USAID's Alternative Development Strategy: A Critical Review of Initiatives in Colombia

By Arielle K. Eirienne
2009, Vol. 1 No. 10 | pg. 1/2 |

Since 2000, the United States (U.S.) has devoted approximately 4.7 billion dollars in foreign aid to Colombia (Isacson 2006:1) with the dual aims of resolving Colombia’s internal conflict and of curbing the country’s role in the international drug trade (USAID 2000). Among the more famous elements of Plan Colombia, as the U.S. aid package is known, are the supplies granted to Colombia’s military and the destruction of large coca and poppy fields through aerial fumigation.

Nevertheless, the U.S. government has also dedicated a small portion of its aid money, about 213 million dollars between 2000 and 2005 (Interamerican Association for Environmental Defense 2006a:2), to providing alternative development to farmers who grow three or fewer hectares of coca and one or fewer hectares of opium poppy.

Run by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), these alternative development initiatives attempt to provide small-scale farmers with ‘alternative’ economic opportunities, such as cultivation of cocoa, beans, coffee, and fruits or engagement in the rubber and wood industries, as well as with infrastructure that might allow alternative industries to flourish, such as roads connecting the countryside to major market areas. USAID also offers several farmers credit and/or monetary assistance. Overall, the agency’s goal is to provide Colombian peasant families with enough income so that they need not resort to drug cultivation for economic survival. Though on the surface this approach appears positive, USAID’s alternative development strategy is unlikely to benefit Colombian campesinos (farmers) because it fails to take into account the historical political economy of small-scale drug cultivation in Colombia and therefore the economic and socio-political realities of today’s peasant life.

The Political Economy of Small-Scale Drug Cultivation

As LeGrand (1986a; 1986b; 2003) and others (e.g., González 2004) have documented, Colombia’s population was once “concentrated” (González 2004) in select areas, but as landlords have confiscated peasants’ properties and as conflict has displaced Colombians from their lands, the country’s campesinos have relocated to increasingly remote regions. With their infertile soils, lack of infrastructure (including lack of roads to markets), and guerrilla leadership, many of these regions have afforded campesinos few economic opportunities other than drug production.

LeGrand writes that in the early 1700s, Spanish settlers populated very little of Colombia’s territory (2003), and even by the 1850s, geographer Agustín Codazzi classified around three-quarters of Colombia as ‘public land’ (cited in LeGrand 1986b:1). According to LeGrand, dispersion to more remote areas indeed began from the 1850s through the early 1900s, as these public regions attracted scores of poor Colombians, but even then, settlers sought to remain connected to Colombia’s economic core: “Most founded homesteads along rivers, roads, and railroads, while those who moved into isolated regions immediately pooled their labor to cut mule paths to the nearest town or waterway” (1986a:33-34).

Though they tilled the public lands, many peasants lacked property rights over their fields, in part because of the expense of guaranteeing such rights (p. 35), and as wealthier landlords sought to increase their own agricultural yields, they seized control of the peasants’ farms, attempting to capture these campesinos as “tenant farmers and wage laborers” (p. 32). Many peasants accepted tenancy status, but their new landlords forced any farmers that resisted to leave their lands, and if these campesinos began to cultivate still other regions, the process of land takeover and peasant displacement generally repeated itself (p. 36). Because large landholders secured the “most desirable land” for themselves (p. 35), they eventually drove those peasants unwilling to become tenants to more remote and less economically advantageous regions.

Though peasant-led protests, particularly in the 1920s and 1930s, prompted many peasants to retake land from their landlords and to stop paying their rents (p. 40-41), from 1936 onward, judges once again insisted that many of these peasants cede control to the elite (LeGrand 1986b:157). Furthermore, in 1936 the Colombian government enacted Law 200. Also known as the Land Act, this law did demand that landlords demonstrate themselves to be legal landowners by adducing original titles or colonial deeds – but only for those landlords whose estates peasants had attempted to retake prior to 1935 (p. 149).

If no peasants had yet rebelled against a particular landlord, that landlord had merely to show sales, wills, and court paperwork that documented his control of the land for the past thirty years. In other words, the new law offered many landlords “a legal foundation for their claims” to ownership of the land they had co-opted, and it denied peasants the opportunity to protest their landlords’ ‘claims,’ i.e., to attempt to retake their bosses’ fields, in the future (p. 150). Moreover, the law did nothing to prevent landholders from overtaking more peasant properties (p. 152). Also in the 1930s and 1940s, landowners en masse began to evict their peasant-class tenants, prompting some peasants to become ‘wage laborers,’ others to flock to urban Colombia in search of employment, and others still to delve further into the country’s distant rural regions (p. 161).

From 1948 to 1965, as La Violencia (The Violence) raged within Colombia, the country’s civil conflict exacerbated the problem of peasant displacement. Killing approximately two hundred thousand, displacing around two million, and robbing over one million of property, La Violencia wreaked havoc upon Colombian civilians (Roldán 2004). Again, elites pushed peasants from their lands, this time in part through murder, arson, or threats thereof (LeGrand 1986b:163), and many peasants fled areas of intense warfare either to urban Colombia or to still more remote – and “undeveloped” – regions, such as Caquetá and Putumayo, Carare-Opón (in Santander), and Urabá (p. 164). In particular, campesinos fled to these ‘frontier regions,’ as well as to the jungles, after Colombia’s government bombed peasant strongholds in the Tolima, Huila, and Cauca regions (LeGrand 2003).

Still, elite takeover of peasant lands continued. Under Misael Pastrana, Colombian president from 1970 through 1974, the country’s leaders once again orchestrated the “concentration of landownership” in the hands of the wealthy, and when the campesinos revolted, their landlords attacked them and tightened control (Molano 2000:26). Molano reports that as before, many peasants flocked to Colombia’s urban areas but that others continued to populate Colombia’s hinterlands: “At the same time, there was repression of the peasant movement, expulsion of small tenants from the lands they cultivated and, in general, expansion of commercial agriculture to less populated parts of the country, as well as [peasant] colonization of unused lands. Many of the most popular destinations lay in the … remote areas …” (p. 26). Overall, these elite-led takeovers of the campesinos’ fields were of such a scale, and so devastated peasants’ livelihoods, that Ramírez has labelled them acts of “institutionalized violence” (2004:2, citing Alfredo Molano).

Political violence and elite repression aside, the final impetus for peasant relocation sprang from the downfall of Colombia’s coffee industry. Coffee prices dropped in 1989 as the International Coffee Pact failed, and fleeing economic devastation, many former coffee-growers resettled in Colombia’s isolated pockets, by then emerging havens for more profitable coca cultivation (Roldán 2004).

The significance of these peasant displacements and migrations lies not in the mere fact that Colombia’s population has stretched itself into increasingly remote and inhospitable territories but rather in that the infertile grounds, inaccessibility, and guerrilla control of these regions have left peasants with few viable economic opportunities other than drug cultivation.i Indeed, Thoumi reports that “Coca plantings in Colombia developed almost exclusively in areas recently settled by displaced peasants …” (2002:105). It was in the 1970s that Colombians were introduced to the international cocaine trade, and then to supply this trade, to coca cultivation itself (Thoumi 2002:105).

One incentive for displaced farmers to plant coca rather than other crops was that as they extended their settlements into more distant pockets of the country, they encountered less hospitable soils. According to Thoumi, much of the land where campesinos cultivate coca is so “poor and fragile” that “whether there should be any agricultural activity in those areas is a big question” (2002:113); coca, however, is singularly “hardy” enough for such grounds (p. 105).

Furthermore, Colombia has historically seen such extreme geographic fragmentation that Thoumi characterizes it as, from colonial days onward, “a collection of diverse regions with little communication and trade among them” (2005:14). Throughout history, seeking to maximize their own profits, elite landowners erected only enough transportation infrastructure to connect themselves to buyers: “the growth of [agricultural/coffee] exports led to the development of an export-oriented infrastructure that established communications and transport facilities between the [elites’] producing region and the ports, but did little to integrate the country” (p. 14). When peasants fled landlords’ oppression and fled La Violencia, they left behind the few regions that did maintain stable links to the outside world. Thus, Thoumi describes today’s remote coca-growing regions as “inaccessible by highway, and far away from any realistic market” (2002:113).

Many Colombian roads, such as that connecting the Department of Putumayo’s regional capital, Mocoa, to its biggest city, Puerto Asís, today remain mainly unpaved, and many areas have few roads at all (Isacson 2006:9). Even if the soil would allow rural Colombians to grow mass quantities of beans or pineapples, farmers would struggle to sell them; as Sanho Tree of Washington, D.C.’s Institute for Policy Studies has remarked in a particularly graphic example, Colombia’s inadequate roads force “Peasants [who attempt to] drive to market with a load of tomatoes … [to] end up with ketchup” (quoted in Otis 2006). One of the few crops Colombian peasants can transport to market, however, is coca, since, as Isacson indicates, farmers can pile entire harvests’ worth of coca paste into a single bag (2006:9) and unlike with fruit, need not worry that treacherous road conditions will destroy their goods in transit.

Indeed, drugs have demonstrated themselves to be the most economically rational crops for struggling Colombian peasants to produce. Molano outlines the benefits of coca cultivation to the peasants of the 1970s and 1980s: “the ease and economy of growing an Andean-Amazon plant that needs no fertilizers or pesticides, a ready market of local traffickers, a fixed price, and constant demand” (2000:27).

Coca’s profitability has persisted. While fruits yield little revenue in Colombia because of their great supply (Isacson 2006:9-10), and while supply and demand force the prices for other non-drug crops to rise and fall, coca alone maintains a “guaranteed market” (USAID 2000). A coca field yields three to six harvests per year (USAID 2000), and coca paste garners cash payments (USAID 2000) of over 800 U.S. dollars per kilogram (Isacson 2004:2). Even though farmers may not keep all of the proceeds, i.e., although they must pay some portions to their guerrilla patrons, they simply would not make as much money selling any other crop even if they could grow another crop in their regions’ inhospitable turfs or if they could transport another crop to market.

Another factor contributing to coca cultivation in Colombia’s most remote regions is the lack of state oversight and resulting guerrilla governance in such areas (e.g., González 2004; LeGrand 2003; Thoumi 2002; Thoumi 2005). Ramírez details the absence of state involvement in the Department of Putumayo, one of the heaviest coca-growing regions:

… this peripheral area [i.e., Putumayo] has been defined by both the State and its inhabitants as excluded from the central order of things, marginal, “abandoned by the State,” “a forgotten region” to which the “development” of the central region does not extend. As a general rule, the State has limited its participation in the Amazon region to establishing basic services for the colonos [settlers] located in or near the urban centers. The rest of the area [i.e., remote regions such as Putumayo] lacks adequate basic services such as roads, water supply, electricity, health services and education. (2004:1-2)

Thus, displaced peasants resorted to coca cultivation in part because the state failed to provide them with viable alternatives (Molano 2000:27). Furthermore, though drug production was illegal, the state’s non-involvement in remote regions made evading punishment easy (Thoumi 2005). Also, it was indeed because of this lack of state oversight that guerrilla groups fighting the state, particularly the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC, in its Spanish acronym), migrated to distant regions along with the peasants (LeGrand 2003). Wielding power in lands where the state “lacked the monopoly on justice and the legitimate use of force” (González 2004), the guerrillas began to tax traffickers and farmers.

Molano stresses that the guerrillas did not force campesinos to begin growing coca and that instead, campesinos resorted to drug cultivation because the hinterlands left them no other means of economic survival (2000:27). Nonetheless, the guerrillas today sustain drug cultivation by establishing protection rackets and insisting that those they ‘protect’ grow drugs: “Living among competing armed actors, peasants’ planting decisions are often determined more by intimidation than by free will or economic rationality” (Hagen 2001:1). Also, once the guerrillas began to demand that peasants pay ‘protection fees’ (USAID 2000), they intensified peasants’ economic incentives to grow drugs; now, peasants must sell drug crops not only to earn enough money for food and shelter but also to satiate their guerrilla leaders.

Conversely, some coca growers live under right-wing paramilitary rule. In August 2002, the Los Angeles Times reported that paramilitaries in the Sur de Bolivar region had decided to embrace USAID’s alternative development efforts and to work toward coca elimination in the areas they controlled (Miller 2002). Nonetheless, paramilitaries have in the past insisted that their subjects cultivate drugs (Interamerican Association for Environmental Defense 2006:7), and the Colombian government has claimed that the paramilitaries’ United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (AUC, in its Spanish acronym) runs approximately 40 percent of the country’s drug trade and gains about 80 percent of its budget through drug profits (cited in Wilson 2003). Hence, paramilitaries have much incentive to continue to force communities to cultivate drugs.

USAID's Alternative Development Program

Through its alternative development program, USAID (2000) has pledged to stimulate enough legal economic activity that peasants can survive on licit incomes rather than resorting to drug cultivation.ii The agency has acknowledged that crop substitution alone is not enough and that drug-producing regions require better infrastructure and institutions, including roads to markets, improved health services, schools, and reliable governance. Nonetheless, program designers have failed to appreciate fully the economic and socio-political characteristics of the isolated areas where Colombian campesinos cultivate illegal drugs.

USAID claims that under its alternative development program, peasant communities “voluntarily” sign agreements stipulating that they will stop growing coca and/or opium poppy and that they will accept alternative development assistance instead (2000). As former U.S. Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Marc Grossman has revealed, however, the USAID approach is far from voluntary. Grossman has declared that if Colombian peasants are “prepared to get out of the drug business, we’re prepared to help them do something different” but warned that “if they don’t want to get out of the drug business, then the government of Colombia, with our assistance[,] is prepared to spray those crops” (2002).iii In other words, the agency’s alternative development strategy pressures Colombian peasants to abandon crops they otherwise would have little economic or political incentive to abandon and much incentive to maintain.

Under the USAID program, farmers sign contracts, pledging to stop producing coca and opium. Only after the contracts are signed does USAID provide its alternative development assistance, distributed in part through the Colombian government, and the agency frequently allows farmers about one year to terminate all illicit cultivation. As detailed above, viable economic alternatives to drug production do not exist for Colombian campesinos in remote regions.

Given the rough soils, dearth of infrastructure, lack of market access, and guerrilla protection rackets that the campesinos must confront, any development that does occur will likely take years to come to fruition. By instituting a one-year ‘voluntary’ eradication timeframe, USAID insists that farmers stop growing coca and opium long before alternatives have fully developed. In the “Proposal for Peace” that they have drafted on behalf of the Transnational Institute think-tank, Vargas and Jelsma have criticized this focus on reducing drug cultivation before more stable and diversified economies, as swell as more secure communities, have arisen:

Alternative Development has largely been defined in the restricted vision of “crop substitution,” as “another tool to eliminate illicit drugs.” In practice, projects have often been degraded to the level of subsidies and serve as a complementary function in the operations of forced eradication. …. The only indicator regarded as relevant in evaluating the success of this type of alternative development has become the number of hectares eradicated. (2000)

Even if they sign contracts, and even if they attempt alternative activities, farmers may not eschew all illicit cultivations in the absence of economic initiatives proven to protect their financial stability. One Putumayan farmer in Isacson’s report, for example, indicated that he had planted arazá, a local fruit, but maintained some of his coca plantings (2006:10). When alternative development has not yet transpired, the alternative to drug cultivation is financial – and therefore personal – ruin, which few farmers are willing to embrace.

Another problem with the USAID approach is that by requiring that peasants give up drug cultivation within a short period of time, it demands that Colombians trust the Colombian and U.S. governments to deliver alternative aid and to stimulate local economies as promised. Many researchers have noted Colombians’ lack of such confidence; according to Thoumi, for example, “Colombia is in the midst of an institutional crisis characterized by extremely low levels of social capital and trust” (2002:112). This reluctance to place faith in the government has itself emerged from the land takeovers and violence discussed above, for throughout Colombia’s history, no authority has protected the country’s peasants from repeated bouts of displacement. In some cases, the government itself has bombed peasants’ territories, leading LeGrand to note that some displaced peasants outright “saw the state as the enemy” (2003).

Furthermore, when peasants have reached remote refuges, the central government has neglected to provide social services, so peasants have little reason to expect that the government will care for them now. In particular, Isacson notes that because these rural regions lack roads, the government generally cannot transport its agents to rural peoples (2006:11). Thus, one of the few ways in which the government has ever come into contact with the campesinos is through aerial fumigation of neighbouring coca and opium fields (Isacson 2006:11), which instead of persuading peasants to trust their government, has only demonstrated that the state has the power to destroy local livelihoods (Ramírez 2005a). Hagen adds that because agricultural institutions have frequently “distribute[d] pork” in the past, Colombians consider government-led agricultural initiatives especially circumspect (2001:1).

Unfortunately, the campesinos’ scepticism has proven justified, for not all who have signed contracts have received aid, and some signatories who have preserved their coca plants while awaiting viable alternatives have found their crops fumigated by the authorities (Gill 2002:1).

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