El Tarra, Colombia, Dec 15 (EFE).- Coca growers from Colombia’s northeastern Catatumbo region arrived here Thursday for a meeting with the government aimed at hashing out a strategy for putting them on a path to legality while also safeguarding them from economic hardship and hunger.
Five large organizations of these farmers from mountainous and jungle-covered Catatumbo – located near the Venezuelan border in the department of Norte de Santander and Colombia’s biggest coca-growing area – will be discussing proposed changes to a drug policy that criminalizes their activities and is centered around forced eradication campaigns.
The gymnasium in El Tarra is hosting this unprecedented two-day meeting, which kicked off on Thursday and will be attended by leftist President Gustavo Petro and Colombia’s high commissioner for peace, Danilo Rueda.
The goal is to include coca growers in the process of hammering out a new drug policy within the framework of Petro’s “total peace” agenda.
These farmers have arrived at the gathering with a list of demands that include the total elimination of forced and violent eradications, a gradual move toward crop substitution, the decriminalization of coca producers’ activities and the release of rural farmers jailed for growing that illicit crop, which is the precursor of cocaine and crack.
Hopes are high at the gathering that Petro will hear and act upon the coca growers’ concerns, especially since one of the first trips he made after taking office in August was a visit to El Tarra.
Coca growing in Colombia is an economic reality that stems from a lack of state presence, Hernando Garcia, a member of the Catatumbo Social Integration Committee, told Efe.
He added, however, that the people engaged in this activity have not lost their desire to return to food production and stop cultivating an illicit crop that is closely linked to violence and conflict.
Coca-growing also is intimately associated with “cultural and socio-economic problems” that the residents of Catatumbo want to remedy, Garcia said, adding that “we know it’s not easy but we have to start.”
“We need to start, bearing in mind the current scenario of a government that comes right to the people, to the communities, that wants to help make things happen, to bring about changes that the people, especially Colombia’s peasant farmers, really need,” he said.
He recalled that coca “has gone hand-in-hand with violence,” turning Catatumbo into an almost impenetrable region where different guerrilla groups, paramilitary outfits and criminal groups have a strong presence and fight over a territory coveted as the country’s main hub for that crop.
“No one’s ready for immediate eradication because they’ve been deceived over and over again,” Juan Carlos Quintero, leader of the Peasant Farmers Association of Catatumbo (Ascamcat), told Efe.
Instead, these growers are proposing that the country’s new drug policy allow for legal uses of coca leaf, since that will “allow for cheaper (crop) substitution and enable the decriminalization of coca cultivation,” he added.
In addition, amid the “coca crisis” in Catatumbo, where farmers have gone a year without selling coca paste, growers are proposing that “an emergency food assistance plan” be implemented for families and that the government “buy coca leaf from producers as an economic measure.”
Garcia said the economy of the entire region is adversely affected when the coca harvest is not sold because Catatumbo has become entirely dependent on the crop.
“You can’t persist in talking about ‘total peace’ while crop eradications continue in the territories,” he said, noting that coca growers have pledged not to expand their area under cultivation while the crop-substitution programs are implemented.
Lastly, the growers say coca substitution must be accompanied by a greater state presence to guarantee education, public transportation and health care in Catatumbo, where people have been left to their own devices and only managed to survive thanks to that illicit crop. EFE