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May 17, 2010

Colombian marijuana plantations feeding Europe's drug habit

by Karl Penhaul

Through the afternoon downpour a horse plods along a muddy mountain path. I can smell him almost before he rounds the bend. He's weighed down with more than 50 kilograms (110 pounds) of freshly-picked marijuana.

A peasant farmer gees the animal along, anxious to get his crop into the dry. I stop the farmer and briefly pet the horse.

"He's called Stoner," the farmer tells me in Spanish, before breaking into a broad grin and setting off again. He was, of course, joking.

These are the mountains of Colombia's southwest Cauca province, far from the reach of the law and just as far from market -- making it difficult, the dirt-poor peasants say, to scrape a living selling legal produce.

Around every bend and in every village there's a surprise. Marijuana plantations stretch sometimes for several acres, clinging to steep-sided canyons.

Farmhands wielding machetes disappear amid a "forest" of thousands of plants, two or three times taller than a person. They reappear minutes later with a bundle of marijuana over their shoulder and head for rudimentary drying houses made of black plastic slung over wooden branches.

In some of these shacks hundreds of pounds of marijuana are hung out to dry.

In other communities, old ladies take advantage of a brief break in the rain to toss marijuana up to dry on the tin roofs of their homes. Others hang the herb in the rafters of the kitchen, where the strangely sweet smell mingles with the aroma of a stew cooking on a smoky fire.

This is a cottage industry. Weed is the cash crop of choice. The cheapest variety sells for around $4 a pound -- that's almost twice the price of coffee, which is the only other viable cash crop in these parts.

"We know we're doing harm to society. But this is what gives us an income because ordinary food crops are worth nothing," one marijuana grower tells me, asking me not to identify him by name. Cultivating marijuana is illegal here but many say it's their only means of survival.

Colombia's first marijuana boom came in the late 1960s and early 1970s and the country became a major supplier to the United States.

But Colombian marijuana gave way to the craze for cocaine. Then, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), Colombian marijuana was totally squeezed out of the U.S. market by better quality home-grown weed, as well as imports from Canada and Mexico.

Now, in Cauca province at least, there's a new bonanza. This is one of the few regions of Colombia where, according to United Nations' anti-drug officials, the production of marijuana and coca leaves, the raw material for cocaine, is increasing. At the same time, Colombia is once again exporting good quality pot and has become a "major supplier" to Europe, according to the DEA.

The rugged terrain and the region's remoteness are part of the explanation why the new boom has taken root here.

It's difficult for Colombian security forces to get into the region and locate drug plantations. Moreover, the area is a stronghold for leftist FARC guerrillas.

Although none of the peasants say the FARC ran the drug trade in northern Cauca, they explain the rebels levy what they called a "war tax" of about $14 for every kilogram (2.2 pounds) of marijuana trucked out of these hills and down to nearby towns and cities.

What seems clear is that few peasants are getting rich from growing drugs.

"I earn just enough to feed my family, send the kids to school and pay for clothes," one grower says as he strips buds from dried stalks. "There's an image abroad that if you grow drugs then you have gold chains or fine cars. That's false. I don't even have a bicycle," he says.

He does, however, have six children to feed and says he just couldn't earn enough selling the legal staples of plantains, yucca and squash.

In addition, the roads in these mountains are mostly dirt tracks, almost impassable when it rains heavily. Even when a bus or a truck does make it up to remote villages, farmers say the selling price for legal produce barely covers the cost of transporting their crops to market.

Once the marijuana is picked and dried, peasants sell it to middlemen -- sometimes bigger farmers or buyers who have come from the cities. The marijuana is pressed into 25-pound (12 kg) bales, often using a simple iron press and a car jack to compact the weed. Some farmers tell us some of the middlemen had more sophisticated electric-powered hydraulic presses too.

The best marijuana, however, is trimmed with kitchen scissors, bud by bud, and packed carefully in boxes.

The farmers have several names for the relatively new variety of marijuana they're sowing. Some call it "Dutch seed". Others call it "kryptonite."

They say it's a genetically-modified hybrid, bred originally in Holland and up to three times stronger than other varieties grown here.

"Colombian Red will get you high. But kryptonite will get you really stoned," one farmer tells me. He clarifies though, that he was not speaking from personal experience.

In more than a week in the region I do not manage to find a single farmer who smokes his own produce.

"We don't have any bad habits round here. Maybe some of us have a drink from time to time but none of us smoke that stuff," a farmhand in his 20s says.

The farmers seem to exhibit no sentimentality about their crop, to the point that peasant leaders in northern Cauca province are now putting a proposal to the government. They say they are ready to voluntarily eradicate their marijuana plantations on condition the government sets up a system of agricultural subsidies and invests in rural development programs.

"We're ready to voluntarily substitute drug crops on a gradual basis if the government invests in our communities and in the region. We want a development plan," Orlando Angel, a peasant leader from the hill village of Pedregal, tells me.
But he warns they would not begin the process until the government offers some concessions.

"If we just pull out the drug crops without any other guarantees of work then we're taking the food out of our children's mouths. We're taking away their chance of healthcare and chance of an education," he says.

Previous Colombian government crop substitution plans have usually been small-scale and unsuccessful. In the past, government officials paid one-time subsidies to farmers to pull out coca plants. But when those same farmers were unable to make a living selling legal produce they resorted to sowing drugs again.

According to Colombian government and U.N. figures, the area of coca plantations has diminished steadily over about the last five years. But that is not because of voluntary deals between the government and peasants but because of forced eradication carried out in the framework of the U.S.-funded "Plan Colombia" counter-drug program.

The government has not yet given a detailed response to the peasants' proposals in Cauca province. At a meeting in the town of Caloto in late April, neither the national government nor the provincial authorities sent delegates to talk with the peasants as agreed the previous month.

National government officials have asked for a new meeting at a so far unspecified date.

But at the same time, the government has been sending army troops into the region. Their mission, according to army officers, is to fight FARC guerrillas and once the area is stabilized to begin wiping out drug crops by force. That could set the stage for possible confrontation between poor, civilian farmers and the military.

"If the army tries to destroy our crops by force then we will organize protests," Angel, the peasant leader says. "We will march and we will block the major highways."


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