Research: Publications

Plan Colombia’s "Ground Zero"

April 2, 2001 | Report

By Ingrid Vacius

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Ask longtime residents what Putumayo was like more than twenty years ago, before coca entered the picture, and they describe a place that sounds too good to be true. A place with endless tracts of jungle teeming with monkeys and butterflies. Rivers full of fish and rare pink freshwater dolphins. Parrots and macaws flying above the treetops in the mornings and evenings, in flocks so large they resembled colorful clouds.

The department (province) of Putumayo, in Colombia’s far south bordering Ecuador and Peru, is a sliver of land about the size of the state of Maryland. Its topography and climate vary from the cool Andean foothills in the northwest (known as "upper Putumayo"), to a central plateau of plains and savannah ("middle Putumayo"), to the lush, steamy lowlands in the south and southeast ("lower Putumayo"). Following the course of the department’s many rivers from the highlands to the lowlands, the locals use "up" and "down" instead of compass points when giving directions. Though the muddy, chocolate-brown Putumayo River begins only a couple of hundred miles from the Pacific Ocean, a boat put in the water here can drift downstream along the borders with Ecuador and Peru, into the Amazon river and, eventually, into the Atlantic.

We saw many remnants of the old Putumayo during CIP’s March 9-12 trip there. It is still a beautiful place, overwhelming the eye with vivid green. But we also saw forests knocked down to grow illegal crops, armed groups operating freely, fields devastated by herbicides, and widespread poverty and fear. We were strongly dismayed by the United States’ role there, as Putumayo is the main destination of Washington’s controversial plan to fumigate drug crops, supported by hundreds of millions of dollars in mostly military aid.

We had come to Putumayo to evaluate this program in the wake of its first phase, an eight-week blitz of aerial herbicide spraying that had ended one month earlier. The policy’s supporters call the U.S.-sponsored effort a "balanced approach." But so far it has been purely military, with not a dime spent yet on economic assistance programs that might prevent farmers from moving and re-planting coca, the plant used to make cocaine. We found that the zone where fumigations occurred is dominated not by so-called "industrial" coca plantations, but by families who are now running out of food. We found truth behind claims that the spraying had negative health effects and destroyed legal crops, including alternative development projects. We were disturbed by evidence that the fumigations proceeded more smoothly because of a paramilitary offensive in the zone to be sprayed. We found that the people of Putumayo want to stop growing coca, and that they have clear proposals for how U.S. assistance can help them make a living legally.

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