Latin America: Colombian President Says Government Might Start Buying Coca Crop 8/12/05

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Colombian President Alvaro Uribe has proposed that the government buy peasant farmers' coca crops in a bid to cut off funding to armed rebels, the Christian Science Monitor reported Wednesday. Uribe first mentioned the idea at a town hall meeting in the central province of Meta last month, the newspaper said.

"This has to be serious. Hand over the coca and take the money," Uribe said, comparing the idea to other agricultural transactions. "As at the country fair, hand over the pig, take the money," he said.

Such a move would be a stark contrast with current Colombian government policy, which, backed by US pressure and dollars, relies on aerial fumigation of coca crops, some manual eradication, and limited alternative development funding. The US has pumped at least $3 billion into its "Plan Colombia," now known as the Andean regional initiative, spraying more than 130,000 hectares of coca plants each year since 2002. But while Colombian coca production has dropped from record levels of the late 1990s, for all the spraying, the crop dropped only 7% last year as peasant farmers re-planted after spraying or moved onto new lands to grow coca.

Some critics have suggested the Colombian government could not afford to buy the coca, arguing that to buy up the crop could cost as much as $64 million. But that is a drop in the bucket compared to annual US anti-drug and counterinsurgency aid that runs in the hundreds of millions of dollars each year.

A more serious criticism is that a government offer to buy will simply drive up prices, causing more farmers to grow more coca. "It's absurd from the economic point of view," Congressman Gustavo Petro told the Monitor. Armed groups such as the leftist FARC and rightist paramilitaries, who buy the crops from farmers, would simply raise their bidding price above the government's, he said. "It won't solve the issue of narco-trafficking. The farmer will sell to the highest bidder," Petro said.

But the Uribe government says the move could help win peasants away from the FARC at a time when the 15,000-strong guerilla army is on the run. "The advance of military operations has made [the coca trade] more difficult and has created a favorable environment for the farmer to get out of this illegal activity," said a presidential statement.

Meanwhile, the FARC is definitely not on the run in southern Putumayo province. Instead, it has virtually shut down the province through transit stoppages enforced by armed fighters. "No gasoline. No electricity. No running water. Rebels declared the state of Putumayo in southern Colombia a no-drive zone and began blowing up bridges, electrical towers and oil production facilities. Putumayo is paralyzed. Motorists are afraid to drive on rural roads. Most gasoline stations are dry. The United Nations said Friday it was 'extremely concerned' by the state's shortages of food and other essentials," the Associated Press reported over the weekend.

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Issue #399 -- 8/12/05

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