, LLORENTE, Colombia, Apr 12 – Colombian forces sent to rip green coca plants from the earth to end a trade fueling violence complain the crops are being replanted as fast as they can destroy them.
Colombia is ranked by the United Nations as the world’s biggest producer of coca the raw material for cocaine which has funded armed groups in the more than half-century conflict.
In a new peace deal, the state and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the country’s biggest rebel group, agreed to eradicate coca and replace it with safer crops like coffee and cacao.
In Narino, a major coca-producing region in the southwest, those carrying out the eradication work are feeling exasperated.
Sweat soaks the face of Ivan Hidalgo, a 19-year-old assistant police official, rifle on shoulder, who has spent the past two months uprooting coca plants in the sweltering settlement of Llorente.
“You’re tearing out the coca,” he tells AFP, “and the farmers are planting it again behind your back.”
‘Too much coca’
The surrounding municipality of Tumaco had nearly 17,000 hectares in 2015, according to the latest UN figures. The Narino district overall has nearly 30,000.
Among so much coca, assistant police officials like Pablo Riveros are tearing out the plants with their bare hands.
“There is too much coca,” Riveros says.
Authorities have since January eradicated 200 hectares by hand and a further 400 hectares by spraying them with chemical herbicide.
But their efforts hardly seem to be making a dent in Narino. The mountains of the area are still blanketed in lush green coca leaves.
“The community is always going to be there watching out for people coming to eradicate the crops,” says Elvins Caldon, who sprays the coca with herbicide.
Earning a living
Coca farmers complain they are getting a raw deal under the eradication agreement.
They say the government has not delivered on promises to replace the crop, which yields four harvests a year.
Coca growers in Narino have blocked roads and faced off with authorities in recent weeks, sparking clashes that have left at least one person dead and four injured.
“We want a decent living for our children,” the National Coca, Poppy and Marijuana Growers’ Coordinator organization said in a statement.
Authorities say drug gangs are behind the protests.
“We are not drug traffickers,” the organization said.
“Farming families have for decades had to resort to growing coca, poppy and marijuana — not because they like it but because their lands have been abandoned by the state.”
Growers earn a fraction of the riches generated by the coca as it is processed into paste, then powder, and consumed.
A kilogram (about two pounds) of coca fetches about a dollar where it is produced. But further down the chain, a kilogram of cocaine is worth about $1,650, according to the latest UN data.
Rebels join in
The head of the Colombian police drug squad, Jose Angel Mendoza, insists the eradication effort will not harm farmers.
“We are targeting the drug traffickers and organized crime,” he says.
He warns that FARC renegades opposed to the peace deal as well as other outlawed groups are vying for a share of the coca trade.
Among them is the country’s last active rebel group, the leftist ELN — despite being in peace talks with the government.
“There are some places where the ELN had never been seen before, and now people say that they are arriving here,” says Riveros.
On top of resistance from farmers, the eradication teams face the danger of landmines planted to protect the coca.
Colombia has more landmines than any other country except Afghanistan, according to the International Campaign to Ban Landmines.
Each 14-person squad of eradicators includes two specialists who check for mines with metal detectors and trained dogs.
Santiago Alvarez, one of the Narino eradication crew, tears up coca plants just yards away from the locals who depend on them.
“It is a hard job,” he says. “But it is worth it to achieve a peace with zero violence.”