New pilot coca substitution program to test fumigation promises in Colombia
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New pilot coca substitution program to test fumigation promises in Colombia

President Juan Manuel Santos recently announced the creation of a new pilot program for illicit crop substitution to begin in southern Colombia in April of next year.

“I will come to initiate this pilot plan, so that little by little we get rid of coca cultivation and give all the campesinos a new opportunity to have a decent life, a decent income, without the need for violence or fumigation,” Santos told a group of coca farmers in the southern region of Putumayo, according to a presidential press release.

For Santos, the agreement, signed with the Regional Table of Social Organizations, demonstrates that the campesinos of the region want a “new country.” The president drew a direct connection between the program and the peace process, saying that “peace is more than the silence of guns.”

Indeed, the reason it has been announced as a “pilot” program is that it closely mirrors the outlines of the illicit crop substitution program described in one of the three preliminary peace deals that has already been signed at the peace talks in Havana, Cuba, with the FARC leadership.

Read more: Colombian government, FARC release classified information from negotiations

Signed earlier this year, the full text of the preliminary deal on illicit crops – like the two others on rural reform and political participation of the FARC – was only released in October.

In the deal on illicit crop cultivation, the Colombian government and the rebels agreed to create an initiative, known as the National Program for the Substitution of the Use of Illicit Crops, through which rural communities cultivating coca and other illicit crops would create development and crop substitution plans. A key element of the program is the voluntary nature of this substitution over a pre-determined time period.

A controversial method

Among the key complaints from rural farmers and the FARC regarding the anti-drug policies of the Colombian government has been the continued use of a chemical known as glyphosate to fumigate illicit crops.

Glyphosate, known in the United States as Roundup, is produced by the multinational Monsanto. The version used in Colombia is often referred to as “Roundup Ultra” for having a concentration of 44 percent, whereas the normal version only reaches as high as 7 percent.

Monsanto has also gained notoriety in Colombia for selling patented seeds to farmers who were obliged to buy their product under a free trade agreement with the US.

Various peace activist organizations and think tanks have demonstrated that fumigation is extremely expensive compared with other forms of combating cocaine trafficking, only minimally effective, and often has harmful side-effects for the campesinos caught in its path.

And Colombia is not the only country where farmers have felt the effects of the chemical.

One month ago, an Ecuadorian NGO reported that various communities along the border with Colombia had seen fumigation planes and smelt the chemical. A group of schoolchildren were also said to have gotten headaches from the strong odor.

This, despite the fact that there is supposedly a 10-kilometer buffer zone on the Colombian side. A binational committee formed by the two countries recently recommended that distance be cut in half.

In 2008, the Ecuadorian government filed suit in the International Court of Justice over alleged damages from the Colombia’s aerial fumigation. In 2013, the Colombian government agreed to pay Quito $15 million over the harm done.

Will fumigation continue?

Pieded Cordoba, a leftist former senator who served as a guarantor of the negotiations between Santos and the farmers in Putumayo, seems to believe that Santos is indeed agreeing to end the practice of fumigation with the pilot program.

“Santos has agreed with the campesinos of Putumayo to end the fumigations and initiate the [peace talks plan] of manual substitution,” she said in a tweet the day the plan was announced.

But Santos appears to be carefully choosing his words when describing its supposed end with the implementation of the pilot substitution program.

The president says that when the program is showing “results,” this will “entail” that there will no longer be a “need” to fumigate. So rather than reject the practice as inherently harmful and ineffective, he is simply saying it will not be used when there are no longer coca crops to destroy.

This reflects a detail of the peace agreements that has received little attention in the press: the preliminary peace deal on illicit crops contains no government commitment to end fumigation. In fact, the FARC and the governments negotiators explicitly disagreed on the issue, with the rebels demanding an end to the method and government saying it will simply “prioritize” manual eradication.

Why is the Colombian government so stubborn in its refusal to give up fumigation?