Coca casts long shadow over efforts against deforestation in Colombia

By Laia Mataix Gomez

El Retorno, Colombia, Sep 9 (EFE).- Felipe Henao was just 9 years old when his father set him up with a hectare (2.2 acres) of land and coca seeds so he could continue the “family business.”

But fate intervened and Felipe became an environmental activist, which brought him into confrontation with the powerful interests behind the coca trade in the south-central Colombian province of Guaviare.

“Just as we were about to begin the harvest, they fumigated us,” he recounted to Efe.

Most people in Guaviare have, at some moment in their lives, either cultivated coca – the raw material of cocaine – or scraped the leaves to get the paste that is transformed into the illegal drug.

During the hardest years of Colombia’s multisided internal conflict, coca was a source of what passed for prosperity in a chronically poor region.

Pedro “Tita” Mosquera lost a leg to an army bullet while protesting with other peasants against the forced eradication of coca in Guaviare.

He shared his story with Efe in the context of a study led by the Foundation for Conservation and Sustainable Development (FCDS), a Colombian NGO, and the Norwegian Embassy in Bogota.

Coca “was something very normal,” Henao said, recalling that his efforts to preserve Guaviare’s jungles from deforestation led to threats from the FARC rebels who once controlled El Retorno.

The guerrillas, who disbanded in 2016 after signing a peace accord with the government, did not want to see officials focusing their attention on the town.

Coca is such a profitable crop that growers have extended their operations into the Amazon rainforest, even planting inside national parks.

In the Nukak National Natural Reserve, plots planted with coca are concealed behind a shallow barrier of trees and their owners, peasants from the most remote corners of El Retorno, continue to sell coca paste to criminal outfits who process it into cocaine for export to the United States and Europe.

Colombian authorities say that the drug trade in the area is run by FARC dissidents who rejected the peace agreement, but the commander of the renegades in Guaviare told Efe that their only connection with the business is levying a tax on the drug traffickers.

Coca has been a major driver of deforestation in Guaviare, where trees are cut down both to clear land for cultivation and to build roads for the transport of coca paste.

As part of the 2016 peace accord, the government established programs to help farmers abandon coca in favor of legal crops.

The program includes the provision of 12 million pesos (roughly $2,800) to ensure the family’s food security for a year, technical assistance and material support for the transition, the head of the initiative in Guaviare, Fidel Navarro Gutierrez, told Efe.

He said that 7,200 families in Guaviare have signed up for the program, leading to a reduction in the area planted with coca from 6,800 hectares to 3,227 hectares.

Navarro acknowledges a “disconnected between what is proposed and what is ultimately executed,” noting complaints by families that they have to wait as long as 2 1/2 years to receive what they were promised. EFE lmg/dr

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