Will New U.S. Aid Address Damage Caused to Colombia's Rural Communities?

By Katie Sizemore

During Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos' visit in February 2016, U.S. President Barack Obama announced a proposal for "Peace Colombia," a $450 million assistance package to take effect after peace talks wrap up in Havana, Cuba with the country's most powerful guerilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). This would follow "Plan Colombia", the $10 billion, 15-year U.S. effort to support counterinsurgency operations and drug eradication heralded as a foreign policy success by American officials.

In reality, a rose-tinted view of Plan Colombia severely neglects the detrimental humanitarian toll it has had on the country's rural poor. If the United States is to be effective in supporting its South American ally during its peaceful transition, "Peace Colombia" demands a better understanding than its predecessor of the local realities in the areas where its efforts and dollars are likely to be focused.

In support of Colombia's battle against drug production, drug trafficking, organized crime, guerilla and paramilitary groups, Plan Colombia contributed to the tripling of Colombia's military spending and doubling the size of its security forces. The associated human, social, and economic impacts have been widely documented. For example, the aerial spraying tactic using toxic chemicals - the main pillar of U.S.-funded strategies for coca eradication in Colombia - disproportionately impacted the health and environment of rural communities.

Plan Colombia originally involved a lucrative $170 million contract with DynCorp International to oversee aerial fumigation operations. Although never confirming or denying that they were one of the suppliers of herbicide falling from the crop-dusting planes, Monsanto's controversial and risky glyphosate-containing product: RoundUp, has been widely cited as the chemical of choice in use since the 1990s to destroy hundreds of thousands of acres of coca and surrounding farmland. The spraying of glyphosate reached a peak period in 2006 when some 405,000 acres were sprayed.

Aerial fumigation is credited with reducing coca hectares from around 400,000 to an estimated 120,000 by 2012. Despite this often-cited statistic, the UNODC reported cocaine output remaining relatively stable from 2000-2010. More recently, cocaine production has been on the rise. By mid-2015, Colombia once again became the world's top cocaine producer.

Aerial spraying is also one of the most expensive ways to attempt to reduce drug production. A 2014 econometric study revealed that reducing cocaine supply by one kilogram through U.S.-subsidized aerial spraying carries a marginal cost of $940,000. Not only is this vastly higher than the marginal cost of reducing cocaine consumption in the United States (estimated at $175,000 if supporting Colombian interdiction efforts), it is also much larger than the cost of one kilogram of cocaine in U.S. retail markets, which is in the ballpark of $100,000-150,000.

Although these fumigation practices have not altered the flow of cocaine over the long term, they have destroyed livelihoods, as the farmland on which the coca is grown is the same land yielding the subsistence crops rural families need to survive. Farmers growing coca make about $2000 a year selling it to guerrilla groups, and they are extorted by these same groups for "protection taxes." There is no immediate solution as farmers continue to face violent coercion to grow coca because FARC affiliates are trying to make large profits before the peace accord forces them "out of business."

In addition to the continued violence and intimidation at the hand of the FARC, paramilitary forces, and public security forces, aerial coca eradication deprives rural farmers of their main source of income and causes health problems, pushing them into urban centers and contributing to the 6 million internally displaced people as of December 2014 - nearly as many as Syria. Afro-Colombians and rural, indigenous populations are the most heavily affected.

Following a report from the World Health Organization (WHO) which classified glyphosate as "probably carcinogenic to humans," Colombia decided to suspend aerial spraying of the herbicide, in a move that was described as defying the United States. This decision came just after FARC and Colombian government negotiators reached a plan simply titled "Solution to the Problem of Illegal Drugs," which calls for voluntary and gradual eradication of coca, replacement with licit crops, and social investments in the rural poor regions where coca growing is prevalent.

While any agreement on this topic is promising, it is important to remember that past efforts at crop substitution in Colombia's coca regions have been dismal as they do not respond to local realities. Licit cash crops such as coffee, yucca, and cacao have lower, fluctuating prices (while coca prices remain strong). Meanwhile, the lack of roads and other infrastructure impedes the ability of farmers to sell their crops competitively. Aerial spraying has even destroyed crops that were part of previous government efforts at alternative development. Farmers are left worse off, in debt, and often become part of the ever-increasing number of displaced persons.

Few details about the new U.S.-aid package have been released publicly, but Obama pledged that the new plan will "reinforce security gains, reintegrate former combatants into society, and extend opportunity and the rule of law into areas denied them for decades." These "areas" were also adversely affected by decades of misguided U.S.-subsidized drug eradication efforts and deserve to see lasting change.

While 71 percent of Plan Colombia aid went to the country's security forces, the new "plan" for "Peace Colombia" should be more balanced and responsive to the needs of the rural communities who bore the brunt of decades of violence in the Andean region. In the meantime, these communities are left asking how the promise of peace will benefit them, as the politics of sustaining peace are often more complicated than those of war.

Katie Sizemore is a conflict management professional focusing on Latin America and criminal justice issues. She currently works as a Project Officer at the Organization of American States (OAS) and is a 2016 Latin America Fellow at YPFP.