Collateral damage: Thousands of poor Peruvian farmers ruined by US-backed anti-drug campaign

PUBLISHED : Monday, 17 August, 2015, 2:43pm
UPDATED : Monday, 17 August, 2015, 2:43pm


Edma Duran uses a machete to salvage the leaves she can from the family’s coca plot, which government workers have just destroyed in an record-breaking US-backed eradication campaign that has affected roughly a half million Peruvians.

“This is what we live off,” says Duran, who lives with her husband and six children in a village of 110 people that lacks electricity, phones and running water and is five hours from the nearest doctor.

Duran is among thousands of Peruvians who have lost their livelihoods to the government’s campaign to destroy the plant used to make cocaine. They say officials have offered only paltry compensation, or none at all.

A record 55,000 hectares of coca were destroyed in 2013-14 — dropping the Andean nation to No2 behind Colombia in land area under coca cultivation.

Peru nevertheless remains the world’s top cocaine-producing nation, and its most dense coca fields grow undisturbed far from Duran’s ravaged plot of less than a hectare.

The two-year effort has yielded a 30 per cent decrease in the amount of Peruvian land planted with coca, and the government says it’s on pace this year to destroy another 35,000 hectares — an area the size of Philadelphia.

“For the first time in the country’s history we have broken the rise in coca leaf production (used) for drug trafficking,” President Ollanta Humala said last month after the United Nations announced the latest numbers.

According to Peru’s government, 42,000 families got financial support or help with alternative crops last year after their coca fields were destroyed. But many of the 95,000 families affected by eradication get no assistance or, like Duran, have rejected what was offered.

“They give you a machete and a few cacao seeds and then they forget about you,” she complained.

Some growers are pushing back. A protest by 5,000 people in the nearby central Amazon town of Ciudad Constitucion turned violent last month, with one farmer killed by a police bullet and 23 other people injured. It was Peru’s first violent “cocalero” protest since 2012, when several hundred growers attacked eradicators and police.

The growers say they want eradication halted until the government offers them better alternatives for making a living.

Hipolito Rodriguez, a protest leader, says authorities waste alternative development funds on useless and frivolous projects — “internships, car rentals and officials’ juicy salaries.”

Since Humala took office in 2011, his government has spent US$285 million on counterdrug efforts — more than triple the amount under the previous administration of Alan Garcia.

Over that same period, the United States put more than US$60 million into eradication after previously footing the entire bill, and it plowed more than US$100 million into crop alternatives, principally cacao, coffee and palm oil.

Washington also supplies the 22 Huey helicopters used to transport eradication teams and their armed police escorts.

Duran and her husband planted bananas after a government crew uprooted their coca crop for the first time in 2013.

But when the fruit ripened, the river connecting them with the nearest market town was dry and they trekked for five hours with 100 bananas between them. Duran said the entire haul of bananas turned out to be worth just US$1 at market.

The family went back to planting coca, which brings them a little less than $1,000 at harvest every four months.

“Nobody buys anything but coca,” she said.

But US helicopters returned in July and 70 men with hoes, guarded by police armed with assault rifles, destroyed the family’s coca plants in a half hour.