Colombia Police, Military Clash with Protesting Coca Producers

Campesinos displaced by the internal armed conflict in Colombia seek their land in Putumayo, Jan. 23, 2016/Photo: AFP
Colombia Police, Military Clash with Protesting Coca Producers

Coca growers in Colombia are urging the government to provide alternatives to growing the cash crop.

Protesting campesinos in the Colombian department of Putumayo say that the state is increasingly turning to repressive measures rather than addressing smallholder farmers’s concerns about what will replace their cash crop—coca—if they agree to submit to eradication efforts.

Coca-producing farmers in Putumayo, a department bordering Ecuador and Peru, have been pressuring the government for nearly a month to meet their demands to discuss agrarian reform efforts. At issue is the country’s plan for rural development, including crop substitution programs for farmers, who willingly agree to eschew coca, which is the basic ingredient in cocaine, but also a key money-maker, according to local media

But campesinos accuse the government of silencing the movement by cracking down on the strike, rather than responding to key demands. In recent days, riot police have violently repressed the protesters with tear gas and gunpowder-filled canisters in areas where striking coca farmers have set up road blockades, the local Contagio Radio reported.

“Abuses, stigmatization, and criminal prosecutions are the order of the day against inhabitants and the leaders of the peaceful protest,” said Colombia’s national agricultural union federation known as Fensuagro in a statement Tuesday.

“The use of force with riot police squads, police, and military is a clear demonstration of the moral double standard of the national government,” Fensuagro continued. “On one hand, (the government) calls communities to dialogue and on the other frightens them with police force when they don’t accept their arbitrary conditions and proposals to solve social problems.”

Movement leaders are “fearful that a potentially deadly assault on the people may take place,” the human rights organization Alliance for Global Justice wrote in a call for international solidarity.

Coca producers in Putumayo and other areas of Colombia are calling on the government to make good on promises of crop substitution to give farmers an alternative. Many coca growers feel they have no choice but to grow the illicit crop in the face of a lack of rural infrastructure, such as decent roads, and years of free trade agreements that have undermined the viability of local farming by flooding Colombian markets with cheap imports.

The United Nations has urged Colombia to shift its drug policy to target cocaine traffickers, not coca growers, arguing the current focus disproportionately criminalizes and discriminates against the rural poor. Colombia recently surpassed Peru as the world’s top cocaine producer for years.

Issues related to illicit substances have been a cornerstone of the ongoing peace negotiations between the government and left-wing guerrilla rebels—known by the Spanish acronym FARC—in Havana, Cuba, which is nearing a conclusion after four years. The FARC has long argued against the government’s use of overhead fumigation with the cancer-causing herbicide glyphosate to eradicate coca crops. The negotiations have resulted in an agreement on a joint effort by the government and the FARC to roll out a voluntary crop substitution program to reign in coca production.

But campesinos in Putumayo aren’t satisfied that the government is holding up its end of the bargain.

“We call on the national government headed by President (Juan) Santos to be consistent with his rhetoric of peace and seeking nonviolent solutions to the distressing problems lived by the rural Putumayo population,” wrote the Fensuagro agricultural union federation, urging the government to dialogue with protesting communities.

Colombia’s “war on drugs” has been supported by US$10 billion in military aid through 15 years of Plan Colombia, the counternarcotics and counterinsurgency program launched in 2000 that increased militarization in the country. Presidents Barack Obama and Juan Manuel Santos have extended Plan Colombia in a new agreement, called “Paz Colombia,” set to deliver up to US$4.5 billion to the South American country over the next 10 years.

Human rights groups argue that Plan Colombia was a disaster that spurred massacres, empowered death squads, and exacerbated and prolonged the civil war that has claimed the lives of over 220,000 people and uprooted 6.3 million, mostly Indigenous and Afro-Colombian.


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