"OPERATION GREEN COLOMBIA"
Coca Eradication Brings War to Endangered National Parks
by Memo Montevino
Last June, following months of political contest between the administration of President Alvaro Uribe and environmentalists, Colombia's government announced that the aerial spraying of glyphosate to wipe out coca crops would be extended to the country's national parks. Claiming 11 of Colombia's 49 national parks had been invaded by cocaleros, Uribe named three parks slated for imminent fumigation: Sierra Nevada de Santa Maria, a northern snow-capped peak which is a UN-recognized biosphere reserve; and two in the lush cloud-forests where the eastern Andean slopes fall towards the Amazon basin. This cloud forest belt is the most biodiverse zone of Colombia, and among the most conflicted. These two parks—Cataumbo, in Norte de Santander department, and La Macarena in Meta—are both in areas hotly contested by Colombia's military and guerillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).
The fumigation was held up as Colombian environmentalists challenged the spray order before administrative courts and petitioned the US Congress—which funds the spraying program—to intervene. In December, Uribe made a new announcement: that he would order manual eradication of coca crops in the parks as a compromise measure. A thousand-strong work force was sent into La Macarena to uproot the illicit crops. The military and National Police would oversee the program, which was dubbed, with a keen eye to public relations, "Operation Green Colombia."
"We are going to recuperate for the country [La Macarena] nature park, an area that unfortunately has been harmed mercilessly by illicit crops," Gen. Jorge Daniel Castro, director of the National Police, told the press.
But the reality has proved considerably less than "green." On Feb. 6, six National Police agents, part of the contingent sent in to protect the eradication team, were killed in an attack by FARC guerillas in La Macarena. Another six were killed in a FARC mortar strike Feb. 15. At least one of the workers, who make about $12 a day, was injured in the crossfire between the guerillas and security forces, leading the majority of the team to quit because of the danger.
Uribe responded by ordering air strikes on the national park. The park would be evacuated before the strikes were ordered, Uribe told Colombia's RCN TV from Washington, where he was negotiating a free-trade deal with United States. "It seems we need to be more aggressive in terms of bombing the areas within the park where the guerrillas are located," Uribe said.
Air Force planes struck positions within the park Feb. 16. "In those areas where guerilla concentrations have been identified or in those places where military targets have been identified, we will proceed with all the istruments that are available to the public forces to neutralize them," Defense Minister Camilo Ospina told Bogota's El Tiempo.
Uribe said four areas identified as FARC bases within the park were targeted, but the military could not confirm that any guerillas had been killed. "This has not been an indiscriminate attack," Ospina told El Tiempo Feb. 17. "The bombardment caused no damage beyond that needed to neutralize some points."
The force backing up the eradication team consisted of 2,000 army troops and 1,500 members of the National Police. Since the fighting, just a third of the original 1,000 workers are left to tackle the task of clearing La Macarena of an estimated 4,600 hectares of coca. Uribe insisted he remains committed to the operation, while backing away from the original goal of completing the eradication by April.
The distinction between the eradication and anti-guerilla campaign is almost completely disappearing. Uribe chose La Macarena as the first park to be targeted by "Colombia Verde" after a FARC attack on an army detachment just outside the park left 29 troops dead.
"We cannot pretend that eliminating the checkbook of the guerilla will be an easy process," Ospina told El Tiempo Feb. 16. "The process in La Macarena consist of the eradication of coca in one of the zones of the world with the greatest cultivations, which represents the most important source of financing for subversive groups, specifically the FARC."
Journalist Yadira Ferrer, writing for Inter-Press Service just before the air strikes on the national park, spoke to some of the Colombian environmentalists who opposed the "Colombia Verde" program.
"The manual eradication in La Macarena may represent progress as a technique," said Ricardo Vargas, Colombian coordinator in Colombia for Acción Andina, a group that monitors issues around drug trafficking in the region. "However, it doesn't replace the government's erroneous policy, which is to try to get rid of the drug trafficking problem by going after the weakest link: the peasant farmer who feels obligated to grow coca in order to survive."
"If the government doesn't directly attack the sources of financing for drug trafficking, those groups will continue to shift to other areas, as they have been doing for years," he added.
La Macarena was declared a national park in 1989 and declared a "heritage of humanity" site by the UN Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). Some 2,500 families of colonos—settlers—are thought to be living within its 630,000 hectares. Most arrived over the past two generations, before it was declared a national park. However, settlement of the park has increased in recent years as the coca economy in the region has exploded. "Colombia Verde" calls for the forced removal of these settlers from the park, although details of how this will be carried out or where they will be resettled have not been revealed.
Vargas charged that Colombian government has never carried out "a serious state policy" for the country's national parks. He insisted that means of livelihood must be provided for any settlers relocated from La Macarena, and that the eradication be accompanied by a broader development plan drawn up with input from the impacted communities.
According to Colombia's Integrated System for Monitoring Illicit Crops (SIMCI), in 2004 there were 5,364 hectares of coca planted in 13 of the nation's parks, equivalent to 0.05 percent of the country's total protected area and 7.0 percent of the total area cultivated with illegal crops. Protected areas in total cover 10 million hectares—10 percent of national territory. The government's goal is to eradicate 40,000 hectares of illegal drug crops in 2006.
"Colombian rebels kill six coca eradication police," Reuters, Feb. 16:
"Colombian Rebels Kill Six Police Guards," AP, Feb.