Dispatches from the Front
Colombia, Day 1
We´ve organized six courses in Colombia to raise the money to host a Consejo de las Americas and bring our regional ecovillage network representatives together once again. If the courses are fully subscribed, the plan went, we could pay for the airfares of the 8 regional reps, and everyone´s food, lodging and local travel in country. In the end it took another couple thousand dollars of donations to pull it off, and for my part, I agreed to teach 5 courses, two in Medellin, one in Unguia, and two in the Darien Reserve, to help make ends meet.
Flying into Medellin on the Colombian airline, ACES, was nice, except that no-one except maybe the pilot spoke English, and they didn´t have my vegetarian option. I also noticed that after we boarded they never mentioned Medellin once. It was as if the word itself was taboo. The first officer spoke in Spanish of flying time to Rio Negro, or of Rio Negro our destination. Rio Negro is to Medellin as Heathrow or Gatwick are to London. But if it was designed to dispel my fears, the effort was undermined when the steward bumbled his English script. ¨In preparation for landing at Rio Negro we ask that all sidearms be safely stored in the seatback in front of you.¨
Dispatches from the Front
Colombia, Day 2
Having a breakfast of arepas and ariquipe with Blanca and her husband, she reveals that she is a Sanctuarioita, from the aldea of Sanctuario, 50 clicks down the road from here. We are at Montaña Magica, part of a 2600 meter ridge known only by the name of the county, Santa Elena. The valley of the Rio Negro fills with rain to three sides of our view. Going out and down the road a little ways, the long bottom lands of Medellin stretch away to the South. Montaña Magica is in a 3000 ha. nature preserve, Parque Ecologica Piedras Blancas, and the sunbeamed views are spectacular, birdsongs unfamiliar, and the orchids the size of truck tires. The proximity to Medellin protects us from the guerrillas and the tourism value of the Parque spares us from the army. We are on the middle of three Andean ranges, a long way from the Serrania de la Macarena below Bogota, where the Peace Corps botanist Richard Starr was kidnapped by the FARC and held in a black plastic tent for 3 years until he was released, went mad and committed suicide. Well, that got rid of the Peace Corps anyway, they haven't been back to Colombia since.
We have seen no evidence of roadblocks or bodies floating downstream that seem to be the grist for the New York Times´mills. Knock wood. The only encounter I have had with the war is getting the red light in immigration and being passed up through three levels of supervisors as I attempted to explain the 21 videocassettes in my pidgeon Spanish. Alejandra, my guardian angel and fellow board member, jumped the barricade and intervened. She lived for a decade here in the 80s and glides like scissors through red tape.
Sanctuario, Blanca explains as she nibbles on her arepa, is a town of blancos - people as white as snow. The incidence of albinoism is high, for reasons I´ll explain, but fair skin is the distinction that this town has had for centuries, perhaps millennia. The racial consciousness is such that no matter where in the world sanctuarioito expatriots settle, their children and grandchildren return like swallows to Capistrano, usually in the holy and Carnival months of December and January, to find a mate - and at this she cranes her neck and pretends to peer over the heads of a crowd - to take back to whereever they live. Hence the high incidence of albinoism, and also why there are no Incan, Mayan, Spanish or English corpuscles in the municipio´s collective bloodstream. She laments that she broke this tradition to marry Gabriel, a half-Indian whose other half (literally the lower body, where he grows body hair, she says) comes from Spanish jews who were exiled in one Inquisition or another. Santa Elena is made of many such people, and Gabriel compares it to the prisoners who colonized Australia. Like Ozzies, they share a strong work ethic, self-reliance, and distrust of governments.
If the arepa she nibbles on has no lime, I ask, how is it nutritionally? Surely not as good as masa - be it Navaho or Nahuatl - which unlocks lysine through some alchemy from the Gods (who also gave these people corn, potatoes, chocolate and hot peppers, all alimentary superlatives of the first water). Blanca replies that there have been Colombian studies showing lime inhibits digestion and she would rather skip the lysine if she can avoid the stomach aches. Never having had a stomach ache from corn tortillas, I am left wondering if sanctuarioito stomach acid is also different than mine. Blanca made the ariquipa herself from goats milk and rice. We eat it like vanilla pudding or spread it like honey. Maybe it helps sanctuarioito stomachs to cope with what the world brings their way. Like most Colombians, they don't do chilis either, but that is their loss, not mine. Despite the best efforts of deer to nip them in the bud, we have more than a dozen hot varieties going back in Tennessee and many are turning from orange to red even as I write this. It will be 5 weeks until I get home to Alison´s tomatillo salsa - 9000 years of culinary evolution - but I can almost taste it as I nibble on my bland arepa and wonder if the Lucy Project has sampled mytochondrial DNA in Sanctuario.
Esta es la dulce, cancion que canta mi saucelito,
Para todo mi Colombia, viene con mucho cariño.
Most of this following material is derived from news reports and is not original to me.
The Clinton administration is proposing an escalation in United States foreign aid to Colombia so large that it will predictably alter the course of domestic politics and internal violence in the country. Colombia is already the third-largest recipient of US foreign aid, after Israel and Egypt, having received $289 million in 1999. As the current intl aid package now stands, the government of President Andrés Pastrana would receive $7 billion in direct economic assistance during the next three years, 1.6 of that from the US Treasury, the rest from allies. $274 million would be spent on assistance in economic development and general improvements in the country's legal and human rights situation. The rest of the part from the US would arrive in Colombia in the form of military training funds and equipment. Among other things, the Colombian Air Force will double in size by January, 2001.
This military help is being presented as indispensable to the fight against the cultivation of coca leaf in southern Colombia and the consequent export of cocaine or crack to the United States. Most of the parties involved - the State Department officials who shepherded the aid package through Congress, the gung-ho young men in the US embassy in Bogotá who will get to supervise all the hardware, the Colombian army brass who are waiting for the assistance with the fervor of a cargo cult - claim, officially at least, that the funds are not intended for use in the war the Colombian state has been fighting for forty years against the world's most entrenched guerrillas. The question is how such use is to be avoided.
Colombia, which has a population of just under 40 million, is a country approximately the size of Central Europe. It is divided roughly into five regions: the lush Caribbean and Pacific coasts; the two-pronged Andean range, traversed by the Magdalena River Valley; the eastern grasslands; and the jungle lowlands that extend south to the Amazon River, where Colombia borders Brazil. Bogotá (population 6.4 million) and most of the prosperous cities, including Medellín, are perched in the mountains. Here the population is mostly white and mestizo. In the rich coastal plains and in the Magdalena River Valley, many people are black and mulatto.
Fewer than two million people live in the grasslands and the jungle, but between them these adjoining areas account for more than half the national territory - that is to say, an area roughly the size of France.
There are almost no roads - dirt or otherwise - in this part of the country, and it is in fact such uncharted territory that maps from the national geographic institute still show the legend "insufficient relief data" printed over large areas. Most of these two regions' inhabitants are recent arrivals: land-hungry peasants who carved out clearings for themselves over the last half-century or so. It is here, in the outermost regions of the departamentos of Putumayo, Caquetá, Meta, Guaviare, and Vichada, that the coca-growing boom has taken place in the last decade.
The US military funds will be used for drug interdiction operations and for a special antinarcotics brigade, and also for Blackhawk helicopters, speedboats, and planes in which to transport the battalion's soldiers to the coca fields hidden in the jungle. Here troops will provide protection for police department fumigation teams, whose job it is to spray herbicide on the illegal crops (something that angers the Brazillans downstream). Why should two thousand or so highly trained and equipped soldiers be needed? Because in these parts of the country, the coca farmers are protected by an army of guerrillas, perhaps 20,000 in total, who have been waging war on the Colombian state with increasing success. It is here, in the midst of this guerrilla territory, that the Colombian military has built headquarters for the new brigade, one battalion of which was trained last year with the help of US military advisers. It is here that, against all the odds, the violent convergence of guerrillas and US aid, US-trained troops, and US advisers is, according to the Clinton administration, not going to happen.
Dispatches from the Front
Colombia, Day 3
This continues with material derived from official reports and reportage which is offered as background.
The motor that jump-started the guerrillas into rough combat-capable parity with the army also energized the official Colombian economy in the 90s; cocaine. Masticated or brewed, coca leaves have been consumed for centuries in the Andes as a cure for colic, altitude sickness, and hangovers, and as a palliative for hunger. Traditionally, it has been grown by Indian communities who hold it sacred, and its sale-by the bushel in open-air markets or in boxed tea bags in city stores-is legal in Bolivia and Peru. (Coca-Cola company representatives still visit the Bolivian markets once a year to buy the key ingredient in their secret formula.)
Colombia, which has a much smaller indigenous population than Bolivia or Peru (the Conquistadors began exporting slaves from here around 1500), used to cultivate less coca, and for many years it grew what was considered an inferior product-meaning that the Colombian leaf produced a less potent alkaloid. But Colombia had a lackadaisical government, uncharted riverways, and a tradition of smuggling that dated back to colonial days. A small but flourishing illegal trade in marijuana, emeralds, and pre-Hispanic artifacts had kept smuggling techniques up to date, and by the early Eighties non-Indian hustlers, many of them from prosperous, industrial Medellín, had consolidated their hold on the manufacture of cocaine from coca leaf, and on the export of refined cocaine to the United States. Among other things, these middlemen had figured out how to smuggle acetone and ether from the United States-precursor chemicals-without which cocaine alkaloid cannot be extracted from the leaf.
By the end of the decade the illegal manufacture and export of cocaine had turned into a bonanza. Colombia had found what most developing countries lack, a cheap crop that can produce the levels of employment, return on investment, and national growth that only industrial goods normally provide. Construction soared, the service sector exploded, antiques dealers thrived, airline companies expanded their routes, artists made a more than decent living, and, beginning in 1992, many campesinos also felt less gnawed by hunger.
Here in Medellin you can stand on top of a high hill (like Montaña Magica) and see entire multi-square-mile city districts that were built up around the Ochoa clan, and are today filled with fat cat drug lords and the middle class they created. These cartelburbs are the Beverley Hills and Topanga Canyons of Medellin. The Ochoas plea bargained their way into comfortable retirement a decade ago, keeping their billions in onshore accounts, and leaving the wars to the more bloodthirsty Cali mobs and the hundreds of smaller operators who have moved in to fill the void.
This last effect was a direct consequence of the "War on Drugs" decreed by President George Bush Sr. In the late 1980s, the State Department and the Drug Enforcement Administration coordinated a successful anti-drug campaign with the governments of Bolivia and Peru: vast coca plantings were sprayed out of existence in both countries' Andean foothills; under US guidance, Bolivian and Peruvian army planes began shooting down unauthorized aircraft entering their air space. But demand for cocaine had grown, not eased, in the United States and around the world. Seeking safer territory for the unceasingly profitable trade, Colombian drug exporters began to sponsor coca plantings in their own uncharted jungles, and they financed a successful search for a variety of coca plant that would produce high levels of alkaloid in hot, lowland conditions. Seeking a better livelihood, peasants from all over the country flocked to the jungle departamentos of Meta, Putumayo, and Caquetá. And the FARC guerrillas were with them.
Running even a small guerrilla army is expensive, after all, especially if all weapons and supplies must be acquired illegally and smuggled in. It did not take long for the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, or FARC, to notice that campesinos could use protection from the city types who paid them to grow coca, not to mention from government antidrug patrols.
During the same period that the Colombian traffickers were consolidating their supremacy in the world drug market, the guerrillas worked out a policy. "We don't look after coca fields, we don't grow coca and we don't transport it," the official spokesman claimed. "But we do charge taxes, just as we do on everything else. Truckers [who drive through FARC territory] have to pay taxes. Shopkeepers [who operate in FARC territory] have to pay taxes. And the growers do too." The guerrillas, who see themselves as the legitimately established authority in areas they control militarily, levy taxes on both the sale and transport of coca (and recently also of opium paste from poppy fields in the highlands). In exchange, the campesinos expect them to guarantee that they all get paid, and paid equally, and that the money they receive is in some proportion to the product's market value. Estimates of the income derived by the FARC from this arrangement vary between $200 and $600 million a year.
The transaction the FARC spokesman described - taxes in exchange for a protective armed presence - includes in his telling only two parties; growers and guerrillas. But it is hard to avoid the conclusion that a large and belligerent antigovernment organization can prove extremely useful to the drug lords as well. At the very least, there is a situation on the ground of peaceful coexistence between the guerrillas and the people who control the drug trade. Perhaps the guerrillas are telling the truth when they say there is no explicit agreement, and that the two sides never even come into contact. Another possibility is that the guerrillas don't merely look the other way when the little bimotor planes land on improvised strips in the jungle to pick up their cargo, or when motorboats bring in chemical engineers to tinker with extraction procedures in clandestine laboratories. Perhaps they unload some automatic rifles for themselves and the odd antiaircraft gun as well.
Whoever paid for the guns, there were enough for a force that has tripled, at least, since the bonanza in the jungle. The FARC's sixty military frentes are spread out through every region in the country, including the outskirts of Bogotá. In one or several of these, the guerrillas are holding the five hundred soldiers and police officers they have taken captive since they began overrunning army bases and police stations in 1996. The word in the countryside is that one eats better in the guerrilla army than at home, and there is general agreement that the FARC controls or has strong influence in about a third of the one thousand or so municipal districts into which Colombia is divided-meaning that, at the very least, the organization has a say in who gets elected mayor in these districts and how municipal funds are spent.
The tacit agreement between drug traffickers and guerrillas in the southern half of the country is surprising only because in the northern part of Colombia, where I am, the two sides are busy killing each other. Or at least it is fair to say that the various right-wing armed associations who fight the guerrillas - paramilitares, or autodefensas - depend on drug money for their machine guns and uniforms just as the FARC does.
The paramilitares first sprang up, like soldiers grown from dragons' teeth, in regions where the guerrillas made the mistake of kidnapping the wrong people. In the days before the FARC started taxing cocaine, they survived in large part off income derived from abducting, or threatening to abduct, ranchers and businessmen. Kidnapping as an illegal economic activity has a long history in Colombia. Many drug traffickers, for example, got their startup capital through kidnapping and continued to use it as an additional source of income and power.
It is the armed left, however, that has turned kidnapping into one of Colombia's widespread horrors. Colombia experts estimate that the FARC still derives as much as half its income from kidnappings. Another guerrilla group, the Ejército Nacional de Liberación, which kidnapped both a planeload of passengers and all the worshippers in a church in Cali last year, subsists almost entirely off extortion. In recent years the guerrillas have increased their efficiency in two ways. They "buy" kidnap victims from ordinary criminal organizations that do not have safe hiding places, as the guerrillas do in the wilderness, and they set up roadblocks on major highways, at which drivers' licenses are checked against a computer listing of all the bank accounts in the country.
At the beginning of the Eighties, however, the guerrillas started kidnapping the relatives of drug traffickers, a drastic miscalculation. In response, the drug traffickers created and financed a group, called Muerte a los Secuestradores, or Death to the Kidnappers, which appears to have worked closely with the military to hit back at the guerrillas by murdering anyone suspected of associating or sympathizing with them. In 1981, in the mining town of Segovia, the FARC kidnapped the father of a small-time drug and emerald dealer called Fidel Castaño, a crime which would turn out to have fateful consequences.
According to the accounts of Fidel and his younger brother Carlos, the guerrillas-former friends of the family-demanded a ransom far beyond the Castaño family's ability to pay. The brothers offered what they could and were rejected. Fidel, in what Carlos would later describe as "a mistake," then wrote the kidnappers, stating that if the family came up with more funds "it would be exclusively to fight against you." According to a subsequent account by Fidel, his father, who had been held tied to a tree by a long rope for many days, slammed his head against the tree trunk until he dropped to the ground and there "was left to die" by the guerrillas, presumably of a heart attack. According to published accounts by Carlos, the father was killed by the guerrillas after the Castaños failed to come up with the ransom money.
The details matter a great deal to many people these days-not the least the FARC-because, according to a survivor Iinterviewed in 1989, in 1983 a group of men under orders from Fidel Castaño moved like a scythe through the riverside villages near Segovia where Castaño believed his father had been held, pulling babies out of their mothers' arms and shooting them, nailing a child to a plank, impaling a man on a bamboo pole, hacking a woman to pieces with a machete. By the time Castaño's men were finished there were twenty-two dead. It was the first time after the brutal civil war known as La Violencia-from 1945 to 1965-that a massacre of such size had taken place in Colombia. It is not the last. Such massacres happen with sickening frequency these days.
The 1983 massacre was the beginning of an assassination campaign that since then has left many thousand civilians dead in villages suspected of harboring guerrillas. Before his own death a few years ago, Fidel Castaño organized his hit men into a group called Autodefensas Campesinas de Córdoba y Urabá, or ACCU. His successor was his younger brother, Carlos, who turned the organization into a tightly disciplined combat group, and formed an alliance with similar organizations throughout the country, calling it the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia. In a recent television interview, Carlos Castaño claimed that his organization now has 11,200 troops. This figure is twice the usual estimate, but it is easy to believe the Autodefensa leaders when they say that they wish their numbers were growing a little more slowly, because, although there are more guerrillas and guerrilla sympathizers to exterminate with every passing day, controlling so many volunteers is tricky.
After I leave Medellin next week, Urabá is where I will be spending my next 5 weeks.
Dispatches from the Front
Colombia, Day 4
The drop from Santa Elena to Medellin makes Capetown and Hong Kong look like Barstow. The abyss is so severe - must be a 7000 foot sheer drop - an extreme skiier would get vertigo. My Colombian driver - in a cowboy hat and sunglasses - pushed himself into a sort of Richard Petty buddhanature, passing everything on the hail-slicked and fog-bound road as he hit those S's apexes and let gravity pull him into the orbit of the snaking freefall. In ten minutes we were into town and I was goggling at the teeming throngs on the sidewalks of El Centro.
Alert but unafraid, eyes looking at everything, checking their personal perimeters, but still grooving, in an hour of cruising from errand to errand, we must have received 100,000 quick stares. Oblivia doesn’t esist here. Few policia or military in evidence - only four sightings in four hours. One wore black and had a german shepard on a choke collar. Two, wearing green khakis reading "Auxiliaries," were patting down a crackhead in the middle of a traffic island. One grey-clad Policia was writing destinations on a clipboard as people loaded cabs outside the main TV station. A Wackenhut rent-a-cop with a cattleprod paced outside a jewelry store. Never saw a single police cruiser, never mind the Humvees of Tel Aviv or Mitsu battlewagons of Sri Lanka. Everywhere was t-shirts and jeans. I only spied one suit all day. Business attire here is short sleeves, designer pants, and Gucci loafers.
It is a curious contrast that in Miami my carry-ons get swabbed at the handles and fasteners and the swabs pass through a spectrographic analysis for any of a hundred banned substances, and in Medellin you can buy a marijuana cigarette from any street vendor selling Marlboros. You have to wonder which country is more free.
I interviewed for the newspaper, El Colombiano, for more than 2 hours - it´ll run next week at www.elcolombiano.com - then we had dinner in the Pablado district and caught a collectivo back up the mountain (the collectivo being a taxi that picks up several riders until it is full, slicing the fare for each). Alejandra chided me for my indiscretions in the interview. Asked what I would do about the war, I said that all revolutionary movements, as well as governments, have as their ultimate basis a yearning of the people for social justice. Alejandra reminded me that although social justice issues may have started this war, it had long since lost its idealism and now it was just about random murder and equally random revenge, and silence was the only safe recourse for a Yankee Tourista. Hush my mouf.
Even though our driver knows the road well enough to drive blindfolded and seldom drops below 60 kph, rocking his passengers like a hand-made tortilla, the journey takes much longer going up, maybe 30 minutes. As the lights of the city drop away behind us and a light rain begins to fall, all other traffic vanishes and we are alone, rocking, as we propel upward. Then, out of darkness we glimpse two figures in the oncoming lane. A flash of light on the glint of metal between their legs and we are past. ¨What were those?¨I whisper to Alejandra. ¨Kids¨she says. ¨They grab hold of the back of buses and ride their bikes up the mountain. Then they race each other downhill for fun.¨¨They had no lights,¨I said. ¨No lights,¨she agreed. ¨Colombians are very smart,¨she explained, ¨but they are also very competitive, and this creates many of their problems.¨ We pass more of the rain riders, some of them solo, and I wonder if the solo ones are just practicing or if the competition has already gone over a cliff. I felt sorry for the riders hurtling towards a 30-degree vertical hairpin at 80 kph and being completely blinded by our lights, and I hoped that they possessed the same inner map of this route as our collectivo driver.
Alejandra and I were the last of the paying passengers remaining when we summited. Alejandra paid the driver his 6000 pesos ($4) while I climbed out to clang on a drainpipe so they would unlock the bamboo gate and let us in. We could have skipped the clanging on the drainpipe if we had stopped en route at a pay phone - public telephones in Colombia are free. But the clanging woke Beatrice, and she let us in. The guard dog - a huge brown Doberman, - slept through it.
Dispatches from the Front
Colombia, Day 5
The latest Human Rights Watch report on Colombia presents in numbing detail dreadful accounts of mass murders, primarily involving Carlos Castaño's paramilitary troops. But for years, detailed evidence has accumulated implicating senior army commanders, mid-level officers, and troops of connivance with, or even the planning and execution of, paramilitary massacres. "Together, evidence collected so far by Human Rights Watch links half of Colombia's eighteen brigade-level army units to paramilitary activity," the report states.
Very few military men have been demoted, much less brought to trial, for their role in mass murders, and perhaps this is also because, as public revulsion with the army's suspected role has grown, its participation has become more discreet. But perhaps it is because the executive and judicial branches of government remain incapable of controlling the rogue military establishment. In any event, intelligence-sharing, the Human Rights Watch report states, remains the most pervasive and common method of collaboration between the Colombian military and the autodefensas. (The report also describes another form of cooperation, known as legalización, which is rooted in the Colombian army's tradition of demanding a high number of enemy casualties from officers ambitious for promotion. According to the report, paramilitaries will bring civilian corpses to army barracks and exchange them for weapons. The officers dress the corpses in camouflage and boots and claim that they were guerrillas killed in battle.)
A number of Colombian observers of the various wars in their country have pointed out that the aid package for Colombia is, at the very least, badly skewed. Most of the aid is supposed to be spent on the military; and it is supposed to be spent in the southern part of the country, where the guerrillas, and not the paramilitaries, will be the target. State Department officials who are lobbying for approval of the aid package have not ignored the paramilitary threat: they point to new human rights training programs for officers and troops as signs of progress, and occasionally they reproach the government of President Andrés Pastrana for its "passivity" in the face of the paramilitary attacks. But when the reproaches are combined with the proposed gift of stupendous amounts of hardware for the army, and amounts of cash that boggle the mind, they tend to lose credibility.
Although the FARC already existed, it was seen by many as old hat and insufficiently idealistic, and new guerrilla groups, and what used to be called "pre-party formations," multiplied. The Ejército de Liberación Nacional, or ELN, as well as the Quintín Lame, an armed Indian rights group, the Partido Revolucionario de los Trabajadores, the M-19, all came into being. By the late Seventies Rosa was closely identified with another of the groups to emerge from the university crucible, the Ejército Popular de Liberación, or EPL. The group was strong in the area of Córdoba, where in those days the population was fairly clearly divided between poor campesinos and the people with money who owned cattle ranches and farms where bananas and oil palms were grown.
The statements coming out of the Pentagon recently about the intended use of the aid money ("Everybody who's in the drug business-guerrillas, autodefensas, or drug traffickers - will be the focus of these operations.") are designed to blur the line between an antiguerrilla package and an antidrug package. In Colombia, everyone believes that the money is intended for anti-insurgency use. Pastana crafted the package and this is his stated intention. Colombians, who have spent twenty years paying a terrible price for the drug bonanza, cannot believe that anyone would be dumb enough to fight drugs with military assistance.
It is easy to forget that the Clinton administration was not always so hawkish. Clinton's first chief of the White House Office of Drug Control Policy, Lee Brown, stopped using the term "drug war" when he took office because it seemed to him that it was dangerous to use the word "war" in reference to a native population-whether Colombians, or black inhabitants of the Bronx. It is easy to forget this, because Barry, the Butcher of Baghdad, McCaffrey, wants you to forget it. We are fighting a war, and that is why we have a Marine General in at Drug Czar.
In the particular case of the Cocaine war decreed since the days of the Bush administration, the balance sheet is dismal, although the large and thriving drug bureaucracy in the United States puts out reports every year citing ever-larger impoundments of cocaine and heroin. The figures are presented as evidence that (a) the war on drugs is being won, because seizures and arrests are increasing, and (b) the war on drugs is not being won fast enough, because seizures and arrests are increasing. Ever-larger budget allocations are necessary, according to this logic, to bring victory within sight.
At first glance, it is hard not to be impressed with the results of the war waged on drugs in Bolivia and Peru. In 1995, according to a recent report by the US State Department, Bolivia had 48,600 hectares of coca under cultivation. In 1999 there were only 21,800. Even more dramatic are the figures for Peru, where production peaked at 115,300 hectares in 1995, and shrank four years later to barely 38,700. But if one takes the total combined figures for hectares of coca under cultivation in Colombia, Bolivia, and Peru in 1995, and again in 1999, the picture is somewhat different. In 1995 the estimated total was 214,800 hectares. In 1999 it was 183,000. In other words, there was no large decline in the total area under cultivation: coca cultivation expanded in Colombia to take up the slack in Bolivia and Peru. A cynic might even speculate that the 1999 decrease of 30,000 hectares is partly the result of some enhanced estimating. It would not be surprising if new, uncounted areas of cultivation have been opened on the other side of the Amazon, in the vast expanse of jungle that belongs to Brazil. It is in any case a reasonable wager that once serious drug interdiction programs get underway in Colombia, cultivation will shift to Brazil and Venezuela. As long as demand continues, that is.
Whether or not the military aid being proposed by the Clinton administration can be used successfully to fight drugs, what is true is that in Colombia a surprising number of people - perhaps a majority of those who shape public opinion - now see the aid package as the country's last best hope of ending the long, brutal confrontation with the FARC. They reach this conclusion at a time when the Pastrana government is engaging in the most serious and lengthy peace negotiations with the guerrillas in the history of this conflict. If the supporters of the aid package are right, US might and money will be useful in defeating the guerrillas in the field or forcing them to take part in serious and practical peace talks. If the supporters of US military aid are wrong, the FARC will retreat from their current armed clashes with government troops to more traditional forms of guerrilla warfare-ambushes, sabotage operations, urban terrorism, selective killings - which would enable it to survive indefinitely, and set the prospects for peace back for years.
The news in the Medellin paper today is not encouraging. The FARC is only a reluctant participant in the peace talks. The ELN is boycotting them.
Dispatches from the Front
Colombia, Day 6
The distinctive chirp of the curricutu (Otos choliba), kind of like a high-pitched stomach growl, raises me from my slumbers. Today is the day I have to earn my pay. Even before Blanca puts out breakfast - arepas, tortilla de España (con papas), y chocolate caliente - the course participants begin to arrive. Several of them have come from Venezuela and two have flown in from Puerto Rico. Others made the journey from the coastal rainforest of Choco or the mountains around Bogota. The two buses of La Caravana Arcoruidis y Paz - ENA´s travelling ecological theater group - arrived at 3 am after two harrowing, near-death experiences on the mountain. The first was on a descent from one range into the valley, when the brakes gave out and they plunged downhill at gathering speed, leaving the road and going out onto the bouldered cliff face at one moment, only to regain the road by sheer momentum, until the driver, Lorenzo (a Brit who caught a Caravan fundraising show in Glastonbury and joined them in Venezuela a year later) succeeded in slamming the mountainside enough times to bring them to a halt. Shaken, they regrouped and repaired the brake lines and continued on at a lizard´s crawl. They were thus crawling, up the side of a second range, when their engine died from a clogged deisel fuel filter and simultaneously the brakes failed again. Once more they plunged, this time backwards, reaching full speed, screaming in horror. This time there was a sheer drop with no guard rail to their right, and to the left a 10-foot deep ditch separating them from the rock face. Lorenzo deftly steered around a truck climbing the hill behind him and then veered, at full speed, into the ditch. When they struck the wall the bus was left suspended like a bridge over the ditch. You could walk under it without stooping. They arrived in Medellin behind a tow truck, feeling like cats that had used up two lives in one day.
The title of the course is Introducion de la Permacultura and at the opening circle we introduce ourselves. Since I am the only gringo. I have to find a way to dissolve the potential animosities that may exist because of the billions in U.S. military hardware now arriving by C-5s and C-137s as part of Plan Colombia, the Operation Ranchhands underway in the Colombian Amazon, or, for that matter, because of the Navy´s insistance on continuing to bomb Viego in P.R.. My tactic is to wear my Hawaiian shirt.
I explain that I have a lot in common with the Puerto Ricans because I was also born on an Island. I tell the story of how, in an ancient kingdom of long ago, eight feuding islands were unified by the Kealiinui of Waipea, Kamehameha, and how many years later his granddaughter, Queen Liliokalani, was held under house arrest by mercenaries of Dole, DelMonte and United Fruit, until the U.S. Marines landed on Waikiki Beach to support the world´s first corporate coup d'etat.
There are thus two ways to view an overweight middle-aged American male in a Hawaiian shirt: as another Yankee Tourista (maybe C.I.A. or D.E.A.) or an a revolutionary expat in his traje indigena. The irony is that my tribu in Hawai'i is Haouli. Anyway, it seemed to help.
My first lecture was on Evidence and Ethics, which is supposed to impart some sense of urgency for sustainable development in principle. I did the overhead transparency version of Climate in Crisis. Thinking about this in retrospect I am struck by the global significance of Al and Dubya´s current contest. Earth really is in the balance. I don´t think that is understating it. For the first time since Hudson, Cabot, Astor and Rogers searched for a Northwest Passage, there is now a waterway connecting the Atlantic and the Pacific. We are poised, in the next half century or so, to travel further up the global thermometer than we have been in one million years, a transition 5000 times speedier than occurred in the past 20,000 years, sundering countless ecosystems along the way. Dubya´s agenda is to sell more oil - to fiddle while Washington burns. I feel a pang of remorse that this critical month in an election year has me doing a speaking tour on the wrong continent. What could be more important for the fate of future generations than helping Al succeed?
Gabriel and Blanca have 12 hens and one rooster and one of the hens has 3 pullets. They also have four she-goats and one he-goat. The she-goats are milked every day, from which we get the strawberry-flavored yogurt and various cheeses that are a part of every meal. Four kids are left from the most recent freshening and Gabriel points to the two he-kids and says one of them will be roasted in the fire circle the second night of the course (Permaculture not being especially vegetarian in outlook). Perhaps Gabriel will also get some kid gloves from the transaction. Then he will be better equipped to handle my revulsion.
The wastes from the elevated goat pens drop into a 1-foot high crawl space with a downhill drainage ditch. This leads to the area where we will build a biodigester later in the course. The floor of the goat pens is removable for cleaning but Gabriel plans to build the next one on a slope and let the rain do the cleaning.
A barbet pair (Capitan Copetimachado Comun), the hembra with bright yellow throat and grey-yellow vest, both with the distinctive white stripe on their crown, are eating berries along the fence. The gardens have a profusion of perennial food plants: bananas and plantain; 2 varieties of passion fruit; purple-stemmed corn that grows all year; indigenous potatoes, beans and squashes; tomatoes and orchids in the metal-screen shadehouse. A colibri - jet black hummingbird (Coruscans colibri) - cruises the yellow flowers on the garden path.
Near the goat pens some ecoaldea members are dropping a stand of 30-year-old pine which crowds and shades the garden. A local craftsman has been hired to hand saw the trees into timbers that resemble railroad ties, only longer. These will be used in future construction. The slabwood and dead branches are neatly stacked for firewood and the sawdust is bagged for use in the animal pens. After felling and cutting, they dig up all the stumps. Some pine needles are fed to the goats and chickens, but most fresh boughs are carried to the gullies where they will trap runoff sediments.
After teaching permaculture all day - relative location, each element serves many functions, each function is supported by many elements, energy efficiency, biological solutions, small scale intensive systems, using succession, encouraging diversity, edge effect, etc. - I decide to do a slide show of The Farm in the evening, more to cement my alternativo credentials than to show anything particularly worth emulating. I am continuously amazed that kids today - this is true even in North America - have almost no concept of the Summer of Love. ¨Hippie¨is a perjorative, even in Spanish. The Grateful Dead doesn´t translate without an extended explanation in Colombia. One older woman raved for 15 minutes about 20 kg cabbages in Findhorn and how important Devas were to gardening. But the portion of the show about the Earthquake in Guatemala, the reconstruction in Solola, the soy and amaranth trials, the San Bartolo dairy, the 3-village water project, and I.W.E.D. all hit the mark. My Hawaiian shirt is now completely forgiven. I could even get away with tie dye. The slides from the Rainbow Warrior, the T.E.A., and the Farm Midwives are icing on the cake. The Farm is now legendary in this small corner of the planet, at least for this group of Colombian 20-somethings who are working to stop the war by empowering the poor.
Some works by Albert Bates available on-line: