<i>"The Name of Our Country is América" - Simon Bolivar</i> The Narco News Bulletin<br><small>Reporting on the War on Drugs and Democracy from Latin America
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New Coca Fumigation Program Drives Poor Colombians Off Lands

Locals See Supposed “Anti-Drug” Operations in Chocó as Part of a Decade-Old Campaign by the Government and Corporations to Displace Them


By Sean Donahue
Special to the Narco News Bulletin

February 16, 2005

Since early January, pilots from DynCorp, working under contract to the U.S. State Department and under the supervision of the Colombian National Police, have been spraying glyphosate over indigenous and Afro-Colombian villages in the fragile rainforests of Chocó on Colombia’s Pacific Coast. Ostensibly they are working to eradicate the coca crops that have sprung up in the region in recent years, as fumigations to the south in Putumayo, Guaviare, and Narino have pushed coca cultivation into new areas, and the utter destruction of local communities and economies has forced more and more people into the lower rungs of the cocaine economy. Rain recently forced a temporary halt to the fumigations, but they are slated to resume once the rain stops.


A displaced family in Chocó, forced off their land by paramilitaries.
Photo: Pablo Serrano D.R. 2005
Wherever fumigations have occurred in Colombia, they have had a devastating impact on the land and the people. Glyphosate is a “broad spectrum” herbicide – it will kill anything with leaves. Sprayed from crop-dusting planes it becomes an indiscriminate weapon, wiping out food crops and severely damaging the forest. There is growing evidence that it damages soil microbes and promotes the growth of toxic fungi. It is persistent in water where it can poison fish, birds, amphibians, and livestock. In humans it causes rashes, respiratory problems, nausea, and temporary blindness. Long-term exposure has been linked to non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. There is strong circumstantial evidence that fumigation has been used as a strategy to force people off land coveted by oil companies in southern Colombia.

Local leaders see the fumigations as the latest phase of a ten-year old campaign to drive indigenous people and Afro-Colombians off the land in order to clear the way for mining, logging, hydro-electric projects, and the construction of a dry canal to replace the Panama Canal. In a formal denunciation re-published by the human rights group CODHES and the Colombian affiliate of Friends of the Earth, members of the Chocó organization Fundación Las Mojarras y Consejo Comunitario Mayor de Condoto wrote that:

“The appearance of illicit crops and their eradication through fumigations with Glyphosate in the department of Chocó, are a political decision of the state that adds in the long run chain of facts that in the conjuncture of the past eleven years from 1996 are leading to the Black and indigenous towns of Chocó towards a total genocide.”

The fumigations are the culmination of a carefully orchestrated program of forced displacement – and by extension the eradication of a culture.

Five Hundred Years of Genocide and Resistance

Africans were brought to Colombia to replace indigenous people as slaves in gold mines and on sugar plantations starting in the early sixteenth century.

They began resisting slavery as soon as they reached this continent. Luis Alberto Murillo, the first Afro-Colombian to serve as governor of Chocó (now living in exile in the U.S.,) wrote in 2001:

“In pre-abolition Colombian society, Afro-Colombian slaves fought for their freedom from the beginning of their arrival to the country. It is clear that there were strong, free African towns called palenques where Africans could live as cimarrones – that is Africans who escaped from their oppressors. Some historians view the Chocó as a very big palenque with a large population of cimarrones, especially in the areas of the Baudo River.”

Following the abolition of slavery in 1851, many freed slaves fled the culture that had enslaved them, joining the palenques and forming new communities in Chocó. Here they forged a new culture and carved out a degree of freedom and independence. Murillo writes:

“Afro-Colombian people were forced to live in jungle areas as a mechanism of self-protection. There, we learned to live harmoniously with the jungle environment and to share the territory with Colombia’s indigenous communities. Our Afro-Colombian communities developed their own living patterns, which are very respectful of the environment and emphasize social values such as peace, friendship and solidarity, rather than money and capital accumulation.

“This Afro-Colombian way of living has enabled us to conserve our rich, biologically diverse ecosystem to the present day.

“From 1851, the Colombian State promoted the ideology of ‘mestizaje.’ This meant the necessity of mixing African and indigenous people with white Spaniards and their descendants. The purpose was to disappear, or minimize, the historical links with Africa and pre-Columbian America. In fact, the Colombian government purposely ignored and neglected the newly free Black population.

“The only way for Africans and indigenous peoples to maintain their cultural traditions was by living in isolated jungle areas. But it was not easy. The history of Black people in Colombia is the history of a struggle for freedom and land, and against discrimination and invisibility.”

The nineteenth and twentieth century were marked by struggles against armed groups backed by wealthy ranchers who wanted to seize land in the lush rainforests of Chocó to build coffee, banana, and sugar plantations.

In 1991, the Colombian Constitution granted Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities collective title to their traditional lands. Rather than marking a victory in the struggle for land and freedom, however, the new law brought a wave of violence down on communities that dared to assert their rights.

A Decade Of Massacres

In 1993 the Colombian Congress passed “Law 70” which laid out the process for Black communities to apply for formal recognition and formal title to their land. Three years later, in 1996, the community of Riosucio became the first of the former palenques to file for recognition under the law. Almost as soon as Riosucio began the process, the paramilitaries attacked and drove nearly everyone off their land. Marino Codroba Berrio, a community leader from Riosucio who went on to form the Association of Displaces Afro-Colombians (AFRODES) in Bogotá and is now living in exile in the U.S., wrote in 2002:

“The community organizations met resistance from those who had been exploiting natural resources in our region such as gold and wood. Communities demanded title to the land. Since then we’ve experienced assassinations and expulsion by military groups paid by political and business interests.

“My organization won the first collective titles in that region. Seven days later, at 5:00 AM on Dec. 13, 1996, paramilitary groups arrived in my town, Riosucio, intent on murdering the leaders and their families. Many were taken from their beds and paraded naked through the streets. Anyone who resisted was killed. The shouts woke me up. I ran to take refuge in the swamp along with many others.

“At 8:00 AM, army helicopters started patrolling. The paramilitaries radioed the pilots to attack the swamp, claiming the people were guerrillas. The army attacked us with bombs and rifles, killing many people. Those who survived stayed in the water for three days until hunger and desperation forced us out. Some of us sneaked through the town and reached a rural community across the river. I recuperated there, then fled to Bogotá…

“Two months later, in February 1997, the paramilitaries and army attacked the rural communities in the region and massacred an unknown number of people. More than 20,000 people left the area. Not a single person remained. Today, some are living in Panama, Ecuador, Venezuela, and many are in the big cities.”

After a decade of massacres, Afro-Colombians now make up the majority of Colombia’s two million internal refugees. Paramilitary violence has followed them to the shantytowns outside Bogotá and Medellín, where death squads are trying to wipe out the survivors to prevent them from telling their stories and from fighting for their right to return to their homes.

The Political Economy of Genocide

Timber and gold interests have played a tremendous role in driving the violence in Chocó, but larger economic forces are at work here as well. As economist Hector Mondragon wrote:

“The genocide actually has a theorist. A Canadian economist, Lauchlan Currie, has advised 5 successive presidents in this theory, called ‘Accelerated Economic Development’. The theory is that there are two obstacles to development. The first is kidnapping. The second is the population of campesinos [peasant-farmers]. For Colombia to develop, according to this theory, the population of campesinos must be reduced dramatically. There are two ways to accomplish this. Pull and Push.

“The pull method is to attract campesinos to the city with jobs. The housing plan by Pastrana senior [the father of President Uribe’s predecessor, who ruled from 1970 to1974], for example, enabled people to get houses with high interest credit. Many lost their houses in the banking crisis that ensued. The banks happily took the houses, and then their smiles faded because they have houses and no one to buy them. But banks, unlike citizens, are eligible for state help and bailouts. The upshot, though, is that unemployment is well over 20%, underemployment much higher. Pull isn’t happening.

“What’s left is push. Which we know about.”

Massacres are the most direct form of pushing people off the land. But there is an economic dimension to the push as well. According to Mondragon, President Uribe has begun introducing a kind of reverse agrarian reform:

“The subsidies that the recently closed Institute for Agrarian Reform – INCORA used to give to campesinos are now only handed over to ‘income-generating projects within larger business production systems.’ The land ‘abandoned’ by campesinos can be given over to any ‘producer.’”

These “larger business production systems” enter into agreements with campesinos which require the farmers to plant African palm trees, and to put their land up as collateral for the loans they need to get into the palm oil business. International lenders have been pushing increased palm oil production around the world, driving the prices down. When the prices fall, the campesinos lose their land.

The land is the real investment that wealthy Colombians and multinational corporations are interested in. Chocó’s geographical location is even more important than its resources. The department borders Panama, and is being eyed by developers as the site for a system of wet and dry canals to replace the Panama Canal. It also has a crucial role to play in Uribe’s plans to build a gas pipeline to Panama, and to build a massive new electrical grid that would carry electricity from dams throughout Colombia to the U.S.

Gold and timber companies will plunder the land for its resources first. Bio-prospectors might comb the forest for traditional herbal medicines that they can synthesize and patent. And when the forests and the people are gone, Chocó’s role as the ecological corridor connecting South America to Central America will give way to its new role as the corridor that will allow gas and electricity to move north while goods move over land from the Atlantic to the Pacific.

The massacres were the first stage in removing the people who stood in the way of development. Fumigations serve to starve out the people who remain by eradicating their food crops and the wild plants they depend on along with whatever coca is now growing in Chocó. The push is almost complete.

Sean Donahue is a poet and freelance journalist based in eastern Massachusetts who has written extensively on U.S. policy toward Colombia. A graduate of the 2004 Narco News School of Authentic Journalism, he also works with the Corporations and Militarism Project of Massachusetts Global Action. He can be reached at wrldhealer@yahoo.com.

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The Narco News Bulletin: Reporting on the Drug War and Democracy from Latin America