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Colombia Farmers Feel Carrot, Stick

November 2, 1998

ALBANIA, Colombia (AP) _ On a farm outside town, a $9,000 government loan is helping Fernando Trujillo and a few neighbors make the switch from growing coca leaves _ the raw material of cocaine _ to making brown sugar.

In Milan, just 25 miles down the Orteguaza River, another poor farmer surveys his 2 1/2-acre coca field, a target of government planes spraying herbicides. The soaking didn’t kill the shiny green coca plants, but it sapped all life from 50 now drooping banana trees planted among the illicit crops.

``We sprinted out of there,″ said Rudolfo Lopez, who was tending the plot with field hands when the crop dusters raided the field. ``They almost drenched us with that poison.″

In Colombia’s guerrilla-infested south, two radically different strategies _ the carrot and the stick _ are vying for dominance in the battle to break the coca-growing habit of an estimated 100,000 farmers.

A similar tug-of-war is occurring internationally, pitting Colombia’s president, Andres Pastrana, against drug warriors in Washington. Pastrana prefers the carrot. The warriors, chiefly Republican lawmakers, favor the stick.

Sensitive to environmentalists’ complaints and mindful that Colombia’s coca crop has doubled despite four years of record fumigation, Pastrana is trying to attract extensive foreign aid for ``alternative development.″ He wants to pay peasants to rip up their lucrative coca crops and plant fruits and vegetables.

Warming to the idea, U.S. officials in October set aside $60 million a year for alternative development programs in the coca-growing nations of Colombia, Bolivia and Peru. And President Clinton sent Pastrana home from a state visit last week with an additional $280 million, much of it for development.

But the United States remains committed to aerial eradication of coca, and Congress has just approved $200 million for that in Colombia. The intent is to increase the effectiveness and frequency of missions by crop-dusting planes and armed helicopter escorts that make daily spraying runs over coca fields in the Amazon and Orinoco river basins.

The difference in emphasis was largely glossed over during Pastrana’s visit to Washington.

Pastrana said he would continue with eradication. But he also said crop substitution is essential, ``or the plague, no matter how often we stamp it out, will return.″

The debate could ultimately hinge on what happens in Colombia, where fumigation has few enthusiasts but alternative development has yet to prove it can succeed on a large scale.

In Caqueta state, typical of Colombia’s southern coca belt, alternative development faces major obstacles:

_Prices: Even with coca farmers’ costs rising steeply, no other crop is nearly as profitable.

_Infrastructure: Most coca growers live in neglected areas, far from paved roads. Legitimate produce like beef, milk, fresh fruits and vegetables would spoil before making it to market.

_Skimpy budgets: Drug traffickers’ financial resources dwarf those of the agencies trying to offer an alternative. The United Nations estimates Colombia needs $1 billion for alternative development.

Add to those problems the rebels, who finance their insurgency by taxing coca production and protecting traffickers’ laboratories and airstrips.

``They try to show they’re for alternative development, but they don’t really support it,″ said Juan Carlos Claros, who runs the state office of the government’s crop-substitution program. ``They are very dependent on the illegal crops.″

Since 1996, Claros’ office has given out $4.5 million in low interest loans to about 600 farmers. Most have gone into cattle raising, rubber plantations or fisheries. But even Claros admits the projects are meager, given all the dollars chasing coca.

``The money changing hands in one weekend in the (coca paste) markets is equal to my entire annual budget,″ he said.

Government officials haven’t offered any loans to coca farmer Rudolfo Lopez, who says all he has gotten is raids by crop dusters. ``Tell Clinton that instead of sending those planes, send me some tractors and machinery and seeds,″ he said.

Over in Albania, Fernando Trujillo’s brown sugar cooperative is just getting off the ground. Like all loan recipients, Trujillo signed a pledge to stop growing coca. Like many, he’s cheating.

``You can’t just eliminate the thing that’s putting food on the table,″ he said with an impish grin, standing in a cane field twice his height and pointing toward where the coca still grows. ``I haven’t gotten rid of anything. I just haven’t planted any more.″

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