The Difficult Rescue of La Macarena
By Yadira Ferrer
Operation "Green Colombia" aims to destroy 4,600 hectares of illicit drug crops in one of the country's most important national parks. But NGOs doubt the effort will be able so save this nature reserve.
BOGOTA, (Tierramérica).- The manual eradication of coca leaf in an operation launched by the Colombian government on Jan. 19 is intended to save La Macarena National Park, one of the country's most important parks for its rich biodiversity, but environmental organizations say this effort isn't enough.
Over the next few months, the campaign is slated to destroy 4,600 hectares of coca, the raw material for cocaine production, as part of Colombia's anti-drugs policy that, with the support of the United States, seeks to weaken the illegal source of income for drug trafficking rings and armed groups.
The authorities also hope the operation will save La Macarena -- a long-time bastion of leftist guerrillas -- from destruction and deforestation, and have thus dubbed it "Colombia Verde" (Green Colombia).
According to official figures, at least 13 of the country's 51 nature parks have illegal drug crops growing in them, and for each hectare planted with coca, three hectares are deforested. La Macarena has already lost between 3,000 and 4,000 hectares of forest.
"We are going to recuperate for the country (La Macarena) nature park, an area that unfortunately has been harmed mercilessly by illicit crops," Gen. Jorge Daniel Castro, director general of the National Police, which is directing the campaign, told the press.
But civil society groups doubt that the operation alone will be effective.
"The manual eradication (of coca plants) in La Macarena may represent progress as a technique," said Ricardo Vargas, coordinator in Colombia for Acción Andina (Andean Action), a non-governmental organization that studies drug trafficking in the region.
"However, it doesn't replace the government's erroneous policy, which is to try to get rid of the drug trafficking problem by going after the weakest link: the peasant farmer who feels obligated to grow coca in order to survive," Vargas told Tierramérica.
"If the government doesn't directly attack the sources of financing for drug trafficking, those groups will continue to shift to other areas, as they have been doing for years," he said.
Manual eradication of coca plants within Colombia's nature parks replaces aerial spraying with glyphosate herbicide, which faced loud opposition from environmental groups last year because of the damage they say the chemicals cause the areas' rich biodiversity.
La Macarena, located in the sierra of the same name, in the south of the central department of Meta, was categorized as a national nature park in 1989 and declared a natural heritage of humanity site by UNESCO (United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization).
Covering 630,000 hectares, it is one of the areas with highest rates of "endemism" -- fauna and flora species found only in that zone -- and has a variety of climates within its borders.
Living in the area are also around 2,500 families of settlers who arrived there more than 40 years ago, and their descendants, as well as thousands of recent arrivals who were attracted by the possibility of making a living growing coca.
Backed by 1,500 police and hundreds of soldiers, some 900 "eradicators" are working in the area, traditionally a stronghold of the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), who are believed to finance their insurgency with drug money.
Thousands of people will have to be relocated once the operation is complete, but the government has not revealed any details about how it will carry out such a process. According to civil society groups, it is essential that the government provide the families living in the area with an alternative means of subsistence to what they have been doing for the past four decades -- and provide protection for their lives.
"The government should do what is necessary to regain trust from the residents and offer them different opportunities to make a living," says Carlos Escobar, advisor to CRAA, an Atlantic regional environmental group.
The ongoing armed conflict and the government's neglect of the area for decades, as well as deforestation, are the main problems affecting La Macarena, say experts.
In Vargas's opinion, the manual eradication process should be accompanied by a broader development plan drawn up with input from the communities.
The Colombian government has never carried out "a serious state policy" for La Macarena or for other nature parks, says Vargas, and beyond the problem of drug crops, there should be public debate about the social and economic situations of each one of these areas.
There are 51 nature parks in Colombia, covering a combined area of about 10 million hectares -- 10 percent of national territory. According to the Integrated System for Monitoring Illicit Crops, in the 2004 census there were 5,364 hectares of coca planted in 13 parks, equivalent to 0.05 percent of the total protected area and 7.0 percent of the total area cultivated with illegal crops in the country.
In addition to manual eradication in La Macarena, the government also has its sights on the northern park of Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta and the western park of Catatumbo.
The UN Office on Drugs and Crime has 11 observers in the area, who according to their representative in Colombia, Sandro Calvani, will be "quantifying the areas cleaned up by the manual eradication groups, and inform the country and the international community about the progress of this operation."
Around 30 groups of eradicators will be sent to other areas of the country. The government's goal is to eradicate 40,000 hectares of illegal drug crops in 2006.
* Yadira Ferrer is a Tierramérica contributor.