In Its Mad and Hopeless War on Cocaine, the US Has Destroyed the Lives of Millions of Innocent Farmers in Colombia

Imagine for a moment that China, in an effort to reduce cigarette smoking and associated health costs among its population, declared war on U.S. tobacco production. Imagine Chinese planes flying over American tobacco fields, spraying crop-killing poison that destroys not just tobacco, but all vegetation, wiping out farmers’ livelihoods, displacing millions of families, and contaminating the environment. Such an act of hostility and disregard for national sovereignty would provoke, at the very least, military aggression from the United States. Yet, unbeknownst to most Americans, for the past 20 years the U.S. has conducted just such a campaign against Colombian coca farmers.

I visited Colombia for the first time in January 2012 on a delegation with Witness for Peace, an organization focused on changing U.S. policy in Latin America. A public health worker, I’d signed up for the trip to understand the origins and motives of a drug trade that contributes to a violent illicit market and shatters countless lives through addiction. By the time I left Colombia, I realized that while people who suffer from drug dependence are clear casualties of the trade, the millions of Colombian small farmers poisoned and displaced by U.S. drug policy are perhaps its greatest victims.

With appalling addiction rates in the U.S., particularly during the crack epidemic that swept the country during the 1980s, it’s hard to blame the United States for taking an aggressive stance against drug suppliers. The problem is that most of the “suppliers” in Colombia are not swaggering kingpins who lord over drug plantations, but poor farmers who grow coca, itself a harmless plant, but which happens to be the main ingredient in cocaine, to sustain meager livelihoods and feed their families. During my trip to Colombia I not only saw the coca plant, a short, unremarkable bush, but tasted it in the form of aromatic coca tea and cookies made with coca flour. Coca is a medicinal plant often used to create flour and healing balms. The dried leaves are also chewed during some indigenous spiritual ceremonies. But when filtered through other ingredients, typically cement, gasoline and battery acid, coca leaves produce cocaine, an addictive stimulant drug.  For the past two decades, U.S. drug policy in Colombia had centered around reducing the cocaine supply by eradicating its leafy ingredient, the coca plant.

The United States’ War on Drugs, launched under former President Nixon in the 1970s, seeped into Colombia during the 1980s. A full-scale military strategy, Plan Colombia, was drafted under President Clinton and implemented in 2001 by President Bush. Plan Colombia was an aggressive campaign against drug suppliers that called for the eradication of the coca plant through aerial fumigation (spraying herbicide from planes) and manual eradication (pulling the plant up by the roots). Since the Plan was initiated, the United States (working with Colombian anti-trafficking police) has sent planes laden with glysophate herbicide to spray on small farms, indigenous reserves, and national parks where coca is grown. Colombian farmers report that when the concentrated substance rains down, it kills not only coca, but everything else it touches. Subsistence crops such as rice, corn and potatoes wither, rivers are laced with poison, wild animals and livestock die, children sicken, and chemical rashes spread over the skin of anyone in the path of the planes. The farmers, stripped of their homes and livelihood, burdened with sickness and chemical burns, flee to the cities where slums spring up as people fight over scarce resources amidst 12-20% unemployment.

After witnessing the devastating effects of fumigation in Colombia, I asked several small farmers why they grow coca and risk losing the crop to fumigation. Their answer was clear: With the expansion of free trade policies during the past couple decades, small farmers are pitted against Walmart-like conglomerates which produce food more cheaply, often importing subsidized products from the United States. “We can grow lettuce and rice [instead of coca] but can’t transport it 12 hours on a donkey,” said Alberto, a small farmer I met in Tambo. “The sale price doesn’t cover the price of the donkey.” Whereas years ago small farmers could rely on licit crops for subsistence, the plunging prices have made it nearly impossible to compete and many choose to cultivate coca as their only hope to eke out a living, despite the huge risks.

Even more disturbing, while some farmers choose to harvest coca for economic reasons, many are forced to grow this illicit bush by armed soldiers. Colombia remains embroiled in a decades-long conflict between guerrilla insurgents and paramilitary soldiers with civilians caught in the crossfire. Both armed groups have benefited enormously from drug trafficking, and they often force entire villages to cultivate coca and pay “taxes” to their occupiers. “We want to stop growing coca because we recognize that it causes addiction problems in the U.S,” said Teodoro, a small farmer from Huisito. “But apart from bringing in money to communities, we face threats from armed actors if we stop cocaine cultivation.” Colombians who refuse to grow coca are frequently tortured and killed by guerrillas and paramilitary.

Small farmers need to make difficult choices: Grow licit crops that don’t earn enough to feed your family or; refuse to grow coca and chance torture and death at the hands of armed actors or; cultivate coca and risk losing the crop to fumigation. But small farmers face yet another obstacle: multinational corporations who benefit from their plight. Colombia is a land resplendent with gold, coal, oil and other lucrative natural resources, and after fumigated communities are displaced, the land often falls into the hands of the Colombian government. Encouraged by the recent ratification of the Free Trade Agreement in 2011 and the economic shift towards free markets, the government will often sell the land to the very actors who lobbied for fumigation in the first place: foreign multi-national corporations who use it for mining, drilling or large agro-business. In effect, the United States sprays the land it wants to buy.

The combination of pressure from militant anti-drug forces, armed actors and multinationals puts Colombian small farmers in a difficult predicament, but one might hope that for all the damage inflicted, eradicating coca would at least reduce the cocaine supply, and thus lower addiction rates in the United States. However, according to statistics from government and NGO reports, fumigation in Colombia has not reduced coca cultivation overall, nor has it significantly decreased cocaine trafficking into the United States. Rather, when fumigation wipes out one coca field, it is replanted elsewhere by other farmers crippled by plunging food prices. Still, punitive fumigation policies continue, often due to politicians need to appear “tough on drugs” for voters and at the behest of multinationals who benefit not only from land-grabbing, but from lucrative contracts for military planes and herbicide.

Throughout the delegation trip in Colombia, I wondered about solutions, not only to the plight of small farmers, but also to the very real problem of cocaine addiction in the United States. I was encouraged by one small farmer who said, speaking for many, “We know that cocaine is harmful to the United States. We don’t want to grow coca that will be used for drugs, and we’ve proposed [to the government] alternative development projects for agriculture. But fumigation is not the answer.” According to numerous small farmers I spoke with, the answer lies in a combination of effective programs to help farmers explore other crops as alternatives to coca. They also need better roads to bring their goods to market, an end to fumigation, and greater land protection so that farmers are able to crow crops and trade amongst themselves without becoming vulnerable to land loss, poison, or competition with multinationals who have an unfair advantage.

The drug problem needs to be addressed in the United States as well. What the U.S. government is doing in Colombia has not slowed drug trafficking, but rather, created millions more victims through fumigation and displacement. We’d be wiser to take the $6 billion we have spent on poison and military equipment and to invest it in good schools, strong families and effective prevention programs to resolve our dependence on drugs here in the United States. We can create opportunities for hope in our country, while at the same time encouraging the Colombian government to invest in alternative development programs to bring economic opportunities to small farmers. We can and should allow small farmers to work their land and feed their families in peace. Ending fumigation is the first step.

Sidebar: What can I do to Combat Violence in Colombia?

1. Several multi-national corporations based in the United States have been implicated in Colombia violence, specifically in hiring paramilitary soldiers to terrorize or murder factory workers trying to fight for dignified wages. To participate in a boycott, please stop purchasing products from:

  • Coca-Cola (and its subsidiaries, Dasani water, Minute Maid juice, Sprite, Powerade, VitaminWater, Fanta and Nestea).
  • Drummond Coal
  • Chiquita Banana and Dole fruit 
  • RoundUp

2. Withdraw shares and investments from companies that are mining Colombia or putting small farmers out of business through large-scale agro-business. (i.e. Occidental Petroluem, Brittish Petroleum, Textron, Lockheed Martin, United Technologies, Northrop Grunnman, and Dyncorp.

3. Write a letter to your Congressmen and Senators telling them to stop wasting billions of taxpayer dollars on a campaign that sends American jobs overseas and increases violence and poverty in Colombia. 

4. Join a Witness for Peace delegation so you can see for yourself what is happening. WFP leads delegations all over Latin America, including Cuba, Nicaragua, Honduras, and Mexico to study U.S. foreign policy. Visit for more information.


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