I read with much interest of an upcoming report on the issue of legalization of drugs in Colombia by Research Fellow Rachel Godfrey Wood.
Many of the reports on drug use, abuse and legalization address the issues of the impact of drugs on society but limit themselves to the impacts on the urban society, both in the US and in Colombia: use by kids, killings, drug cartels, addiction, incarceration, rehabilitation, the futility of the current war, etc.
Where I have seen little coverage is on the impacts of the current war on the Colombian peasants and on the environment. Cultivation of coca and cocaine extraction require the use of chemicals that are highly regulated in the legal economy but are handled very irresponsibly by the illegal producers. Spillage, mismanagement, intentional dumping to avoid seizure of people or goods cause serious damage to the rivers and the environment. In additon, the continued persecution by law enforcement agents forces the traffickers to be on the move leving behind abandoned camps with leaking containers. And large spots in the jungle that have been cleared of vegetation for the planting of the coca bushes.
The other grave issue is the displacement of peasants who are forced to leave their plots by the traffickers looking for land to cultivate the coca and also by the violence of the war among groups vying for control of areas to cultivate. In addition by the escalating price of food, agricultural supplies, fuel and consumer goods brought about by the availabiliy of money from the drug traffic and by the increase of consumption of goods without the necessary increase in the supply. To top it, the current policy of erradication considers the use of herbicides to destroy the coca plants. The herbicides, applied from the air over small coca plots end up destoying the plantain, yucca, and other food crops. It also contaminates the roof tops that are used as collectors of rain water used for drinking. And it contaminates the rivers and soil. But it does little to hurt the coca industry. By many accounts of peasants with whom I have talked, soon after the planes spread the herbicides, the harvesters come in to collect the coca leaves for processing before the chemicals ruin them. The plants, free from the herbicides on the leaves, recover soon. And the cocaine production is only hastened a bit by the need to process the leaves sooner than expected. The yucca, plantain, papachina, maize, rice and other crop, however, cannot be harvested and the peasants who live nearby coca plots simply go hungry. Or join the coca production.
I live in the town of Guapi, a small town on the Colombian Pacific coast that has seen the horrible impacts of all that I describe above. I have seen in the two years since I arrived a tremendous increase in the number of peasants that have arrived in town displaced from their plots totally uprepared for life in a town (let alone life in a big city like Cali, that has seen the arrival of thousands). I have also seen from the plane the increase in the size and number of clear cut areas of the jungle, some for coca others for the extraction of wood, both very damaging to the environment. And I have met many a young man whose only chance for a job is upriver working for the cocaine industry. And I have seen a large increase in the number of drug-related killings that have happened in broad daylight on the town streets. Mostly the dead have been young men involved in the coca business but recently a young boy was caught in the middle of a gun fight and lost his life to a bullet. And I live a prisoner in a town surrounded by the most beautiful jungle there is, unable to explore it on account of the danger in which I will subject myself should I leave the confines of the town borders.
Hopefully there will come a change in policy that will end the current war and allow peace to return to the area. And allow the environment to recover before the headwaters of the innumerable rivers that flow in this very dense and beautiful jungle.
Ricardo Gomez Fontana
Fundación Pacífico del Cauca