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The Impact of Illicit Crops on Indigeneous People
The Colombian Case

Carlos César Perafán

Report of sound practices
Washington D.C. January 1999 No. IND 106

This publication is a summary of a study concerning the impact of illicit crops on indigenous communities in Colombia. It was carried out within the framework of field work done for the Alternative Development Plan (PLANTE). Perafán’s study was sponsored by the PLANTE and is based on studies carried out as part of the preparatory field studies financed by the UNDP. A preliminary version of this study was presented at the seminary held at the World Bank headquarters in Washington on December of 1997.

The subject of illicit crops and indigenous communities deserves special attention since it illustrates -within a very particular context- the reality faced by most indigenous peoples which, while becoming a part of consumer societies, concurrently maintain their own particular forms of organization and values.

Carlos Perafán’s work analyzes Colombian indigenous peoples’ reality: that of a crossroads between extreme poverty and narcotic crops cultivation. In Colombia, as opposed to Perú and Bolivia, coca is not a traditionally commercial crop and is not central to the culture of many indigenous peoples. Therefore, commercial coca, marihuana -and as of 1990, poppy- cultivation is a relatively recent phenomenon which comes as a result of impoverishment and strong outside pressure suffered by the communities. Considering this context, an understanding of the economic motives and cultural rationality that have led to the current situation might serve as the guidelines required to find feasible economic alternatives.

This paper describes the means through which traditional indigenous culture, cosmovision, and struggle for identity preservation contain in themselves the strategy for eliminating these crops without having to resort to outside measures or costly programs such as crop substitution or monetary reparation.

From a methodological point of view, this study offers an innovative and replicable applied anthropology model for the preparation of global environmentally sustainable socio-economic development projects. In this sense, the result of this consultancy and ensuing study is presented as an example of sound practices. A profound knowledge of the social and cultural characteristics of Colombia’s diverse indigenous population allows for understanding the motives, attachment and involvement behind illicit-crop cultivation while concurrently offering the clue to breaking this vicious circle of dependence. Simultaneously, a proactive and participatory methodology has established the bases for a new constructive dialogue among actors with a long history of hostility, mistrust, and lack of understanding.

An estimated 17% of illicit crops in Colombia are to be found on legally established indigenous reserves. A larger portion -not so adequately measured- is grown on indigenous areas which have not been legally recognized as such. Compared to Bolivia and Perú, Coca leaf cultivation (the basic precursor for cocaine) is not part of the cultural heritage of most Colombian Indians. In fact, in many areas, illicit crops are not planted by the indigenous communities themselves but by the colonos (frontiersmen or settlers) who enter their territories thus altering indigenous economies and traditional political-authority system. An estimated 41% of Colombia’s 638.600 Indians -that is almost two thirds of the country’s indigenous communities- are affected in one way or another by illicit crops.

When designing drug eradication programs, it is important t know that indigenous peoples often view the linkages between events from a logical metonymic framework according to which current happenings are related to past events without there necessarily being a causal relationship. Were prior events to be changed, the native populations could be talked into abandoning illicit crops. Perafán’s work presents some of the nodal which might infer in the design of future projects.

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