Issue of November, 10, 2002
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Cash for Farmers Who Destroy Their Coca Crops
By Abraham Lama

Peru's government is paying 150 dollars per hectare of destroyed coca bush, the raw material used in producing cocaine. This economic incentive program has the financial backing of the U.S. government.

LIMA, (Tierramérica).- The Peruvian government has launched a financial bonus plan -- supported by the United States -- for peasant farmers who voluntarily get rid of their coca crops, an illegal industry that provides income for some 400,000 families in this Andean nation.

"The government of Alejandro Toledo is paying farmers for every voluntarily eradicated hectare planted with coca on their lands," Pedro Morales, an official from the Agriculture Minister, told Tierramérica.

It began as a pilot program in Padre Abad province, in the jungle department of Ucayali, with the aim of wiping out some 900 hectares of illegal plantations there, said Augusto Lecussan, local representative of the National Commission for Development and Life without Drugs (DeVida).

The first to take part in the initiative in Padre Abad were 25 indigenous families. They have begun to receive the equivalent of 150 dollars in the Peruvian currency, the sol, for every hectare of destroyed coca bush, Morales said.

Another 200 families of the Huambisa and Ashaninka indigenous communities have signed up for the program, pledging to replace their coca fields with legal crops like oil palm, points out DeVida's Lecussan.

The fields of coca, the raw material used in cocaine production, represent a serious criminal phenomenon -- affecting the economy, communities and the environment -- in all countries of South America's Andean region.

The illicit crops replace forested land, and to obtain pure cocaine (cocaine chlorohydrate), illegal laboratories are set up in the middle of the jungle. There, the coca leaves are treated with sulfuric acid, kerosene and acids. These substances are often dumped into the ground and filter through the soil, contaminating rivers and other water sources.

Furthermore, government-directed eradication efforts through aerial fumigation using defoliants like glyphosate indiscriminately wipe out food crops and the surrounding forests, as well as causing health problems for the people living in the targeted areas.

The Peruvian security forces pursue drug traffickers, cocaine producers and the providers of the chemical inputs, but do not hold coca growers criminally liable.

No police or soldiers take part in the eradication of the coca crops. Their absence is intended to prevent conflict in the jungle areas where some 400,000 families subsist directly or indirectly through coca production. These areas are also home to illegal armed groups guerrilla cells.

The government has attempted to promote alternative crops for the farmers, now adding the payment initiative for voluntary elimination of coca. But the sharp decline in farm prices in Peru conspires against both approaches.

The crop substitution programs have failed because they cannot compete with the profitability of coca, notes Roger Rumrill, an independent expert in Amazon and drug trade issues.

The new initiative has met with some resistance from migrant farmers who have come from the sierra. Observers note that while many farmers might be interested in the cash, they fear revenge by the drug traffickers.

At least two peasant association leaders have been assassinated, likely for their public support of the plan. The local magazine Caretas reported that Maximiliano Flores Infantes and Mateo Zamalloa had been gunned down by a drug gang's hired killers on Oct 16 and Oct 22, respectively.

In early October the Toledo government announced that it intends to wipe out 7,000 hectares of coca plantations this year. Lima seeks to comply with the first part of the agreements signed with the United States that would allow Peru to benefit from the U.S. Andean Trade Promotion and Drug Eradication Act.

But the authorities have not yet issued a tally of the hectares of coca bush destroyed so far this year.

Until 1992, Peru was the world leader in coca production with more than 120,000 hectares planted. The total has been significantly reduced since then, to just 34,000 hectares in 2000, ceding the dubious honor of world coca leader to Bolivia. Colombia, meanwhile, is number one in production of cocaine.

As a result of the political upheaval triggered by widespread corruption and the ouster of former president Alberto Fujimori (1990-2000), the anti-coca campaign lost momentum and, according to U.S. government figures, only 6,400 hectares of coca fields were eradicated in Peru.

* Abraham Lama is an IPS correspondent.

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