“Coca Cultivation Is the Only Option for Many Farmers”
The Narco News Interview with Colombian Congressman Pedro José Arenas
By Laura Del Castillo
Part I of a Series
September 5, 2003
In October of 1997, a young Colombian man named Pedro Arenas, then 26, arrived in the United States. At that moment, he was about to end his term as a state legislator in Guaviare, in the Amazonian southern region of Colombia, representing the Guaviare Youth Movement. He went to the U.S. to demonstrate how his region, where a healthy portion of his country’s natural resources are found (and perhaps for this reason it had been such an abandoned region, in all senses of the word, by the Colombian government), was increasingly under fire from armed conflict, to explain the problems caused by the drug trafficking business, and how ineffective and wrongheaded the strategy to “combat drugs,” better known as the “war on drugs,” had become.
But there had been one clear and convincing goal of Arenas’ visit – part of the Autumn Tour organized by the Colombian Human Rights Network of the United States: to denounce – before the international community – the nefarious public, economic, and environmental, among other consequences, generated by the fumigation of illicit crops with toxic herbicides that were being sprayed inside the jungle, not only in Guaviare, but the entire Amazon region of Colombia: those fumigations were sponsored by the administration of then-president Andrés Pastrana, in obedience to the anti-drug policies imposed by the U.S. government for the past three decades.
Arenas’ complaints were heard, in various places along the tour, not only by university students, community groups, and the media, but also by members of the Congressional and Executive branches of the U.S. government. He did not speak in vain. After his visit, a delegation formed by the Committee for Human Rights in Colombia, the Latin America Working Group, and the Washington Office on Latin America, decided to visit San José del Guaviare, the state capital, in 1998, and spent two days documenting the complaints.
The beginnings of Arenas’ political trajectory – he was born in Puerto Lleras, Meta (Colombia), on February 21, 1971 – took form in 1992, when he founded the “Youth Movement for Guaviare,” which he led to attend strictly to regional problems, specifically those that directly affected the young population.
Immediately after founding the movement, he won election to the San José del Guaviare City Council. Since then, he has been consecrated as a strong opponent of anti-drug policies and the forced eradication of illicit crops by means of aerial fumigation, a position that he hardened during his term as a state legislator (1994-1997), demonstrating his solidarity in the grand coca farmer marches that occured from 1994 to 1996.
Currently, Pedro José Arenas García, now 32 and studying Political Science at the National University of Colombia, is his state’s representative in the Colombian national Congress, supported by the Communal Movement of Colombia.
A few days ago, Congressman Arenas kindly received Narco News in his Bogotá office to speak openly about his positions regarding Colombian drug policy, legalization, Plan Colombia, and the coca growers’ movement of this country. We begin this first part of this interview series – special to The Narco News Bulletin – with the latter theme: that of the coca growers.
Narco News: What is your perspective on the coca growers marches that occured between 1994 and ’96?
Pedro Arenas: At the end of 1994, the government of then-president Ernesto Samper launched a fumigation program – this is not to say that the Colombian government hadn’t fumigated before that – announcing that all coca crops would be eliminated within two years. It was then, in September 1994, that the fumigations began in the Guaviare region. We (in the Youth Movement for Guaviare) had issued various warnings. We proposed that fumigation was not the solution, that it would generate multiple environmental, social, and economic problems, that, beyond that, they were unjust and unfair, that they had to look at the affected geographical area, and that the recommendations of environmental officials had to be considered. That October we made a somewhat crazy announcement, saying that if the government insisted on fumigating, that it would generate some mobilizations by farmers. And this was a kind of prophetic announcement, because effectively in December the huge coca grower marches began in the town of Miraflores, in the South of Guaviare, and later spread to the North, including the towns of Calamar and El Retorno.
These demonstrations finally came to the capital of San José del Guaviare. The marchers took the airport and blockaded the runway. This inevitably caused a 15 or 20 day suspension of the fumigation program in Guaviare, and the government had to negotiate with the farmers. Among other things, an agreement was reached that farms of less than three hectares would not be fumigated. The U.S. Government and Horacio Serpa, who was then the Interior Minister, rejected and betrayed the agreement, that, had it been kept, would have implied the legalization of small coca farms in the country. This attitude by the government generated many demonstrations of inconformity by the population. Later, in 1996, the fumigations were begun anew, affecting many people, and this propitiated another coca growers’ march in 1996.
Narco News: In what way did you support the demonstratoins?
Pedro Arenas: We have always been in solidarity with the peasant farmers. In fact, in the list of grievances made by the coca growers, in 94 as well as 96, there is much common language with our own proposals. For example, in 1996, we understood that it was a very serious matter for a farmer to accept the conditions imposed by the creation of “Special Public Order Zones,” that placed the farmers under siege as enemies of the Colombian State for the simple fact that they lived or worked in regions that were outside of State control.
During the 1994 marches, we were alert so that the people would not be mistreated. In 96, the role was much more protagonist because I was, by then, a legislator. I had a duty not only to the capital of the state, San José, but also the entire state. The marches that year occurred after I had organized tours with the Public Defender, creating human rights committees on the municipal level, for example, and giving talks on the issue. We had even formed committees to monitor the fumigations. The communal action boards would advise us whenever there was spraying. The next day, a commission came with TV cameras that could document the damages not only generated to coca crops, but also to food crops and animals. They could document the social messes and health problems that originated from the sprayings.
During the 1996 marches we had to have mediated talks with the national government. We had to travel to Bogotá various times, to establish contacts with high officials, to guarantee that the march leaders were allowed to get through the points where Army blockades had been placed in order to succeed at having talks with the governmental commission. Also, some members of the House and Senate then went to the region to see the situation of the peasant farmers, which was grave.
In the end, we did all the mediation, and also took the complaints to the national and international levels, because what was being demanded was very just: the issue was not just to stop the fumigations, but also to show that Guaviare (and the Amazon region in general) need a special development plan, including a real commitment by the Colombian State to create long-term policies, through which the farmers won’t be attacked with repression, since the cause of the expansion of illicit crops in this country is in the form of social problems.
Narco News: Were there abuses or mistreatment committed by the police during the 94 and 96 coca grower marches?
Pedro Arenas: There were many, above all in 96. The press covered some of them. Some television journalists who filmed the actions were also mistreated. All of this happened not only in Guaviare but also in other regions of the country like Caquetá, Putumayo, and the North of Santander, where the marches had spread. We are speaking of more than two million farmers mobilized over three or four months.
In some regions, the government negotiated with the farmers, and in others, they did not. For example, in Putumayo, the farmers achieved an agreement that raised questions by other farmer organizations, because the agreement didn’t touch the problem of the fumigations or the treatment at the hands of the police in the region. In Guaviare, there was no agreement precisely because the farmer delegates saw those as the central problems. The government promised some social programs and wanted the farmers to sign an agreement but, to also, in some way, accept the fumigations. Naturally, the farmers did not agree, and the truth is that the marches ended from burn-out: that is to say, from economic hardship, lack of food, and health problems. All of this is owed to the fact that the Army blockaded the marches, it did not let people enter the town squares and state capitals, it obligated them practically to sleep on their feet, on river banks, under constant assault. These factors were those that wore down the mobilization, while the fumigations continued.
Narco News: How do you see the current coca growers movement in Colombia? The panorama of large marches seems to have disappeared. Why?
Pedro Arenas: The people lost a lot of trust in the idea of achieving concrete goals with the tactics used. It is not easy for a peasant farming family to abandon their farm, their house, their parcel, their animals, to go on a march that lasts three months, without achieving its demands in the end. For example, the goal in this case was to march to make the government stop the fumigations, but that did not happen. Thus, the people became disillusioned.
And, it goes without saying, that the police problem was worse in those regions and that there were enormous police operations to recuperate State control over those territories. At that point the FARC guerrilla responded or attacked, entering to assume, in a manner, the defense of the peasant farmer movement. The country then entered into the peace process between Pastrana and the FARC. One of the key points in the negotiations was this issue. Beyond that, an international public hearing was held with the presence of 30 ambassadors who spoke on the issue.
In this way, the farmer’s movement became “guerrilla-ized,” provoking problems such as threats against its leaders. Many of them were killed. In Caquetá, for example, they killed 15 out of 17 negotiators for the farmers. After the marches, the farmers were without defense. I know that in Putumayo many of the march leaders then joined the guerrilla, which was a little irresponsible in placing the entire field of action of the coca grower movement into that activity, and this made it more difficult for new leaders to take up the banner, because then they would be identified with this new armed phenomenon. For the same reasons, other leaders took refuge in the center of the country with their families, completely cut off from the social struggle. And the other thing that harmed the dynamic of the movement was the fumigation, which brought economic problems the same leaders and to the farmers in general.
Narco News: In other Latin American countries – like, for example, Bolivia, with figures like Evo Morales – it’s clear that the coca grower movement is very strong and has a tendency to do politics institutionally in those nations. Apart from the factors you’ve already explained, what other reasons exist for why the Colombian coca grower movement has not achieved this same strength?
Pedro Arenas: Well, the characteristics are always distinct. For example, Bolivia is an Andean people, including in the coca theme, and there is a cultural cohesion between the indigenous peoples who have a real problem, which is that of coca. The thing about their crops is that, and they can demonstrate, they are used for traditional practices. What happens here is very distinct, where there’s not only the problem of the crops, of “how do we defend millenarian crops,” but also the confrontation between armed groups – army, paramilitary, and guerrilla – and the existence of different cartels or narco-trafficking organizations.
And we’re not only speaking of one narco-trafficking chain, but of various. Colombia has been the departure point for the drug after it is already crystallized and sent to international markets. The financial interests behind this are here, the problem of money derived from drug trafficking by the landowners. In fact, many of these narco-traffickers have become rich: they keep buying up plantations and lands, etc. Thus, the factors that influence things here are much more complex.
Narco News: But in Colombia there are also indigenous communities that cultivate coca on their lands, who also speak of the “sacred leaf,” and who demand respect for the crops as part of their cultural tradition…
Pedro Arenas: The problem is that the indigenous here are organizationally weaker. They are not decisive in terms of population numbers. We are speaking of peoples who don’t reach 10 percent of the total population of the country. Including in the Amazon regions – where Indigenous colonization is stronger today – the indigenous population of Guaviare, for example, is less than seven percent. The indigenous of Cauca have a very strong position in all of this: they’ve also marched and mobilized. But in national terms, if the indigenous acted alone they would not be able to succeed at much. There is one success they have achieved recently: the courts have ruled that before fumigating an indigenous reservation, the government first has to consult with the traditional authorities and can only fumigate if they approve it, and, if not, another eradication mechanism must be found. This is a victory for the indigenous peoples, but the peasant farmers don’t enjoy it.
Thus, here, the major problem is social: of land, of how is it that there are so many people inside the jungle trying to make a farm from a little piece of land, of finding a chance to make a living, including to cultivate coca which many consider to be the only option to have any resources at all, to save a little, and later become a rancher…
Coming Next in Part II:
Legalization: A Colombian Perspective
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