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Trumping Colombia’s peace: U.S. drug war threatens fragile accord, forests

  • President Donald Trump has brought new tension to U.S.-Colombian relations, threatening to cut crucial funding at a pivotal moment in Colombia’s peace process and to decertify that agreement for a perceived failure to tackle the drug trade.
  • According to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, Colombian coca production has risen to an all-time high, with around 90 percent of cocaine entering the U.S. coming from that Latin American country.
  • U.S. officials blame the cocaine resurgence on Colombia’s decision to halt aerial spraying of Monsanto’s glyphosate herbicide – a controversial tactic considered to have serious health and environmental impacts by some, but rejected by others.
  • Now, with Colombia’s fragile internal truce taking hold, the Trump administration’s stance – reminiscent of the War on Drugs strategy of the 80s and 90s – could be a great hindrance to peace, with knock-on negative effects for Colombia’s rural population and world-renowned biodiversity.
The source of the souring of U.S.-Colombia political relations: a coca plant. The Colombian government recently sought to combine eradication with alternative rural development to break the cycle of coca growing. The U.S. under Trump wants a return to the drug war, including aerial spraying, which Colombia has banned for health and safety reasons. Photo by Enn1.jpg: Dbotany /  Ilmari Karonen CC-BY-SA-3.0.

Plan Colombia pumped nearly ten billion U.S. dollars into the South American nation to fight drug trafficking, and is lauded as a drug interdiction success story by some experts.

For others, the program is seen as a disaster, a socially and environmentally destructive game of cat and mouse between law enforcement and traffickers, with farms, farmers and ecosystems sprayed aerially and widely with fumigants, especially Monsanto’s controversial glyphosate.

Under President Donald Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the U.S. appears to be renewing its international War on Drugs, just as Colombia is gearing up for peace, implementing a fragile peace accord that also offers a rare opportunity to protect the country’s extraordinary biodiversity.

Deforestation in Colombia. Since peace was achieved between the Colombian government and FARC, both legal and illegal activities have ramped up, and deforestation has soared in former rebel held areas, threatening the country’s fragile biodiversity. Photo credit: Matt-Zimmerman on VisualHunt / CC BY

Trump tough on crime, tough on Colombia

During a first meeting last May, Trump congratulated Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos for a “magnificent job” in crafting a peace accord with the FARC, Colombia’s foremost rebel foe for many decades. However, Trump did not expressly state whether he supported the peace process or not; instead he focused on concerns over Colombia’s rising coca and cocaine production.

Months later, the White House released a harsh Presidential memo stating that the administration had “seriously considered” listing Colombia as one of the countries, alongside Bolivia and Venezuela, that had “failed demonstrably” to take significant steps to reign in rampant cocaine production; a step that would jeopardize millions in U.S. aid dollars for Colombia.

Trump’s threat came after a Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) report revealed that roughly 90 percent of cocaine in the U.S. could be traced back to Colombia, along with other indicators from the DEA and U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), showing that coca production has risen sharply.

UNODC found that the area of coca cultivation in Colombia increased by 52 percent between 2015 and 2016, up from 96,000 hectares (370 square miles) to 146,000 hectares (564 square miles). The DEA, using a different methodology, calculated that 188,000 hectares (726 square miles) of coca was planted in 2016; the largest amount ever recorded in the country by the agency.

The exact cause of this huge up-tick is debatable. The DEA, however, blames a halt in aerial eradication, a decline in manual eradication, and the Colombian peace negotiations with the FARC. It is widely believed that coca farmers planted far more of the illegal crop in the run up to the peace deal in order to benefit from crop-substitution programs.

USAID under the Obama administration helped fund alternative crop opportunities to coca farmers in Colombia. Cacao, the base ingredient of chocolate, was, and is, a common alternative crop. Trump administration critics argue that more aid should be flowing into this effort, rather than less. For the moment, potential USAID cuts to Colombia remain in limbo due to the 2018 budget impasse in Congress. Photo by Thomas Cristofoletti/ USAID CC BY-NC 2.0 via Flickr

U.S. threatens to withdraw aid

Analysts say that tensions between Colombia and the U.S. are now strained. The Trump administration has slammed Colombia for not doing enough to curb coca production and for veering away from its hard line on producers. At the same time, the U.S. has sought to slash crucial funding dedicated to the Colombian peace process.

Before leaving office, President Obama pledged $450 million in aid, promising to reshape “Plan Colombia” into “Peace Colombia” by redirecting military and anti-narcotics funding toward social development. In May 2017, Trump signed the Obama-initiated bill, ensuring that the aid package went through.

But Trump’s “America First” campaign pledge has thrown the longevity of Colombian aid into limbo. His 2018 budget proposal, publicized last May, stripped back that aid to $291 million, a 16 percent cut from 2016 levels, as part of wider draconian foreign aid reductions that have received bipartisan criticism from Congress.

Trump has since reiterated his threat to cut aid from countries that are involved in drug trafficking, saying that “I look at these countries, I look at the numbers and we send them massive aid, and they are pouring drugs into our country and they are laughing at us. So I’m not a believer in that, I want to stop the aid.” Trump did not specify which countries he was referring to.

If Trump’s deep cuts are approved, that would be terrible for the Colombian peace process, says Gimena Sánchez-Garzoli, director for the Andes at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA).

$125 million dollars worth of cocaine seized in Puerto Rico. According to the DEA, around 90 percent of the cocaine seized in the U.S. in 2016 was produced in Colombia. Photo by Coast Guard News CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 via Flickr

On one hand, she says, Trump is chastising Colombia for not doing enough to fight drug trafficking, while on the other hand he is threatening to withdraw the money that helps it do so. The U.S. “want[s] to basically cut the soft [social development] money, which is something that has evolved over the past 15 years to be seen as the way to fix the [drug] problem… because the military aid and the anti-narcotics aid hasn’t given the results they wanted.”

The deep Trump cuts are likely to be avoided, as both the House and Senate versions of the aid bill restored some funding to Colombia. The House requested $335 million and the Senate $391 million. However, the final package is still being thrashed out in Congress, which has now kicked a decision on the 2018 budget down the road four times since September. (With a vote now planned for, but unlikely to occur, this week, most experts expect a delay into March.) So no one currently knows what the final numbers will be. And certainly, no one can predict what the foreign aid budget will look like under Trump, over the next three years.

Whatever the result, the price of peace will not come cheap, says Maria Alejandra Silvia Ortega, a research associate at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs. Peace, she says, in this case, is more expensive than war. With the U.S. having contributed billions to the Drug War effort in Colombia, it would be concerning for the United States to not now financially support peace, she said.

What is more troubling for Sánchez-Garzoli is that Trump’s budget, along with the House and Senate versions, allot the lion’s share of U.S. aid to military assistance, and not to peace-oriented solutions, which is where she says the spending needs to go.

The golden poison frog (Phyllobates terribilis), is endemic to Colombia’s Pacific coast and is one of over 600 species of amphibians found in the country. It is one of the species that has lost out due to agricultural land conversion, both legal and illegal, and is now considered endangered. Photo by Sebastian Moreno CC BY-ND 2.0 via Flickr

Colombia’s peace dividend at risk

Colombia’s peace comes with a tremendous conservation opportunity. During the 52-year civil war, vast swathes of the nation were shut off to outsiders. Now, these no-go zones have been opened up and scientists and conservationists are rushing in to catalogue Colombia’s natural wonders. Colombia is home to a whopping ten percent of the world’s biodiversity, much of it unstudied and undescribed.

However, Maria Fernandes Torres and Julieth Serrano, biologists with the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, warn that the research opportunities that peace provides to researchers, has also offered a golden opportunity to those wishing to exploit Colombia’s bountiful natural resources, both legally and illegally.

The civil war reduced deforestation, since logging companies couldn’t do business safely. But in 2016, with peace breaking out all over, deforestation in Colombia shot up by 44 percent, with 178,597 hectares (441,322 acres) felled compared to 124,035 hectares (306,497 acres) in 2015. Many of the areas seeing increased deforestation were in zones previously controlled by FARC. Experts say the rebel group’s demobilization has caused something akin to a power vacuum, allowing illicit gold mining and illegal logging to become rife in the newly opened up territories.

The Parque Nacional Natural Farallones de Cali along Colombia’s coast is one of the national parks under threat by coca and other illicit activities such as gold mining. Photo credit: World Resources on / CC BY-NC-SA

According to a study carried out before the peace deal was struck, reigning in environmental damage, particularly by stemming deforestation and reforesting lost areas, will bring Colombia a windfall worth billions of dollars over the coming years. “Avoided costs” include cash savings from not having to clean up oil spills and health benefits due to lower exposure to mercury, which is commonly used in illicit gold mining.

However, to ensure the government receives this environmental peace dividend, it needs to quickly extend its authority into regions once held by the FARC. But that opportunity is fast slipping away, says Sánchez-Garzoli: “We are seeing already that there is increased pressure by extractive industries and others who want to go into the area.” Proposed U.S. aid cuts are especially troubling, she says, because European donors are simultaneously trimming their economic contributions.

Colombia’s government has announced that vast areas formerly controlled by the FARC are now part of an expanded protected network. However, while that enlargement of national park territory is all well and good, says Torres, whether the land is actually protected on the ground is another matter.

The Colombian government has proposed a pragmatic strategy for dealing with this enforcement problem: turning former FARC rebels into conservation guardians to stem the tide of environmental harm occurring in areas once under their control.

However, this seemingly sensible plan too has run afoul current U.S. policy. At present, the FARC are still listed by the United States as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO), a designation which prohibits any U.S. funds from reaching them, or any financing operations that benefit them.

A State Department spokesperson told Mongabay that any future review of the FARC as an FTO would take into account “new facts” such as “whether through implementation of the peace agreement the FARC disarm and engage in peaceful activities and give up violence.” FTOs are reviewed periodically, but the State Department spokesperson did not specify when FARC’s status will be reconsidered.

A coca processing lab is destroyed near Tumaco in 2008. Photo by Policía Nacional de Los Colombianos CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr

U.S. War on Drugs déjà vu

It’s not only the Trump administration’s slash and burn approach to foreign aid that is troubling Colombia, an out of touch and seemingly retro U.S. drug policy is also causing concern.

In the absence of any official policy document, piecing together a Trump administration international and domestic drug policy is challenging, says Hannah Hetzer, a senior international policy advisor at the Drug Policy Alliance. But, she adds, Trump “and his administration have proven to be real bad news for drug policy reform efforts broadly.”

Hetzer notes that while huge strides in reforming drug policy were made under President Obama, “major regressive steps” are occurring under Trump, both at home and abroad. To her, some harsh administration statements, especially by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, hark back to the 80s and 90s, when DEA agents were battling the Cali and Medellin drug cartels.

Meanwhile, Colombia’s own drug policy approach, driven by President Santos since taking office in 2010, has evolved, shifting from a war footing, and crystalizing around the need to promote rural development in order to break the poverty cycle that led farmers to rely upon the alluring profits of drug trafficking.

Criminalizing those who produce the drugs, Santos has said, is part of a failed strategy and should be left behind. Despite statements like this, the Colombian peace process and its enlightened drug policy reform, remains far from secure. Last October, six coca farmers were killed and 19 more injured during protests against the manual eradication of coca crops.

The U.S. State Department responded to a request for comment on its position on alternative development and the peace process in Colombia, stating that in the past the U.S. government through USAID has spent roughly $50 million per year on alternative development projects, supporting “over 35,000 families and over 520 organizations,” creating jobs and building connections with rural communities:

“By continuing this line of effort, in regions of strategic importance to both the U.S. and the Colombian governments, USAID will assist in addressing some of Colombia’s most vexing challenges: illicit coca cultivation, expanding state presence, and establishing the conditions for a sustainable and inclusive peace,” said the State Department.

Glyphosate herbicide damage to a banana plant. Opponents to aerial spraying argue that the use of glyphosate in Colombia infringed on human rights, had health impacts and damaged legal crops while doing little to stem the growth of illegal crops. Others argue that aerial spraying was an effective way of tackling the drug problem. Whether its use will return to Colombia as urged by the Trump administration remains to be seen. Photo credit: Photo credit: Scot Nelson on Visual hunt / CC BY

The aerial spraying controversy

A major drug policy sticking point between U.S. and Colombian officials is aerial fumigation, the heart of Plan Colombia. In the past, U.S. funded and Colombian administered use of herbicides to eliminate illicit crops brought international allegations of human rights abuses. The chemical employed, Monsanto’s glyphosate, has been continually and controversially, linked to cancer, water pollution and the destruction of biodiversity, though U.S. regulatory agencies continue to deny its harm when properly applied.

Glyphosate’s alleged adverse health effects were instrumental in the Colombian government’s decision to ban its use completely in 2015. Recently, the State of California labelled it as a possible carcinogen, a decision being challenged in court.

However, U.S. officials, and some in Colombia, continue insisting that aerial spraying was one of the most effective weapons employed against drug producers, prompting repeated suggestions for a return to its use.

But it’s not only U.S. Republicans who potentially support that position. At a recent Senate drug policy meeting, Democratic Senator Diane Feinstein of California suggested that “we take another look at this glyphosate.” Mongabay reached out to the senator for clarification on her position; she said via email: “The United States has to find a way to prevent the influx of cocaine from Colombia. A key strategy is assisting Colombia’s efforts to halt production of coca crops. Colombia has banned the use of glyphosate in aerial eradication, but we should continue to support all allowable forms of eradication and interdiction to reduce the coca supply used to produce illicit cocaine.” Her position would seem to be at odds with California’s labelling of the herbicide as carcinogenic.

A Bird of Paradise in Colombia. The country has over 50,000 species of plants, but is facing immense challenges to protecting this diversity, as areas once controlled by FARC rebels are now opened to natural resource exploitation. Photo by Rhett A. Butler / Mongabay

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson described the recent coca production numbers as “eye-popping,” and revealed that he has had conversations with Colombia stressing that “we’ve got to get back to the spraying.”

However, whether that means a specific return to aerial spraying with glyphosate is unclear. In a separate U.S. State Department statement a spokesperson said: “Colombia has concluded, and we concur, the best approach to countering narcotics production is eradication, including forced eradication, and interdiction… we emphasize the choice of methods is a sovereign decision of Colombia.”

In Colombia, high-ranking officials such as the Colombian Attorney General and the Fiscal-General, have called for aerial spraying to be back on the table.

John Collins, Director of the International Drug Policy Unit at the London School of Economics, believes current U.S. pressure on Colombia to toughen its drug policies might well come to nothing: “There’s a much smaller constituency for the War on Drugs in Latin America than there was years ago,” he says. “It’s certainly going to be harder for the U.S. to make the case for the War on Drugs.”

Despite this, he fears that we could see a return to aerial spraying in the future, even though “it was horrendously expensive, horrendously inefficient and actively damaging to the communities involved and to the environment.”

President Santos, while opposed to a return to aerial spraying, has allowed continued manual spraying as part of forced eradication efforts around the country. According to a recent statement by the Colombian Defense Department, 92 percent of its eradication target had been reached by mid-November, 2017 with 42,000 hectares {103,784 acres} removed from production.

A return to aerial fumigation would represent a “major setback,” according to Hetzer, as it would prolong a failed strategy of the drug war. “But unfortunately, it’s a conversation that’s happening within Colombia and the U.S.”

Colombia’s Parque Nacional Paramillo. The park covers 460,000 hectares. 1,300 hectares were used for coca plantations in 2016 according to the UNODC, nearly double the amount as in 2015. Photo by Agencia Prensa Rural CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 via Flickr

A return to aerial spraying: more deforestation, or not

In the past, say some experts including Kendra McSweeney, of Ohio State University, the aerial spraying of fields simply resulted in coca cultivators pushing farther and farther into remote forests, placing pressure on Colombia’s most biodiverse conserved areas, and leading to deforestation.

McSweeney and others point to many of the country’s national parks, which have been pockmarked by illegal coca plantations, as evidence. The UNODC found 16 Colombian national parks containing illicit coca plantations in 2016, the same number as in 2015, with around 7,000 hectares (17,297 acres) cleared. The majority of coca was in three parks; Sierra de la Macarena, Nukak and Paramillo.

“The [seriousness of the] situation in the parks doesn’t depend on how much coca is in them,” explains Leonardo Correa, Coordinator of the Integrated Illicit Crops Monitoring System at the UNODC in Colombia. Whether it’s one hectare or one thousand, a single cleared plot can create an opening for other illegal activities.

However, Liliana Davalos, an evolutionary biologist at Stony Brook University, suggests that coca cultivation is only a minimal contributor to Colombian deforestation. Rather, it is part of a much wider problem, one which she argues touches on deeper issues of land use. Her research shows that even if illegal coca was completely eradicated, the agricultural frontiers that push into forested areas, those that drive deforestation, would still advance regardless, simply relying on another crop, albeit a legal one, for the expansion.

The Blue-billed currasow is one species that faces an uncertain future due to Colombia’s peace. Illegal activities shrank its habitat considerably and it is now feared that the species could be finished off as former conflict areas are logged and converted from forest to croplands. Photo credit: wolfehr on / CC BY-NC-ND

Correa notes that there is little to no government strategy in place to guide or control Colombian agricultural expansion in non-developed areas. As a result, he fears that the frontier of illicit activities will continue moving into conservation areas.

For her part, McSweeney worries that a return to a repressive coca control approach that rips up or aerially sprays a farmer’s illegal crop without offering an alternative crop or way of life, will only ramp up environmental damage to the national parks, bastion of Colombia’s unique biodiversity.

The overriding view of experts interviewed for this story is that Trump’s Colombian policy appears to have been cobbled together from two components: a desire to drastically cut foreign aid spending, while embracing past failed and costly hard-line drug war strategies.

Depending on the administration’s decisions going forward, the U.S. could be of great help to the Colombian peace process at a pivotal moment and assist in building a more environmentally secure future for the Latin American country. Or it could be a hindrance, calling for a return to aerial spraying and military-style interdictions, while depriving Colombia of urgently needed development aid. Only time, an errant Twitter feed, and this year’s Colombian election, will tell which road is taken.

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Telipogon diabolicus, a new species of critically endangered orchid that was discovered in Colombia in 2016. Scientists are certain that a wealth of new, and often endemic, species exist in unexplored regions now opening up as Colombia’s internal conflict ends. But researchers are also concerned that they are in a race against time to document this biodiversity, before it is placed in renewed danger by deforestation due to logging, crop cultivation, cattle herding and mining. Photo by Marta Kolanowska




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