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José Jairo González Arias
Luis Hernando Briceño

In a broad sense, the Southern Tolima region is made up of municipalities of Ataco, Chaparral, Planadas, Rioblanco, which constitute the two river basins covered by the Alternative Development Plan (PLANTE) regionalization strategy for intervention in this region; together with the municipalities of Coyaima and Natagaima.

The region is inhabited by approximately 22 indigenous communities -the Coyaimas- Natagaimas and Paeces- living in the municipalities of Ortega, San Antonio, Chaparral, Planadas and Rioblanco. The total population of these 10 municipalities is 263,268 inhabitants (approximately 20% of overall department population). The municipalities cover an area of approximately 10,354 km2, 44% of the Tolima department’s territory.

The region’s historical configuration process has been associated -since the outset of its colonization and settlement- with multiple ethnic and agrarian conflicts, with bipartisan violence, and with the insurgent and counterinsurgent war which is still raging today.

In a more restricted sense, and for the purposes of this study, the Southern Tolima subregion is made up of the municipalities of Ataco, Planadas, Rioblanco, Chaparral, which constitute, the Southern Tolima Municipal Asociation (Asociación de Municipios del Sur del Tolima-AMUSURT). These four municipalities cover an area of approximately 5,935 km2, that which is 25% of Tolima territory and an estimated population of 129,814 inhabitants or 10% of the department’s population.

Inferences regarding coverage and productive territorial exploitation are made on the basis of 10,083 hectares, that which corresponds to the sum of all of the productive lands in the 20 veredas (settlements) surveyed. . This is the equivalent of 7% of the whole Planadas area, that which makes it a highly representative sample. Futheremore, the veredas chosen are those which are most representative of the poppy phenomenon. Accordingly, inferences and analyses constitute a case study. González and Briceño’s study is rich with figures and precise information on this region of Colombia.

From a geo-economic and environmental perspective -according to Jaime F. Lozano’s proposal- these municipalities are considered part of the coffee sub region as well as of the high Andean sub region. Planadas, where this study was carried out, is first settled in 1932. It attains the status of municipality in 1966. From its outset, it is an extremely dynamic farming and commercial center in Southern Tolima with strong ties to the Huila department. It has a population of approximately 32,660 inhabitants and has grown steadily since the end of the 1970s, partially overcoming the repercussions left over from bipartisan violence and counterinsurgency campaigns, such as the Marquetalia Operation of the beginning of the 1960s.

Degraded forest areas testify to the region’s social and environmental crisis. Up to 1970, there were approximately 140,000 forested hectares of land, 1,000 hectares of pastures and 50 hectares dedicated to illicit crops. In 1992, during the poppy boom, 120,000 hectares of forests were registered, 3.000 cattle-grazing hectares, and 2.000 hectares planted in illicit crops, mainly poppy.

According to the surveys and interviews carried out with the community within the framework of this study, people in this region started growing poppy, in a disperse manner, between 1984 and 1989. Afterwards, between 1990 and 1995, the phenomenon becomes more widespread and significantly involves over 20 veredas from Planadas. The field work for this study is based on this group of veredas divided into 7 epicenters.

Several factors contributed to the development of poppy growing in the the Southern Tolima, in particular, the region’s biodiverse conditions; existing social structures; its links with other illicit crop-growing areas; and the peasant economy crisis. Some authors point out that, for this region, the coffee crisis was a determining factor. This study, however , adds precision to this argument by stating that the truly determining factor was the crisis suffered by the peasant economy, above all if we consider how the local is inscribed within the regional whole.

In short, as of 1990 and after the appearance of poppy, colonization figures increased dramatically and an average of up to 2,000 hectares of forest and stubble were destroyed per year. This situation persists more or less up to 1996, period at which there is a poppy crisis as of recurrent aerial fumigation and the tendency towards declining latex prices.

During the 1990s, the poppy-induced re-conversion of the Tolima landscape is reflected in the loss of 1,257 forested hectares (60%), 706 hectares of stubble field (34%) and 143 hectares of agricultural crops (7%) which means that a total of 2,106 hectares were converted to poppy planting. Considering the fact that the agricultural frontier is 322 hectares, the loss of a 143 hectares (44%) entailed a significant decrease in foodstuff production which had to be compensated for by imports from other regions.

For 1994, poppy-growing field estimates for the region were 5,124 hectares, that is 25.4% of Colombia’s fields. By 1998, although the planted area was significantly reduced by fumigation to approximately 3,000 hectares, the region’s part rose to 38.5% of the nation’s whole.

According to the region’s inhabitants, there have been more than eight wide-scope aerial fumigation campaigns since 1992. They have led, intermittently, to a reduction of the planted areas. Poppy growers’ response to these aerial fumigation campaigns has been to disperse their plantations by planting smaller plots of land, further apart from each other and from staple crops, and on slopes so as to reduce the effects of fumigation. As a result, fumigation has not had the desired effect after a decade of regular implementation.

On the other hand, even if fumigation has contributed to reducing the number of hectares planted as a result of ensuing damage or dissuasion, declining prices for producers of these crops has also served as a disincentive to poppy cultivation. Surprisingly, reduction of planted areas did not lead to price hikes, contrary to what would normally occur with any other crop. What actually happened was that -parallel to a reduction in poppy-growing areas- producer prices fell: while in 1992 the kilo brought 915 Euros (Col$1,8000,000), in 1994 the price per kilo fell to 762 Euros (Col$ 1.500.000), and from 1998 to 2001, prices fell from 300 Euros (Col$ 600.000), 200 Euros (Col$ 400.000) and even 100 Euros (Col$ 200.000). This phenomenon can be explained by buyers’ monopolistic (or, more precisely, monoposonic) control over prices. Difficult access to crop-growing areas, effects of fumigation, as well as counternarcotics measures against drug traffickers have been capitalized on by intermediary buyers. In economic terms, what occurred was that the added value lost by producers was, in the end, added to the profits made by intermediaries since consumer prices have not fallen, they have even risen.

Poppy-growing has somehow come in to mitigate the losses stemming from reduced earnings on passion fruit, kidney beans, coffee and other foodstuff. At the time of the poppy boom -from 1991 to 1992- when a kilo of latex sold for 915 or 762 Euros, no other crop equaled poppy in profits. Even though the poppy variety grown in this region was not as productive as that of the Huila and Cauca departments, the proportion cost-benefit was still extraordinary. This proportion is somewhere between 4.1 k/ha and 9.3 k/ha, for an average of 6.98 k/ha. This is a fairly low average due to the variety of seed used, since the tresmesuna (three-month variety) can be harvested rapidly -within three or four months- and threfore, assures quicker liquid earnings. It also allows producers to avert risks from fumigation. In other words, if and when crops are fumigated, losses are not as great. Longer-cycle varieties of other regions produce up to 20 kilos per hectare.

As concerns the social and environmental impact of poppy, it should be noted that -added to social destructuraction and decomposition, indiscriminate felling of forests, and the impossibility of overcoming existing local and regional poverty- fumigation is one more handicap since it further contributes to eroding social, economic and environmental structures. It’s hazardous nature contaminates the soil, waters and vegetation; it harms and reduces peasant staple crops plantings while generating new diseases thus making the sub region’s future uncertain. Even if fumigation has reduced the number of planted hectares, the high social and environmental costs involved could counterbalance all other benefits to be had for the subregion and its localities. Furthermore, increased environmental deterioration due to further felling and burning of forest and stubble to plant poppy elsewhere, simply contributes to spreading existing environmental deterioration and weakening the chances of the peasant economy.

The opinion surveys in this study reveal that the communities reactions to aerial fumigation measures vary. These are quite revealing: 26% do not really have a precise reaction or do not answer, 37% say they have stopped growing poppy, 27% state that they no longer cultivate food products, 16% manifest that they now use products to protect their poppy, 53% have changed their crop-growing methods, and only 5% have lodged official complaints. As of the opinions contained in these surveys, we gather that faith in the authorities and in their effective ability to solve community problems is sorely lacking, as would be in accordance with their situation of illegality. What is notable, however, is that over half of the people interviewed opted for changing their way of planting and that 27% of them have ceased planting foodstuff in response to fumigation measures, whether it be because of damage to the soils or because they do not have the technical nor financial means to endeavor new and high-risk plantings. (See, chart "Reaction to fumigation")

Of the people we interviewed, 87% -whether they be poppy growers or not- consider that fumigation measures have affected them in a significant manner. Some consider themselves severely affected and others somewhat less critically: their staple crops were fumigated from the air and they lost their harvest, people now suffer new illnesses, such as skin allergies and rashes (particularly children); livestock has fallen ill, their waters and soils have been “poisoned”. “Poison” is the word they frequently use themselves.

If insistence on forced eradication policies continues to be upheld, the number of poppy-growing hectares will not diminish as a consequence of fumigation (as can be seen from the results of this past decade). And notwithstanding that failure, the social and environmental price to pay will be extremely high as refers to displacement of producers to forested areas, reduced regional and local food safety (and transregional repercussions), forced displacement of populations, and increased social unrest and armed conflict.

Translated from Spanish by María Mercedes Moreno,  Mama Coca.

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