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Why Do We Eradicate?:
Bulwarks of Power, Culture and Narcotics Traffic

Santiago Villaveces Izquierdo[*]

In 1997, the Guambiano indigenous community of Silvia (Cauca), in Southwestern Colombia, invited Alternative Development Plan (PLANTE) authorities help them incorporate government sponsored crop-substitution strategies into the resguardo’s[1]development plan. In October of the same year, I was called on by the Director of the PLANTE -a program ascribed to the Colombian presidency and designed to implement illicit-crop substitution programs-  to explore the voluntary eradication process being carried out by this community. For three consecutive months, and following a series of interviews with local and regional Plante authorities as well as with members of the indigenous communities, the effort to understand started to take form and the reasons and motives behind the community’s decision for initiating eradication came to fore in response to the question of whether it was a result of the Plante’s advertising campaigns -which emphasized the moral cost of planting coca and poppy- or rather the result of local struggles both in the political and cultural arena.

As of the beginning of 1997, the Guambiano case was already well known by the public at large. For the bureaucracy in Bogotá, the Guambiano experience was just one more example of the achievements of public officials’ efforts towards implementing Plante strategies within the framework of administrative and financial decentralization policies being promoted by the National Planning Department since 1988. Voluntary eradication in this indigenous resguardo was shown as the result of the bargaining power held by regional and local public officials whom -in active dialogue with the indigenous authorities- had managed to convince the latter of the economic benefits that would result from crop substitution (soft loan opportunities, land acquisition, continued technical assistance, and others).

Parallel to this explanation, there was also that of an anthropologist, independent consultant for the Inter-American Development Bank, who had counseled the indigenous community in the design of its Development Plan and for whom the voluntary eradication process initiated by the Guambianos was a sure sign of Guambiano cultural autonomy. What the Guambianos were apparently doing was to reassert their cultural capital by invoking their (cosmogony) as an interpretative matrix according to which, the growing and commercializing of this crop would be affecting the balance between the tame and the wild elements which make up the world. Planting and marketing Coca and poppy would be generating more wild elements and thus affecting the balance between nature and social coexistence.

These two explanations led the Plante director at the time to explore the possibilities of creating a national strategy which would motivate Coca and poppy growers to engage in voluntary eradication processes. Bogotá’s main concern centered on a basic question: the type of incentives which should be designed in order to reproduce voluntary eradication processes throughout the country. Would it suffice to promote dialogue between local communities and state officials within a framework of respect for each communities’ cultural values?

Despite the importance of cooperation between local public officials and indigenous authorities, and heed to cultural values, these two explanations did not account for more critical processes which were at work mobilizing the community to face the consequences of voluntary eradication. The confluence of factors which led the Guambiano community to eradicate Coca and poppy crops from their lands do not respond to a logic which can be “replicated” elsewhere but, on the contrary, corresponds to particular local processes.

A few moths later the Cabildo (Indigenous Council) sealed its agreement with the publication of the Guambiano Plan de Vida (Life Plan), a detailed develpment plan which compiles sector development projects under National Planning Department methodology. Through the appropriation of the plan as a tool for the internal organization of the resguardo, the Cabildo hoped to strengthen its position at two different levels. On the one hand, it wanted to show the Colombian government that it was an autonomous and mature body with the required technical and political capability to fully assume its community’s development while, on the other hand, it wanted to ratify its position among community members as the community’s sole legitimate authority. The latter was particularly important considering that vast extensions of resguardo lands (many of which were for communal use) were being used to plant Coca and poppy.

[*]  Doctor en Antropología Rice University. Profesor visitante en el Programa de Pós-Graduação em Ciências Sociais (PPCS), Universidade do Estado do Rio de Janeiro (UERJ). Ensayo basado en el trabajo de consultoría realizado por el autor con el Programa Presidencial para la Sustitución de Cultivos Ilícitos (Plante), en Bogotá entre noviembre de 1997 y marzo de 1998. Agradezco la impecable y transparente colaboración de Angela Rivas, sin cuya ayuda este trabajo habría sido imposible. Una versión de este artículo se presentó en el X Congreso Mundial de Sociología Rural. Simposio E: New approaches for the development of rural communities. Sesión 2, Economic (under) development and illegal crops. Rio de Janeiro, Agosto 2000
[1] (n.t.: Resguardo is territory which belongs to the communities themselves as opposed to a reserva whose lands belong to the nation)
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