Crime & Justice

Colombia views development as only way to end coca’s reign

By Laia Mataix Gomez

Bogota, Dec 28 (EFE).- “Neither eradicating nor handing out money” has proven effective in persuading Colombian peasants to abandon cultivation of coca, the raw material of cocaine, the head of the Andean nation’s crop-substitution effort told EFE.

Felipe Tascon, appointed earlier this month as director of the National Comprehensive Program for Substitution of Illegal Crops (PNIS), said that Bogota must pursue rural “industrialization” to provide coca growers with a genuine alternative.

The establishment of PNIS was a provision of the 2016 peace accord between the FARC guerrillas and the Colombian government, meant to put an end to decades of armed conflict.

In 2017, PNIS asked coca growers to sign up to an initiative calling for them to abandon coca in exchange for economic and technical assistance in finding new ways to earn a living. But much of the help never materialized and the cultivation of coca has expanded in recent years.

Well aware of this history, Tascon regards restoring the credibility of PNIS as a priority.

The administration of Gustavo Petro, the first leftist president in Colombia’s history, takes a radically different approach to the drug problem, vowing to do away with forced eradication of coca.

Tascon said that he plans “logistical operational changes” at PNIS as well as a more fundamental shift in focus: working “with the rural organizations of the grower families” instead of seeking to impose solutions alien to “the reality that exists in the territory.”

Coca, he said, “has always been seen as a police, judicial problem” and the growers classified as criminals.

“For us, the peasants are not criminals, but rather they have been obliged to turn to these illegal crops conscious that it is the way to obtain resources for their survival,” Tascon said.

He said he was surprised after taking charge of PNIS to learn that many coca growers who joined the crop-substitution initiative never received any of the help they were promised.

“The first paper they gave me to sign when I arrived in this office was for five families (to receive) the so-called food assistance, which should have been delivered in the first year,” Tascon told EFE.

PNIS must meet those pending obligations even as it struggles to deal with more basic challenges, including the attractiveness of coca to growers in purely practical terms.

Coca “is processed in the field” and once processed, is easier to transport than alternative crops such as chontaduro (peach palm).

“The produce of a hectare (2.2 acre) of chontaduro needs a truck where there are no roads or where transport is by river,” representing “enormous costs,” Tascon said.

The absence of infrastructure and services is “the reality we have: the lack of presence of the state,” he said.

“It’s obvious that it’s not something that is built overnight, that we will not have it everywhere in President Petro’s four years of government, but we have to begin,” Tascon said. EFE lmg/dr

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