Source:  Omni, June 1992 v14 n9 p45(5).
    Title:  Silk for cocaine. (silk industry in Colombia) (includes an article on the use of herbicides in Colombia)

Author:  Audrey Liounis and Murray Cox                                                                              

Abstract:  The US established Silk for Life in Colombia, which is a program that teaches poor farmers to grow silk in place of coca plants. Many farmers are dependent on the coca plant as a source of income, and the hope is that silk will be accepted as an alternative lucrative crop.

Between the 800-kilometer-long Western Cordillera and the Central Cordillera ranges of the South American Andes lies the Cauca Valley, perhaps one of the world's lushest. The soil here is so rich, it can yield up to five crops a year. Between green mountains and equatorial forests graceful coffee trees line pastures and hills. One road, the winding and scenic Pan-American Highway, cuts through the valley and connects the major cities of Cali and Popayan; its on the State Department's list of not-safe-to-travel routes. Guerrillas patrol the hills and protect the farmers who grow the coca leaf.

In the hills, small farmlands are covered with coca plants. Four times a year, the campesinos harvest the illicit crop and sell the leaves to a middleman who delivers the product to processors in the Amazon Triangle. There is no infrastructure in this part of Colombia--no passable roads to bring produce to market--no electricity to support industry. There are no services--no schools beyond the third grade, no hospitals, not even a doctor. The farmers are impoverished and far removed from commerce. They don't choose to grow coca. They have to.

In parts of the South American Andes, the coca plant predates the Inca Empire. "It's part of the culture of our ancestors," says Cauca farmer Don Victor Narvaez. "The practice of chewing was passed down from generation to generation." Like all peasants in the region, Narvaez has a third-grade education, but he is the leader of Santa Cruz, a community of 150 families, just as his father was. "Our farms were not great coca plantations," he says. "We grew coca on small plots for family consumption, chewing the leaf so we could work and cure stomach illness."

Around 1950, roasted coca started turning up for sale in the markets, and by 1984, there was an active black market for leaves sold directly to drug processors. "We gave up chewing our coca and started selling it," Narvaez says. The coca black market made the peasant farmer rich--until about 1986. The coca bonanza, however, was a distortion of the culture of the peasant: He knew unbelievable wealth--$500 a month for coca compared to the average $60--and a constant market for his crop for a few years. With no electricity in the area, farmers bought appliances to put on display, refrigerators in which they stored their money. Peasants built elaborate homes; construction work and domestic help created new forms of employment. In those days of plenty, farmers purchased rather than raised food. Champagne, ordered from Bogota, was regularly shipped into the backlands.

The benefits, however, were short-lived. First, coca prices dropped--despite a consistently high drug market--leaving the Andean farmer more impoverished than he had been before. "The price of the leaf no longer pays for the expense of growing coca," Narvaez says. Then the Columbian government began to eradicate the coca plant, sending the army into the valley to burn fields and arrest and imprison the heads of families. Farmers had neglected their other crops, fruits and vegetables, as well as the legal cash crop, coffee. Without coca, the peasants literally starved. Some peasants left the region, migrating to Bogota to look for work. (In Colombia alone, it is estimated that 300 families abandon their farms daily and move to the cities.) Other Cauca farmers joined the guerrillas after experiencing the ruthless destruction by the Colombian government of the community's source of income.
Today, the FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia) guerrillas control the entire area. "The next trial for our families was the coca habit," says Narvaez. "Most of our kids were addicted. The region was on the verge of madness--there was crime, a breakdown of the system, and no one wanted to do anything but grow coca."

In a small section of this drug-war-torn region, however, some of the campesinos are foregoing their coca plants for mulberry trees. Mulberry leaves feed silkworms, which spin cocoons--a high-priced international commodity. Today, 40 families harvest silkworms in coca country. Growing silk not only cuts off drug production, it frees the peasant from dependence on the drug market for his livelihood, allows him to keep his land, and halts the migration to Bogota's slums. By establishing a crop that will effectively deter farmers from planting coca, the silk farmers hope to rejuvenate the twin communities of Santa Cruz and Pan de Azucar. In fact, they envision the hills of the Cauca Valley covered with mulberry. The project, called Silk for life, is the brainchild farmer's advocate Patricia Conway. "Farmers earn three times what they get for coca leaves when they produce silk," she says. A silk farmer can make $300 a month while a coca farmer now makes less than $100 a month. "The idea of raising cocoons and not cocaine is logical economical, and just makes sense," she says. "Instead, the United States sends in arms to suppress and terrorize farmers who raise cocaine."

In 1991, the United States sent Colombia $125.6 million in assistance for narcotics interdiction as well as Green Beret training and military personnel. The 1992 budget allocates $134.1 million for the drug war in Colombia alone. Newsweek recently reported a quietly escalating but very real Pentagon drug war--Bush's Andean Initiative--complete with covert operations and involving thousands of American troops and more than a billion dollars a year.

Silk for Life farmers are determined to play a role in the drug crisis which is tearing apart their communities and families. By creating a model silk farm, they hope to prove alternatives to coca exist and that the silk for cocaine swap is economically viable. "Silk is the most profitable of all the crops we've grown," Narvaez says. "It doesn't need expensive fertilizer or elaborate installations like coffee does. The wonderful thing is that each family member gets involved - silk becomes a family business." Because the campesinos no longer engage in an illicit crop, Narvaez says, "they're not afraid; they don't have to hide from the police."

Four-thousand-year-old silk farming may be about the most ecologically gentle--"small, green, easy, and clean," Conway says. Mulberry trees are so organic, they actually reclaim damaged land. Because chemicals are poisonous to silkworms, the mulberry can't be chemically fed. In fact, silk farmers must convince neighbors upwind not to spray. In this hemisphere, even without its significance as a substitute crop, silk is just good business, Conway adds. "We should see the farmers as excellent business partners rather than our enemies, the way Washington portrays them. We should offer them financial assistance and impetus." Instead, officials in Bogota and in Washington mistrust the peasant and ridicule the idea of growing silk instead of coca. Efforts by farmers to help themselves are dismissed as futile by authorities--ours as well as theirs.

"I have seen Bush's war on drugs bring this country to the brink of civil war" Conway says. "The rural areas of Cauca have been deliberately abandoned by Colombia and are now controlled by the guerrillas." In October of 1990, four thousand campesinos staged a four-day "sit in" on the Pan-American Highway to protest the level of poverty and the lack of human services. When the army tanks rolled in, farmers lined their own children across the road. "American-supplied tanks stopped just in front of the kids," Conway says. "It was an amazing statement only to ask for doctors and teachers." The standoff ended when the Colombian government promised to provide a health-care program for the peasants--a promise Colombia never kept.

Wisconsin-born Conway has been a farmer's activist and educator for two decades. She first went to Colombia in 1982 and volunteered as a nurse and health-care organizer in the Bogota slums. There she met Myriam Ramirez who lived with three small children in a cardboard "house." The thing has just blown over. Conway's first assignment: to walk the streets of Bogota at night collecting discarded cardboard to rebuild Ramirez's home. "It took us six weeks to find the cardboard and rebuild her place," Conway says. Then they added a 5 x 8 structure so Conway could live in the community of farmers.

"Myriam was very eloquent about the plight of the farmer in Colombia," Conway says. "She painted a picture of her native Cauca, farm life and the coca bonanza." When Conway visited Ramirez's family in the twin communities of Santa Cruz and Pan de Azucar, she fell in love with the region. A piece of land with coca plants was for sale--$100.  "I bought it to see what else would grow, though it was worth owning just to set up a lounge chair and look out at the mountains." At that point, Ramirez and Conway decided to form a small economic-development community. Determined to find a crop--any crop besides coca-that would grow in the valley, the Silk for Life project was born.

It was Bogota entomologist Rodrigo Torrez who told Conway about the developing silk industry in Colombia. In 1970, Colombia's Coffee Growers Federation began to experiment with growing mulberry trees as a way to diversify and employ coffee farmers in the months when coffee beans aren't harvested. Along with Colombia's National Rehabilitation Plan, the Federation set up a program of technical assistance for sericulture and worked with Coseda, a Colombian-Korean silk venture, to grow silkworms and market cocoons. By 1987, the Coffee Federation had 124 hectares in silk production (1 hectare = 2.4 acres).

Conway and a delegation of farmers from Santa Cruz and Pan de Azucar traveled five hours by jeep to Timbio, the center of the Coffee Federation's silk production. To the surprise of the farmers, Coffee Federation officials refused to assist them, ostensibly because they were out of geographic range. But a small group of Timbio silk farmers decided to help the Santa Cruz farmers try to produce silk in the middle of coca country. They chose Narvaez's farm as the experimental site. "Growing mulberries and harvesting silk usually takes eight months," Conway says. "Without assistance from the Coffee Federation, it took us three years. We experimented. We taught ourselves." Because of the lack of transportation, Silk for Life brought in mulberry sticks in bundles of a hundred at a time until 15,000 plants had been accumulated. Using sticks instead of rooted plants meant it took 13 months to establish a field. Silk for Life also had to generate the funds to help Narvaez buy an extra hectare of land in Santa Cruz and convert an adobe house into a worm house. When the mulberries were ready for harvest, farmer Dona Elvira bought silkworms and transported them by jeep to Santa Cruz on a hot, six-hour trip. Cocoons were first harvested in Santa Cruz in 1990 and sold to Coseda.

The silk-farming cultures of Asia believe that the quality of silk is contingent upon the quality of life of each silkworm. And each silkworm requires constant care and attention. A new silkworm cycle begins every five weeks when the larvae are ready to feed on mulberry leaves. After gorging for three weeks, the silkworm anchors itself on a cocooning frame and magically casts out the milelong filament it spins symmetrically around itself. Enclosed now in a cocoon, the silkworm magically transforms into a moth, which emerges, mates, lays eggs, and dies. But most farmed cocoons are not allowed to emerge. Baked to kill the pupae, they're then sold to Korean-owned companies in Colombia where the cocoons are unraveled into thread.

Only 80 percent of cocoons farmed are actually used for reeling into thread. The rest are usually destroyed. In 1986, a Chinese delegation living in Timbio told silk farmer Elvira Gomez that these cocoons could be bought back and hand spun into silk yarn. The women began to teach each other how to degum cocoons--sericin, the gluey protein substance produced with the thread, must be removed in boiling water--and spin silk. "Boxes and boxes of beautiful hand-spun silk were piling up in the back rooms of the coop," Conway says. "I decided to sell silk in the United States." Conway met Kerry Evans, a professional weaver in Milwaukee who was teaching Hmong women to weave as part of a development program affiliated with the Milwaukee Area Technical College. The Hmong are a farming people who fled from Laos and Vietnam; one of the biggest communities is in Milwaukee. Evans and Conway joined forces.

Today, the Silk for Life Workshop in Milwaukee imports 150 pounds of Cauca yarn a month, which Hmong women weave into white opera scarves, placemats, and handbags. The Milwaukee workshop sells its products in their shop and through their own and other catalogs. "Our goal has been to help women who are unemployable in our culture," Evans says. "In addition to the Hmong, other disadvantaged women--single women and ex-offenders--come to the workshop and learn to weave." For these inner-city women, working the looms is more than just a job. Weaving Andean yarn in Milwaukee connects them to Colombian peasant women who are trying to eradicate the coca plant, a problem that directly affects the communities in Milwaukee.

But Silk for Life is also a growing business venture. Last year it created silk-blend fibers--rejected spun silk mixed with Wisconsin wool. In Cauca, 150 women are hand-spinning silk thread in 14 different coops. And the Narvaez family--Don Victor and his sons--have taken over silkworm-cultivation efforts in Santa Cruz. With technical assistance and capital from Silk for Life, the farmers have organized themselves into ASSOCA (Association of Sericulturists of South of Cauca). The people in the region form grupos de amistad--groups of friends who plant or harvest one family farm before they move on to a neighbor's farm. A captain oversees silk production and works out a training and credit program. Convey says that start-up production can cost less than $1,000--for mulberry cuttings, organic fertilizer, a simple bamboo worm house with a tar paper roof, and outside labor for preparing the field.

Crop substitution has been tried before as part of efforts to stem drug production--without much success. The U.S. Agency for International Development (AID) and the United Nations have had programs in Bolivia and Colombia, respectively. A Bolivian buy-out program, for example, paid farmers $2,000 a hectare to stop raising coca and plant Brazil nuts. The only problem: Brazil nuts take eight years to harvest - hardly an incentive to get farmers to stop planting coca. In Bolivia, farmers took the money, planted the nuts, and just replanted coca elsewhere.

Silk, Conway insists, meets the standards for a successful substitution program--a crop that has international export potential, that is more lucrative than coca, that is easy to get to market, and that is low-tech, well established, and pays cash on the barrel-head like coca does. A report prepared in 1990 for the Venezuelan planning commission by world-renowned seri-culturist C.B. Jagannatha Rao, concluded that the Andean countries of Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, and particularly Colombia are well-suited to the farming of cocoons and production of raw silk. According to Rao, cocoon production is so profitable for the family farmer, seri-culture could easily become a useful and successful substitute for coca.

For centuries, sericulture has been the domain of ancient sites centered in China, Japan, Korea, and India, but it could be a tremendous boon to andean countries, where there is an abundance of labor and a long tradition of textile manufacturing, particularly cotton in Colombia. The region also has ideal conditions for maximum cocoon production. In Japan, where many of the steps have been modernized, the silk farmer can expect two or three rearing periods a year. (The average yearly crop is 560 kilograms of cocoons per hectare with two rearing periods a year.) The Andean farmer, by comparison, can get ten crops a year. According to reports published by the Export Promotion Fund, Colombia's production has reached an average of 1,800 kilograms of cocoons per hectare per year.

But a silk farmer in the Andes is not completely free to farm, price, and sell his cocoons. He is dependent on an intermediary who imports the silkworm eggs, incubates them, and then sells young worms to the farmer. The farmer is then obligated to sell back all his cocoons to the same intermediary who dries and exports them or holds them for use in the Colombian factory. Last spring, in defiance of the system, the Santa Cruz farmers bought silkworm eggs directly from a Korean producer, incubated them in Timbio, transported them by jeep to Santa Cruz where they raised them, and then sold the cocoons to Proseda. Santa Cruz's cocoon harvest was probably one of the best-quality harvests Colombia has produced, says Narvaez.

In Timbio, ironically, the silk honeymoon seems to be over. The Coffee Federation is spreading the word--"There's no money in silk," they're saying. "Go back to coffee." Farmers are tearing up their mulberry trees. Conway isn't surprised. "I believe the only way silk farming can be successful is on the small family farm with one or two hectares maximum." Wealthier Colombian farmers lost money and became disillusioned with silk--"all because silk farming cannot be industrialized, which is why it's a Third World crop."

Conway believes the day of the large agribusiness farms, with huge irrigation systems and chemical pesticides and herbicides are over. The planet must rely on small, decentralized organic producers, largely from the Third World, to produce our food and fiber. "Unfortunately," conway says, "the most endangered species on the face of the earth is the Third World farmer - he's a vanishing breed."

Clearly, sericulture could bring a better livelihood to remote, impoverished regions. "The future of the project will be the ability to incubate silkworms at the farms," Narvaez says. In Santa Cruz, the farmers have even built their own reservoir, hoping to find a way to bring electricity to the region's 300 families. Electricity means self-sufficiency and, the farmers hope, silk-reeling capability in the future. For Narvaez, the success of the silk project will mean that teachers and health-care practitioners will come to Cauca.

Silk for Life initially piqued the interest of Wisconsin House Representative Jerry Kleczka as well as Vice President Quayle. A 1990 Congressional budget bill recommended that $200,000 of AID funds go to the project. In July 1991, AID dispensed its first sum to the Colombian government. The ASSOCA received no funds. Conway claims that American officials in Bogota think crop-substitution efforts are ineffective. An AID official who wishes to remain anonymous seems to agree. "Colombia is different from Bolivia or Peru where crop substitution is more pertinent," he says. "The focus of this embassy is to reduce drug trade, the processing and distribution activities. Colombia has made significant efforts in this area, particularly with raids against producers and distributors. "And poor farmers. "Until recently, our enemy was the Soviet Union," Conway says. "Now we're labeling the South American farmers as the Evil Empire. Our silk project couldn't be farther removed from a military one. It's life-sustaining; it takes farmers out of the crossfire."

In a very recent development, Scalamandre Silk Company based in Long Island City is interested in purchasing 1 million pounds of reeled silk from ASSOCA. At $25 per pound, the silk farmers could generate up to 25 million dollars in sales. "That's like a $25 billion contract for a community in the States," Conway says. "To the Cauca farmers, it's absolutely earth shaking." And, Conway says, it means Silk for Life has found the solution to illegal crop cultivation. "We are doing it," she says, "we're living it--no matter what AID officials say."

Conway believes that the link between industrial consumers and small family farmers will revolutionize the way the world does business in the next decade. "Scalamandre is a pioneer in this new world order," she says, "where farmers and factory owners understand how the web of life works and each delicate strand respects the other and protects the entire web."

The word about silk is spreading--at the grassroots level anyway. Conway has received requests for assistance from developmental programs in Swaziland, Africa, as well as from organizations throughout South America. "Everyone in the region is waiting to see what will happen," Narvaez says. "We've been asked to send seeds and trainers to other parts of Cauca. I am certain that in a few years all of the Cauca Valley will be covered with mulberry trees and bamboo worm houses."


Narvaez's dream for his valley may just shrivel up and die. Several months ago, the Colombian National Police (CNP) discovered that Andean farmers are growing poppies on larger plots than the police had ever anticipated. Clearly, the cocaine traffikers are expanding their marketing opportunities, and poor farmers are once again trying to cash in on yet another black-market drug, this one demanded by the world heroin market. Colombia took immediate action. With crop dusters on loan from the State Department as part of the Andean Initiative, the CNP are spraying glyposate, the world's biggest-selling herbicide, over three areas of Colombia, including the Cauca Valley. "Between manual and aerial eradication, the police have sprayed about 4,000 hectares," says a U.S. official.

Conway is furious and wants Congress to investigate. "Who authorized the program?" she asks. "Why was Silk for Life not warned? How do businesses whose organic crops are placed in jeopardy seek an injunction against any further spraying?" In response, an aide says that the decision to spray is the prerogative of the Colombian government. Conway believes the "big bad wolf in all this is the U.S." Conway, accuses another official, "has a political agenda." That accusation comes from, of all places, Washington, DC. (Sources talked to Omni on the condition that they and the agencies they work for remain anonymous.)

In Conway's defense, it should be noted that eradication programs are on the rise in other Latin countries, and diverse groups including farmers, coffee growers, universities, and environmental commissions are sounding an alarm, concerned about the toxicity of the chemicals. President Fujimori of Peru recently warned the U.S. that it could be entering another Vietnam if it goes to war against 250,000 Peruvian coca farmers. Colombian farmers, Conway says, are already in a rage over what they feel is a violation of their private property.

According to Conway, no organization conducted an environmental impact study to determine how glyposate will affect the delicate balance of nature in the biodiverse Cauca region - much less has anyone bothered to ask what will happen to children who eat the fruits and vegetables off the sprayed plant? And the farmers wonder how pilots distinguish between the plots of poppy and plots of mulberry and corn; they're asking what will happen to the silkworm that eats the sprayed mulberry leaf.

The question, says a representative from Monsanto which produces glyposate, is moot. "The silkworm will starve; it won't eat sprayed mulberry leaves." The question, says another official, is irrelevant. "Conway's silk project is insignificant compared with the efforts to eradicate poppies." This official accuses farmers of creating an environmental disaster, "slashing and burning to clear areas for poppy plants." With one stroke, says this source, the eradication program halts the flood of cheap opium into the United States and saves virgin woodlands - an environmental coup.  Glyposate controls 90 different weeds, which are listed on a 100-page label with specific directions and warnings. Poppies are not one of the target plants. "Our company does not recommend our products for this use (widespread spraying of poppies) in Colombia," says the representative. As to its safety, two sources claim the stuff is "less toxic than table salt and aspirin." The EPA's scientific advisory panel, however, recommended that it be classified as a Class D carcinogen. Which means, after reviewing the data, the evidence of carcinogenicity is inconclusive.

We are confronted with a welter of contradictory statements and positions. What is clear, however, is that the drug war in Latin America, as expressed in Bush's Andean Initiative, is an "obsessed" policy, a narrow focus on drug eradication to the exclusion of the fundamental issue: agricultural alternatives that are successful and provide farmers with a viable income.                                                                                                                -- End --

Subjects:  Colombia - Agriculture
            Textile industry - Colombia
            Cocaine industry - Colombia
Locations:  Colombia
  Magazine Collection:  65G1698
Electronic Collection:  A12508209
                   RN:  A12508209

Full Text COPYRIGHT Omni Publications International Ltd. 1992