironically, these prohibitionist efforts to suppress plants like cannabis, coca and opium are one of the causes of the proliferation of synthetic drugs, which effectively implicate more people than the plant drugs.

Prohibition also generates a model of a criminal economy that is articulated with the international financial system. The crops are grown one place and in an underground economy, but in the end the profits are realized in the legal economy. I believe that an anti-drug strategy that struck effective blows against these capital flows and the money laundering would also wound the global financial system. This, of course, represents a big obstacle to change at the global level and is something we cannot deal with as one nation. We have to transcend the international mafia that profits off this and open an international debate. As yet, we have not progressed far in that direction in Colombia.

WOL: Undoing the UN conventions is a process that could take years to occur. What sort of intermediate steps are you looking at?

Gonzalez Posso: There are things we can do, but none of them will be easy. We have to go one step at a time at the same time we work on the conventions. We could begin with the non-criminalization of peasant growers and drug consumers. We already have the legalization of possession and use in small amounts in Colombia. But President Uribe wants to change this; it is part of a referendum he wants Colombians to vote on. This is a real step backward. We don't know if it will pass, but we fear it could.

The referendum deals with other things too, but it is a trick, a deception. Uribe is carrying Bush's mission to Colombia. They want to say there is a dilemma: You can have security or you can have human rights, but this is a false dilemma. They try more than ever to mix the issue of proscribed crops with the security issue. It is necessary to eliminate the funding for the guerrillas and the paramilitaries, they say, but what does this imply for us? It means the government will attack the peasants, it will ignore the internationally recognized distinction between combatants and civilians. The fumigation of peasant crops is not about alternative development, it is an act of war, a military objective.

Such actions violate both the Geneva accords and the United Nations' own charter. This has been documented by the UN and by the Colombian government. The fumigation of proscribed crops affects the villagers' rights to health and a clean environment. It also disrupts the social fabric, causing the decomposition of families and the creation of displaced people. But you must also understand that the cultivation most affected is that of food. The proscribed crops are often planted near food crops, and they are destroyed by the fumigation. This produces hunger and refugees. And those most affected, of course, are the children. This is fundamental, for the international community recognizes and values the need to respect the rights of children most of all.

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Issue #293, 6/27/03

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