Fri, Jun 20, 2008 - Page 7 News List

UN officials shocked by 27% jump in land used for coca crops in Colombia

AP , BOGOTA

Colombian peasants devoted 27 percent more land to growing coca last year, the UN reported on Wednesday, calling the increase “a surprise and a shock” given intense efforts to eradicate cocaine’s raw ingredient.

Estimated cocaine production, however, increased only slightly in Colombia and other Andean nations — to about 994 tonnes last year from 984 tonnes the year before, according to the UN — as cultivation shifted to smaller, less-productive plots in more remote locations.

The net increase in coca farmland came despite “record” US-backed eradication efforts that disrupted the growing cycle, said General Oscar Naranjo, the chief of Colombia’s police.

“These young crops, the new ones, are less productive, both in the number of leaves and in terms of the potency of the leaf,” Naranjo said, and coca farmers in remote locations can’t get chemicals needed to process the leaves as easily.

Still, coca farmers are aggressively tearing down forest to make way for crops and laboratories, and the young plants will eventually produce much more coca if eradication efforts don’t keep up.

“The increase in coca cultivation in Colombia is a surprise and shock: A surprise because it comes at a time when the Colombian government is trying so hard to eradicate coca; a shock because of the magnitude of cultivation,” said Antonio Maria Costa, director of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).

In all, 99,000 hectares of coca cultivation were found in Colombia last year, up from 78,000 hectares in 2006, the UNODC’s annual survey said. Total cultivation in Colombia, Peru and Bolivia — the world’s three principal sources of coca — grew 16 percent to 181,600 hectares.

Costa noted in his statement that “just like in Afghanistan, where most opium is grown in provinces with a heavy Taliban presence, in Colombia most coca is grown in areas controlled by insurgents.”

Farmers are quickly replanting and minimizing the damage from aerial spraying by planting herbicide-resistant hybrids and coating plants with cane juice, said Bruce Bagley, an international studies professor at the University of Miami.

“Areas that have been sprayed have then been brought back into production,” Bagley said. “It’s time for aerial spraying to give way to other programs.”

Colombia’s drug police sprayed herbicide on 153,000 hectares of coca and manually eradicated another 65,000 hectares last year, which Naranjo called “unprecedented in the worldwide fight against illegal crops.”

Washington has spent more than US$5 billion to help Colombia combat its long-running insurgency and the world’s largest cocaine industry.

About 80 percent of the US aid goes to the military, and 20 percent to social efforts to wean farmers off coca.

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