Fumigation and worse in Colombia
"Who in the US benefits from fumigating Colombians?" the man asked me pointedly in the crowded community hall. The community was in a paramilitary-controlled part of Putumayo. Putumayo is a southern department of Colombia where the guerrilla insurgency is strong, where much coca is grown, where paramilitary massacres, disappearances, and assassinations are frequent, and where Plan Colombia is focused. It's the focus of the US military assistance and of the fumigation programs.
It was a painful question to face. But in some ways it wasn't the most painful question. We had been placed on the stage of this community hall, twenty of us North American delegates facing about a hundred members of this recently fumigated community, so that they could tell us the impacts of US policy on them. They told us that the fumigation, which has airplanes spraying farmer's fields with Monsanto-made Roundup Ultra in order to destroy coca crops, has some effects which could easily have been predicted. These include destroying food crops, polluting the water, killing livestock, causing skin rashes, respiratory problems, stomach illnesses, destroying economies. They showed us all the destruction. Elsewhere in Putumayo they showed us where the agricultural college was fumigated. We visited a 160-hectare yucca cooperative-- that was also fumigated.
Now the callous brutality of a policy can make a person angry. When you try to imagine the options a farmer has in a place like Putumayo-- grow coca and have a chance of making ends meet (and be fumigated), grow food crops and risk not being able to make ends meet (and be fumigated)-- it's hard to think of what the appropriate emotional response is. To hear from the US Embassy that Roundup Ultra is perfectly safe and hear Embassy staff imply that these campesinos aren't suffering from fumigation but are in fact inflating health and environmental problems caused the campesinos's own ignorance in handling agro-chemicals in order to get money from the US, as we heard, can take a person well into rage. Consider that such a fumigation is entirely illegitimate, given that US-grown tobacco kills orders of magnitude more people and isn't fumigated and neither are California vineyards, another source of a dangerous killer drug, and you might be stunned into silence, as I was.
But there's something even worse than all this. And that was the defensiveness that most of the campesinos had when they were talking to us. They would have had every right to tell us to tell the US to take its fumigation programs, and its military aid, and its helicopters, and get lost, never coming back except to apologize for all the destruction and plunder and maybe pay reparations. Instead they insisted that they were hard-working people who didn't want to grow coca, but needed workable alternatives to coca production. They explained how the 'alternative development' component of Plan Colombia, whereby campesinos get subsidies if they eradicate their own coca, was designed to fail. It's administered by neglectful organizations and not under the control of the community. The aid comes in kind, not in cash, and has to be picked up from town. Traveling to town is expensive and time-consuming, and much of the aid money is eaten away in lost time and money traveling to and fro to get chickens one day, chicken feed the next day, a water pump one day, and a hose another day. Hearing a campesino say he would be happy to grow products other than coca if they had a market and if they wouldn't be fumigated, that must have been the worst thing of all.
But no, I really can't say that either. Because things get still worse in Colombia. Because even though the governors of the departments are lobbying against it, the US and the Colombian federal government seem to have set everything up for another round of fumigation. And because, as terrible as fumigation is, it's just a pretext for something worse.
In Colombia our delegation had the chance to talk to a wonderful activist named Hector Mondragon. Hector is an economic advisor to many different people's movements in Colombia. For this work he has been imprisoned six times, tortured by a US-trained officer once, and threatened innumerable times. He sleeps in a different bed each night and doesn't announce his schedule in advance. He says, without exaggeration, that he's lost 5000 friends to this war. And while the fact that he's alive and he keeps fighting is an inspiration, the analysis he presented to us was stark.
He told us how the history of Colombia was one of elites pushing campesinos deeper into the jungle in order to concentrate their own wealth and facilitate multinational exploitation. He suggested we look not only at the complexities of all the armed actors, the paramilitaries and guerrillas and armed forces and US and narcotraffickers, but also at who benefits from the violence. Afro-Colombians are on land that is slated for canal-building, dam-building, and oil development-- and are being displaced and murdered in huge numbers. Indigenous people are on resource-rich lands-- and are facing the same kinds of violence. From 1948 to 1958, in 'La Violencia' in Colombia, 2 million people were driven off their lands and 200 000 killed. At the end of it, there were consolidated sugar and cotton plantations in few hands. The current phase of violence has had 2 million people driven off their lands and land concentration has increased, from 34% of the land in the hands of the top 5000 landowners in 1994 to 48% in those hands in 2001.
Hector knows US policymakers don't care about the health effects of drugs on American citizens. He knows they're using drugs as an excuse to intervene in Latin American politics. US elites are concerned with geopolitics and regional security. It has always been about exploiting Latin American labor and extracting Latin American resources, using whatever violence and pretexts are needed to do so. There is tremendous, and growing, resistance to this kind of exploitation in Latin America, that is of great concern to US elites. There is the landless peasants's movement in Brazil, the Zapatistas in Mexico, Chavez in Venezuela, a strong indigenous movement in Ecuador, people's movements in Bolivia, an economic collapse in Argentina. All this as the US tries to force the FTAA through in a shortened time span. To do so will require violence, as neoliberalism required. "If neoliberalism came into Latin America in the boots of Pinochet's military coup," Hector said, "the FTAA will come to Latin America in the helicopters of Plan Colombia."
But Hector fears violence even worse than the violence of Plan Colombia is on the horizon. "Human rights workers in Colombia have a sad story to tell," he said. "We denounce imprisonment and torture, and they respond by disappearing people. We denounce disappearances, and they assassinate people. We denounce assassinations, and they respond with massacres. What could be worse than massacres? There is something worse and that is a direct military intervention that would destroy the country and not solve the problems of the war." He fears a military intervention like that of Kosovo, justified as a humanitarian intervention, whose real intention is to discipline the popular movements of all of Latin America.
I couldn't help but remember the argument I heard at Z two years ago when the bombing of Yugoslavia began, that in order to be consistent the US would have to bomb Colombia as well. It served well to show the hypocrisy of the US, because bombing Colombia seemed so implausible. But today it's something Colombians fear.
Caught between the insurgents and their project, the paramilitaries and their fascist political project, the Colombian military, and the US violence, are the people of Colombia, people like Hector. They're reaching out to us to build a bridge. Will we be able, together, to stop the war on drugs? To stop the kind of 'development' that's destroying Colombia? To stop the humanitarian intervention before it happens?