Updates from WOLA tagged “Putumayo”

Blog entries, commentaries, and statements from WOLA’s Colombia team

As many as six civilians have been killed during coca eradication operations amid the pandemic

July 7, 2020

On July 1, a team of coca eradicators and security forces arrived in the village of Caucasia, in Puerto Asís municipality, in Colombia’s department of Putumayo. In Colombia’s far south along the Ecuador border, Putumayo is where U.S.-backed operations under “Plan Colombia” began. Its first phase in 2000, what the Clinton Administration called the “push into southern Colombia,” expanded military and coca-eradication operations there. Twenty years later, the region’s farmers remain so isolated and abandoned that Putumayo still concentrates tens of thousands of hectares of coca plants.

Dozens or hundreds of Caucasia farmers gathered to protest the eradicators’ arrival. They had been in the midst of negotiations with Colombia’s Interior Ministry on a pilot project to eradicate their coca voluntarily, in exchange for assistance. Those dialogues got put on hold when the COVID-19 pandemic hit Colombia. But forced eradication did not get put on hold: eradicators and police escorts arrived and prepared to pull up the bushes.

Though details of what happened remain elusive, it is clear that the situation grew tense on July 3. Members of the Colombian Police anti-disturbances squadron (ESMAD) opened fire at some distance, killing one of the community members: 56-year-old Educardo Alemeza Papamija. Three others were wounded.

Episodes like this have become very common in 2020, especially since Colombia went into pandemic lockdown. Colombia’s Ideas for Peace Foundation think-tank counted 15 confrontations between security forces and farmers between January and April, with 4 civilians killed. Overlapping this count somewhat, during the first three months of COVID-19 response—between late March and late June—Colombia’s Peace and Reconciliation Foundation counted five civilians killed:

  • Alejandro Carvajal, in Sardinata, Norte de Santander, on March 26;
  • Ángel Artemino Nastacuas Villarreal, in Tumaco, Nariño, on April 22;
  • Emérito Digno Buendía Martínez, in Cúcuta, Norte de Santander, on May 18;
  • Ariolfo Sánchez Ruíz, in Anori, Antioquia, on May 20; and
  • Salvador Jaime Durán, in Teorama, Norte de Santander, on June 27.

Adding the July 3 incident in Putumayo makes six civilians killed in coca eradication operations since late March. This is the deadliest period since 2017: in October of that year, police accompanying coca eradication operations massacred seven farmers in the village of El Tandil, in Tumaco, Nariño.

The eradication operations have become more aggressive as the U.S. government has prodded Colombia to expand them, while paying much of the bill. “Under pressure from Washington, the year-old government of President Ivan Duque has quadrupled the number of eradication teams to 100 since taking office. It aims to raise that to 150,” Reuters reported last September. Colombia has pledged to forcibly eradicate 130,000 hectares of coca in 2020, which would smash its 2019 record of 94,606 hectares.

That dramatic expansion is being helped along by a quarter of a billion dollars in 2020 U.S. assistance for drug interdiction and eradication: $125 million in this year’s foreign aid appropriation, and another $124 million that the Trump administration slashed from aid originally appropriated for Central America, and delivered to Colombia last October. The strategy is being reinforced by a large deployment of military trainers who arrived in the country in early June.

While we don’t have visibility over what is happening inside the Colombian security forces’ eradication teams, it is quite possible that their increased aggressiveness this year is tied to their rapid, U.S.-backed expansion. It’s difficult for any organization to expand this quickly without experiencing managerial issues or slippages in training—including use-of-force training.

These expanded operations are dangerous for the soldiers and police too: armed groups protect the coca with landmines, booby traps, snipers, and ambushes. The Ideas for Peace Foundation counts 126 members of the security forces or coca eradicators killed during manual eradication operations between 2009 and 2018, and 664 more wounded. Protesting farmers, meanwhile, aren’t always non-violent, and security force members are sometimes injured during protests against eradication.

This, though, is yet another reason for Colombia and its U.S. government supporters to pursue a different strategy: a less violent and confrontational one that might actually reduce the dependence on coca that has led the crop to persist in rural zones for 40 years now. A better strategy would seek specifically to lower the number of Colombian families that plant coca, in most cases for lack of other viable options. Estimates of that number currently range from over 119,500 to over 230,000 families.

An alternative strategy exists, and it was the product of years of intense negotiations. Colombia’s 2016 peace accord had a plan for reducing this number of coca-growing families dramatically. Under the accord’s fourth chapter, over 99,000 families signed voluntary coca eradication agreements, in exchange for promised assistance. That number could have been higher, but the government of President Iván Duque froze the program after taking office in August 2018. The accord’s crop substitution plan, along with its larger efforts to bring a government presence into historically abandoned rural areas, is underfunded, increasingly behind schedule, and not receiving anywhere near the emphasis that forced eradication is getting—especially during the pandemic.

Even in a pandemic, Colombia’s U.S.-backed expanded forced eradication campaign is happening without even food security assistance for the families affected, leaving many hungry after the eradicators depart. In June the Colombian daily El Espectador asked the Defense Minister why coca eradication was happening during the pandemic in an absence of any help for farmers. He replied flatly that coca is illegal and that eradicating is “our constitutional duty.” We know from years of experience that eradication unlinked to assistance doesn’t work: it may yield a short-term decrease in the number of hectares planted with coca, but replanting happens quickly.

This aggressive, cruel, and ineffective model must stop now. Coca eradication should be the product of dialogue with communities, with the goal of bringing a lasting government presence into vast areas of Colombia where people live without one. In the rare instances when that is not possible, eradicators should de-escalate confrontations with communities, seeking to avoid the use of force and the repetition of the sorts of tragedies that Colombia has witnessed six times now since the pandemic began.

And of course, Colombia should resist any effort to re-start eradication by spraying the highly questioned herbicide glyphosate from aircraft. Fumigation not only raises health and environmental concerns that the government has not yet addressed—it is the very opposite of a long-term solution based on having people on the ground to govern territory.

As the main foreign backer of Colombia’s coca eradication strategy, the U.S. government should play a determining role in helping Colombia pursue a more humane, long-term-focused, and ultimately successful strategy. If the United States does not help to change course, it will continue to share the blame for disastrous human rights outcomes like what we are seeing now. And within a few years—when coca-growing families inevitably replant after remaining without formal title to their lands, isolated from markets, and lacking even basic governance—the United States will also share the blame for the current strategy’s foreseeable failure.

Tags: Coca, Human Rights, Illicit Crop Eradication, Putumayo, U.S. Policy

Podcast: Demining sacred space in Colombia’s Amazon basin

June 25, 2020

This is the June 24, 2020 edition of WOLA’s podcast.

Tom Laffay is an American filmmaker based in Bogotá, and is a recipient of the inaugural 2020 Andrew Berends Fellowship. In 2018, his short film, Nos están matando (They’re killing us), which exposed the plight of Colombian social leaders, reached the halls of the U.S. Congress and the United Nations in Geneva.

This film was commissioned by The New Yorker and supported by The Pulitzer Center.

In this edition of WOLA’s podcast, Laffay discusses his new short film, Siona: Amazon’s Defenders Under Threat. The New Yorker featured it on its website on June 25, 2020. Laffay follows Siona Indigenous leader Adiela Mera Paz in Putumayo, Colombia, as she works to demine her ancestral territory to make it possible for her people displaced by the armed conflict to return. Though the armed conflict with the FARC may have officially ended, the Siona people not only face post-conflict risks, they also face threats from extractive companies. In the episode, Laffay describes the history of the Siona people and their territory, their relationship with yagé, and the courageous work undertaken by leaders like Adiela Mera Paz.

Listen to WOLA’s Latin America Today podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, iHeartRadio, or wherever you subscribe to podcasts. The main feed is here.

Tags: Audio, Demining, Indigenous Communities, Podcast, Putumayo, Video

Forced Coca Eradication Operations amid the COVID-19 Crisis: Letter to the Colombian Government

April 1, 2020

On March 30, 2020, the Action for Change (Acciones para el Cambio – APC) coalition published a letter addressed to the Colombian government urging it to stop forced coca eradication operations amid the COVID-19 public health crisis. The letter encourages the government to instead enforce quarantine measures to prevent the spread of the virus among vulnerable farmer communities.

Despite calls to follow quarantine measures, the Government of Colombia has continued forced coca eradication operations in the Catatumbo region and the departments of Caquetá and Putumayo. These operations, the letter states, violate voluntary substitution agreements signed with farmer communities within the framework of the peace accord.

The letter also highlights the increased use of force and violence against farmers and condemns the murders of Marco Rivadeneira and Alejandro Carvajal. Here is the English text of the letter:

THE ACTION FOR CHANGE (ACCIONES PARA EL CAMBIO – APC) COALITION CALLS ON THE NATIONAL GOVERNMENT TO SUSPEND FORCED ERADICATION OPERATIONS DURING THE COVID-19 CRISIS TO GUARANTEE THE RIGHTS OF RURAL POPULATIONS

The COVID-19 pandemic places the Colombian State in a unique situation, in which it must implement rigorous measures to contain the spread of the virus and guarantee its citizens the right to life, health, and survival.

Despite the measures implemented by the national government to address the emergency, several organizations in the Catatumbo region and the departments of Caquetá and Putumayo have denounced intensified forced coca eradication operations, specifically in municipalities where collective agreements were signed under the Comprehensive National Program for the Substitution of Illicit Crops (Programa Nacional Integral de Sustitución de Cultivos de Uso Ilícito, PNIS). To date, the national government has not fully complied with these agreements. Such noncompliance, coupled with uncertain isolation measures to combat the COVID-19 pandemic, has in recent days caused a number of violations to rural populations’ rights.

Amid the national quarantine on March 19, Marco Rivadeneira was assassinated in the Nueva Granada territory, located in Puerto Asís municipality, Putumayo. Marco was a prominent leader who promoted the substitution of crops in the department and sought alternatives for those who had been left out of crop substitution programs. According to data from the Coordinator for Coca, Marijuana and Poppy Growers (Coordinadora de Cultivadores de Coca, Marihuana y Amapola, COCCAM), Marco Rivadeneira’s murder raises to 60 the total number of people killed for leading crop substitution processes in Colombia. Three days after that, on March 22, the arrival of state forces was denounced, as they began to fumigate coca crops with glyphosate using manual spray pumps.

According to public complaints from the COCCAM and the Departmental Coordinator of Social, Environmental and Peasant Organizations of Caquetá (Coordinadora Departamental de Organizaciones Sociales, Ambientales y Campesinas del Caquetá, COORDOSAC), since March 23 in Caquetá, members of the National Army have carried out forced eradication operations using force and gunfire against farmers. Despite the public health crisis, these operations are occurring in the Palestina, Inspección Unión Peneya territory in Montañita municipality.

Finally, according to information from the Peasant Association of Catatumbo (Asociación Campesina del Catatumbo, ASCAMCAT) and the COCCAM, Alejandro Carvajal was killed by members of the National Army in the context of forced and violent eradications last Thursday, March 26. This assassination occurred in the territory of Santa Teresita, La Victoria, which forms part of Sardinata municipality in Norte de Santander. The National Army has already assumed responsibility for said killing. 

Faced with the aforementioned context, the APC coalition urges the Colombian government to:

  1. Investigate the incidents and punish those responsible for the killings of Marco Rivadeneira and Alejandro Carvajal. Additionally, investigate and punish the members of the National Army who use threats and force against rural populations in Catatumbo, Caquetá, and Putumayo.
  1. Implement the mandatory, preventative measures ordered by the President and suspend forced eradication efforts to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The rural population is already at risk and its right to health and food security needs to be guaranteed.
  1. Respect and advance compliance with voluntary substitution agreements signed with farmer communities.

SIGNED

THE ACTION FOR CHANGE (ACCIONES PARA EL CAMBIO – APC) COALITION

Tags: Attacks on social leaders, Caqueta, Catatumbo, Coca, coronavirus, Illicit Crop Eradication, Putumayo