Imagine for a moment that China, in an effort to reduce cigarette smoking and associated health costs among its population, declared war on U.S. tobacco production. Imagine Chinese planes flying over American tobacco fields, spraying crop-killing poison that destroys not just tobacco, but all vegetation, wiping out farmers’ livelihoods, displacing millions of families, and contaminating the environment. Such an act of hostility and disregard for national sovereignty would provoke, at the very least, military aggression from the United States. Yet, unbeknownst to most Americans, for the past 20 years the U.S. has conducted just such a campaign against Colombian coca farmers.
I visited Colombia for the first time in January 2012 on a delegation with Witness for Peace, an organization focused on changing U.S. policy in Latin America. A public health worker, I’d signed up for the trip to understand the origins and motives of a drug trade that contributes to a violent illicit market and shatters countless lives through addiction. By the time I left Colombia, I realized that while people who suffer from drug dependence are clear casualties of the trade, the millions of Colombian small farmers poisoned and displaced by U.S. drug policy are perhaps its greatest victims.
With appalling addiction rates in the U.S., particularly during the crack epidemic that swept the country during the 1980s, it’s hard to blame the United States for taking an aggressive stance against drug suppliers. The problem is that most of the “suppliers” in Colombia are not swaggering kingpins who lord over drug plantations, but poor farmers who grow coca, itself a harmless plant, but which happens to be the main ingredient in cocaine, to sustain meager livelihoods and feed their families. During my trip to Colombia I not only saw the coca plant, a short, unremarkable bush, but tasted it in the form of aromatic coca tea and cookies made with coca flour. Coca is a medicinal plant often used to create flour and healing balms. The dried leaves are also chewed during some indigenous spiritual ceremonies. But when filtered through other ingredients, typically cement, gasoline and battery acid, coca leaves produce cocaine, an addictive stimulant drug. For the past two decades, U.S. drug policy in Colombia had centered around reducing the cocaine supply by eradicating its leafy ingredient, the coca plant.
The United States’ War on Drugs, launched under former President Nixon in the 1970s, seeped into Colombia during the 1980s. A full-scale military strategy, Plan Colombia, was drafted under President Clinton and implemented in 2001 by President Bush. Plan Colombia was an aggressive campaign against drug suppliers that called for the eradication of the coca plant through aerial fumigation (spraying herbicide from planes) and manual eradication (pulling the plant up by the roots). Since the Plan was initiated, the United States (working with Colombian anti-trafficking police) has sent planes laden with glysophate herbicide to spray on small farms, indigenous reserves, and national parks where coca is grown. Colombian farmers report that when the concentrated substance rains down, it kills not only coca, but everything else it touches. Subsistence crops such as rice, corn and potatoes wither, rivers are laced with poison, wild animals and livestock die, children sicken, and chemical rashes spread over the skin of anyone in the path of the planes. The farmers, stripped of their homes and livelihood, burdened with sickness and chemical burns, flee to the cities where slums spring up as people fight over scarce resources amidst 12-20% unemployment.
After witnessing the devastating effects of fumigation in Colombia, I asked several small farmers why they grow coca and risk losing the crop to fumigation. Their answer was clear: With the expansion of free trade policies during the past couple decades, small farmers are pitted against Walmart-like conglomerates which produce food more cheaply, often importing subsidized products from the United States. “We can grow lettuce and rice [instead of coca] but can’t transport it 12 hours on a donkey,” said Alberto, a small farmer I met in Tambo. “The sale price doesn’t cover the price of the donkey.” Whereas years ago small farmers could rely on licit crops for subsistence, the plunging prices have made it nearly impossible to compete and many choose to cultivate coca as their only hope to eke out a living, despite the huge risks.