Marco Perduca


Report on my recent visit to Colombia


From 14 to 19 September I was in Colombia for an Andean Amazonian Forum (, which took place in the city of Popayan in the mountainous Cauca region and organized with the support of the Tides Foundation. The forum provided an opportunity to discuss, mainly, coca-related issues, from a variety of perspectives. Participants included delegations coming from the cocaleros regions and campesino communities of Colombia, Peru and Bolivia as well as a group of Brazilian _Marijuana activists_.

Parliamentarians from the three Andean countries also participated. Pien Mietaal of the Transnational Institute was also there. 

There are several political differences between the various realities in the Andes, which could very schematically be summed up as follows: 

Bolivia, where the Constitution allows traditional use in some region, has a strong and well established cocalero and campesino movement that has in Evo Morales of the Movimiento al Socialismo its national leader; this same movement was instrumental, through a series of bloqueos and demonstrations, in bringing down last October (a series of events will be organized to celebrate the anniversary) the government of Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada, and in allowing the formation of a _technical_ government lead by vice-President Carlos Mesa. As a result of this, the new administration is in a continuous do ut des situation with the cocaleros as they represent THE actor that started the _revolution_ - and also a growing political movement in the country -, but also because the U.S. Ambassador has started to re-apply the usual pressure on the government on coca _ and socialism-related issues. While next year there will be regional elections, where Morales' movement is poised to win in the majority of the departamentos, there is still no clear time-frame for the Presidential elections.


If compared to Bolivia, Peru has virtually no political representation for the cocaleros; there are indigenous congressmen as well as politicians that care about the issue _ a couple recently have also introduced bills to allow more licit production in the country, but they do not represent a political bloc.

There is, on the other hand, a growing _political consciousness_ in several _rural_ circles. This politicization of the social and indigenous movements, which has in women one of them major driving forces, has provoked a toughening of the governmental reaction; in fact, one of the leaders of such a movement, a Nelson Palomino, who was arrested in February 2003 for apology of terrorism (a heritage of the Fujimori period but no longer on the Peruvian books) is still held on the ground of _apology of crime_ (crime against the security of the state, if I understood correctly) and also accused of being near an alleged resurrection of the Shining Path movement.

The movement is looking into the possibility of evolving into a political party and take part in the elections scheduled for 2006.

Colombia presents the most complex situation as, with time passing, there has been a systematic and widespread interrelation between the narcos, or what remains of the 1980s' cartels, the various guerrillas, the paramilitary and sectors of the government and coca and cocaine-related issues. Some experts estimate that 20% of the country is now used to produce illicit crops (coca and poppy). President Uribe has launched a campaign to reform the Constitution in order to allow himself to run again. The oppositions (the Polo Democratico Indipendente, Alternativa Democratica and others) are now trying to build an electoral coalition under the banner _no a la reeleccion_; several social, rural and indigenous movements and groups are also participating in the effort. A year ago, during a forum on the environment, a draft bill for the legalization of the traditional use of coca was prepared and will soon be introduced in the lower house by several independent congressmen. The complexity of the debate in Colombia is also augmented by the disastrous repercussions of the Plan Colombia and the new Plan Patriota that intertwine anti-drug and anti-terror measure in a omnipresent hyperwar that does not facilitate the national political process.

But resistance seem to be strong; in fact, Colombia is also the country where the draft parliamentary motion, launched at the end of 2002 by the International Antiprohibitionist League and the Transnational Radical Party received the biggest support (some 30 MPs) and where we were able to organize a parliamentary hearing on the issue of coca.

As regards the Forum, there was a general consensus in favor of the legalization of the plant for its traditional and original use (the term legalization was used time and again by regional groups).

Representatives form the various realities presented their local situation with particular focus on a variety of eradication policies and techniques currently implemented by the authorities (usually with some U.S. Collaboration and funding) ranging from voluntary eradication in Peru' to fumigations in Colombia passing through interdiction and alternative development all over the Andes. The next massive fumigation has been scheduled for October 4, in the Colombian region of Sierra Nevada.

Consensus is also growing on the denunciation of the so-called alternative development; in fact, not only it is perceived as an imposition of non viable and non traditional crops, but the proponents of those programs have failed to address the fact that rich markets continue to remain closed to those licit crops. Concrete examples of failures were also presented. A couple of speakers also argued against agricultural subsidies in Europe and the U.S.

Several arguments were also offered against the ratification of the current draft of the Tratado de Libre Comercio (Free Trade Agreements), which, among other things, would impede the in situ industrialization of traditional products.

Other working groups tried to address risk and harm reduction bringing together groups and individuals active in the various fields trying to bring a sort of _cultural_ gap that still separates advocates active in _producing_ and _consuming_ countries. Efforts were also made to interest pro-coca in pro-marijuana activities and vice-versa. To the best of my knowledge it was the first time that such a worthy _mix_ was attempted.

A sort of similar/follow up meeting will be held in La Paz from 15 to 19 October (

The Forum adopted a final declaration, which should be available soon also in English at

As an aside, a group of internationals, myself included, was also invited to attend the opening ceremony of the first Indigenous Congress of Colombia, together with several national parliamentarians. The Congress took place in the city of Cali at the end of a 3-day march that gathered some 60,000 people from all over the country and which triggered a dismissive reaction on the part of Uribe (who stated that he did not see the reason why people were marching as indigenous rights are safeguarded by the Constitution). The Congress, which, as the march, took place in a peaceful way, elaborated, and adopted, a serious or recommendations that will be brought to the Capital city and the institutions in the near future, possibly in an even larger peaceful demonstration. The final document addresses economic, social, cultural and indigenous issues. It also calls on the population to reject the proposed reform of the Constitution.

My presentation was based on the document below, which was also delivered as a speech at the Indigenous Forum of the United Nations (May 2004) and the UN Sub-Commission on Human Rights (July-August 2004).

Just before the closing ceremony I also proposed to organize a briefing at the 61st session of the UN Commission on Human Rights on the issue of Coca involving parliamentarians, experts and advocates. The idea will continue to be discussed in the future with some of the participants.

The legalization of the traditional use of coca leaf will allow sustainable development and the respect of tradition in the Andes

Four years ago, the Economic and Social Council of the UN established a Permanent Forum to discuss indigenous issues _relating to economic and social development, culture, the environment, education, health and human right_. The Forum shall _provide expert advice and recommendations on indigenous issues to the Council, as well as to programmes, funds and agencies of the United Nations, through the Council_ and raise awareness and promote the integration and coordination of activities relating to indigenous issues within the UN system."

Overwhelmed by a variety of topics that go from the environment to social justice, from languages to religions, for almost four years, the debate within the Forum has never addressed an issue that is crucial to many indigenous groups: that of coca bush. The Transnational Radical Party (TRP) believes that Coca is a central, if not vital, element of the very life, tradition, culture, religion and economy of dozens of indigenous peoples that live throughout the Andean region.

The main reason for this lack of focus is due to the fact that, unfortunately, coca is one of the plants that have been strictly regulated, and at times systematically prohibited, by the 1961 UN Single Convention on Narcotic and Psychotropic Substances.

Over the last decade, the international community has addressed coca-related issues promoting a series of projects of "supply reduction" as well as "alternative development" to eradicate the _evil_ plant from the face of the earth. All those efforts have proven to be unsuccessful in eliminating and/or substituting coca with other licit crops. Many of these eradication programs, like the aerial fumigations in Colombia, have been carried out, often through violent means, and have had a tragic impact on the health of thousands of people as well as on the environment of the concerned regions. In other eradication efforts, money has been promised to campesinos for their voluntary eradication and/or eventual substitution of coca. Despite some timid positive results, duly documented by the UN in Bolivia and Peru in the late 1990s, in the medium-long term all those anti-coca programs have miserably failed.

Different is the story of "alternative development" projects. While in theory the idea of promoting licit crops as an alternative means for the development of those societies where the plants used for the production of narcotics are grown is a good one, in practice the substitution has never proven to be fully self-sufficient in the medium or long term. In fact, once the international community pulled out of those projects, the progress achieved disappeared in a matter of months, leaving local communities without the means provided by the "artificial" international support to sustain the alternative crops and ready to go back to cultivating the illicit plant.

Furthermore, the usual alternatives to coca bush have been palm hearts and other crops in vogue at the time, products that, over the last years, have seen a surplus in the world production that has caused a drastic decrease in their profitability - annulling all the economic arguments in favour of the substitution. Lastly, when it comes to agricultural products, the tariff system imposed by North American and European countries places an unfair burden on developing nations closing rich markets to products from the "south".

With time passing, the situation in the Andes has become unbearable for local communities, the general development of their countries the wellbeing of the entire Latin American continent, and has provided an incredible source of easy and big money for all sorts of illegal groups, from the narcos to terrorist as well as paramilitary networks. This dramatic situation is always addressed with the same formula:

Prohibition; a formula that has not produced the desired results and needs a radical revision.

The TRP believes that the time has come for the United Nations, In the framework of its work towards the promotion of "alternative development", to carry out a feasibility study to assess the possibility to allow the development of original uses of the plants that are used to produce narcotics, starting from the coca bush. In fact, coca leaf can be used to produce medicines of different sorts, but also, as it has done for hundreds of years, coca can be used in the production of goods such as tea, flour, toothpaste, soap, condiments, fabrics, chewing gum as well as different dietary supplements and, last but not least, the means to alleviate the abuse of the chemical substances processed from its leaves.

If the UN is really committed to improving the socio-economic quality of life of targeted populations through "sustainable development projects", the original use of these illicit plants should indeed be integrated in the programs not to prevent, reduce and eliminate the production of illicit drug crops, but to diminish the production of illicit narcotics.

Comprehensive alternative development projects should address the broader economic situation of farmers, who cultivate "drug crops" due not only to "rural poverty", "lack of access to markets for legal products"

and "unsuitable soil for many other crops" as stated in dozens of UN official documents, but also because the plants that were outlawed 40 years ago, are an integral part of the cultures, traditions and religions of the indigenous peoples living in those regions where these agricultural products are endemic.

The TRP believes that the Permanent Forum should look into the possibility of reflecting coca-related issues in its annual report, where it issues recommendations to the ECOSOC for its distribution to relevant UN organs, funds, programs and agencies. Such an inclusion could make a substantial contribution to indigenous issues, making them become questions of concern for the world at large. The TRP is aware of the fact that It may be too late for this year's session, but starting to raise the issue at the 2004 session, may launch a preparatory process that could indeed include coca as an item for discussions for next year.


The original use of the illicit plant of coca may trigger positive outcomes:

_ it will remain within the local culture and tradition (at times sacred) of dozens of groups, including ethnic minorities, that live throughout the Andes; _ it will not imply an "intrusion" in a region's economy with techniques and or producing habits that do not belong to that part of the world; _ it will provide a particularly environmentally-friendly and ecological industry that could facilitate the development of rural areas and their eventual/possible industrialization in a context that respects local customs and practices; _ it will take away the business from the criminal networks that today control and blackmail peasants that are involved in illegal activities; _ a conversion of programs of supply reduction to curb the production of illicit crops into alternative development of the illicit plants, would also be instrumental in ceasing the negative impact of eradication techniques, which cause dramatic health and environmental problems in several areas of the Andes.

Putting an end to prohibition on coca should become a priority for all those that genuinely struggle for freedom and human rights and that are working towards the establishment of a system that functions on the force of law and not the law of force, a law that does not prohibit, but facilitates, the cohabitation of peaceful peculiarities including, ultimately, indigenous issues.


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