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September 18, 2004 - The Providence Journal (RI)

Plan Colombia - Poisoning A Country

By Martin Lepkowski, Rhode Island state substance-abuse counselor and member of Witness for Peace

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When the Holy One created the first man, He took him and led him around all the trees of the garden of Eden and said to him, "Behold my works, how beautiful, how splendid they are. All that I created, I created for you. Take care, therefore, that you do not destroy my work. For if you do, there will be no one left to repair what you have destroyed." -- Ecclesiastes

AND SO with these words, our Witness for Peace fact-finding delegation returns to Colombia.

It has been three years since this delegate last traveled the back roads of Putumayo, Colombia, a region of lush-green scorched earth. Three years is not a long time, but for people whose only sin is their poverty, three years of chemical fumigation is nothing short of a living hell.

We are deep in the Amazon Basin. Our bus lurches over pot-holed roads on the way to the town of La Hormiga. The landscape has changed. Most of the coca in this region is gone. According to a United Nations report, in 2003 more than 320,000 acres of Colombian farmland was fumigated. So far in 2004, the number is over 250,000. Since Plan Colombia's inception, more than 1 million acres have been touched with chemical fire.

And yet last March, the U.S. State Department released statistics showing that the price of cocaine is not rising in the United States, the price of coca is not rising in Colombia, and coca cultivation is increasing elsewhere.

In fact, John Walters, the U.S. "drug czar," recently told the media that the four-year-old "Plan Colombia" has failed to make a significant dent in the amount of cocaine flowing out of that country.

To date, U.S. taxpayers have spent over $3.3 billion on this part of the "War on Drugs" -- Plan Colombia. In 2003 alone, Dynacor and other U.S. corporations received a total of $150 million to spread their chemicals of mass destruction.

The crop fumigation goes like this: A satellite takes images of coca on the ground and stores the images on a disk, which at some later time is fed into a computer. This process can take up to six months. Meanwhile, a farmer may have uprooted the coca crop.

Then the planes come -- without warning.

In the town of La Dorada, a stone's throw from Ecuador, a farmer says, "On May 22, 2004, between 10 and 11 a.m., the planes came and sprayed my land." He grew no coca. What was left were skeletons of fruit trees - -- avocado, plantain, orange, lemon -- and the remains of peanuts, lilacs, tomatoes, and a grape arbour.

The crop dusters fly at a higher-than-normal altitude, to avoid being shot. So their chemicals also drift onto pasture land, farm animals, and children playing in the fields.

Some schoolteachers and principals and a schools superintendent speak to us of schoolyard gardens' being fumigated -- of clouds that settle on and in their schools -- of children scurrying, but there is no escape.

Farm after farm that we visit shows what chemical poisoning can do to food crops. A mother with piercing eyes states: "They spray us from heaven. Tonight we decide whether to eat a whole or a half banana."

We meet with a nongovernmental agency that receives funding from both Plan Colombia and the U.S Agency for International Developent. They help farmers grow food crops, and they readily admit that these crops have been fumigated. They filed a complaint with the U.S. Embassy in Bogota. They are still waiting for a reply.

Some 10,000 complaints have been made by farmers whose crops have been fumigated. A U.S. Embassy official told us that the United States considers only 16 of the complaints legitimate. He went on to say that we will continue to fumigate even if it means going deeper into the Amazon Basin. There appears to be no exit strategy.

This policy is madness. To eradicate by fumigating not only harms our ecosystem, but it also dehumanizes those who spray and those of us who pay.

Yet coca is not just a plant; it's an idea, a means to an end. For the guerrilla, coca is a means to fund a revolution, and for the paramilitary/narco-traffickers, coca is a means to acquire land and gain influence within the government of Colombia.

Note that a 1991 U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency report, declassified this summer, concluded that President Alvaro Uribe Vilez himself was, at that time, a close associate of infamous drug lord Pablo Escobar and his Medellin drug cartel.

Lastly, there are the poor farmers, the campesinos, whose coca is a means to feed and educate their children until the government finds the will to provide for the basic necessities of life: schools, hospitals, roads, an honest judicial system, a market for their food products, and employment.

Without these necessities, the young and the marginalized are easily recruited by any number of armed actors who offer them a "living wage" to do their bidding. These recruits then take their place in the wholesale massacre of human-rights workers, unionists, and even other campesinos.

Our last days in Putumayo are gut-wrenching. A farmer pleads with us, "We beg you, take our voices with you. Tell them to stop. We have much pain."

We vow to carry this message, but who will listen to those who must decide whether to eat a whole or a half of a banana?

The campesinos ask us to heed these words: "Take care that you do not destroy my world, for if you do, there will be no one left to repair what you have destroyed."

The United States has 400 troops and 400 advisers in Colombia; President Bush requests that Congress double those numbers. Please, write or call your congressional delegation: Ask your senators and representatives to end the fumigation, and to stop sending troops and advisers. Ask them to support peace initiatives that respect human rights and address social and economic issues. Request more funding for substance-abuse treatment and prevention programs here at home, approaches that have proven effective.

Martin Lepkowski is a Rhode Island state substance-abuse counselor and a member of Witness for Peace.

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