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Scientists study alternatives to growing drugs

University Of Bonn (Universit : 25 March, 2007  (Technical Article)
Experts estimate the world-wide turnover of drugs at almost $500 billion, despite all the attempts to prevent the cultivation, sale and consumption of drugs. Often it is simply the sheer battle for survival which forces farmers in the producing countries into the dirty business with cocaine or opium. Researchers from the University of Bonn are examining the alternatives to cultivating drugs and have been focusing on aid projects in Colombia and Bolivia. Their conclusions are sobering, in spite of all the positive aspects.
Mauricio Cely is a graduate of the M.Sc. course Agricultural Science and Resource Management in the Tropics and Subtropics; in his thesis he probed the national programme, 'PLANTE', which the government of Colombia has been using since 1995 to get to grips with the illegal cultivation of drugs. With little success: although the area used for cultivating opium has shrunk to just under a third since 1992, over the same period the area used for growing coca has quadrupled to 145,00 hectares, an area almost three times the size of Lake Constance. And this is happening despite the fact that one of the main aims of PLANTE is to encourage the cultivation of alternative crops. In retraining programmes government staff urge farmers to cultivate the Andean blackberry or the Quito orange, cheap credit facilities are offered to make it easier for them to switch over to these crops. Yet the production of a kilo of tomatoes entails about twice as many costs as the same amount of opium, for substantially less profit.

In Bolivia the government started the 'Coca Cero' programme in 1989. Since that time the area of land used for growing coca in the region of Chapare has dropped by more than 70 per cent, though at a high ecological cost. 'The illegal crops are sprayed from the air with the herbicide glyphosate and killed,' Professor Jürgen Pohlan explains, who has been studying the problem of coca cultivation since 1999. So, as not to be shot down by guerrillas, the pilots have to drop their chemicals from a very high altitude, resulting in a large amount missing the target. What is more, the wind spreads the poisonous chemicals outside the target area, affecting legal crops or even villages. 'The fish die in the rivers, people become ill and move away,' Professor Pohlan says. 'The result is simply that coca farmers look for new, more inaccessible areas, e.g. in the rainforests or the mountains.' He adds that by slash-and-burn methods and the enormous use of herbicides in the illegal plantations an increasing number of intact eco-systems have fallen victim to drug-growing operations in the last few years. A ban in itself is therefore no solution. 'In Colombia, despite the ban, just as many hectares of new coca fields are brought under cultivation as the government manages to detect and destroy.' This is not only an ecological disaster, it is a social disaster as well: 'Coca production has fatal consequences for social cohesion,' the professor explains. 'Profits are more important than morality, the population in large areas of the country becomes criminalised, with the result that people become more violent.'

There certainly are economic alternatives to coca and opium - e.g. the cultivation of pepper. ARTS graduate Juan Carlos Torrico Albino investigated 328 families in Chapare. A mere 45 were growing pepper - despite the high return. 'Most farmers cannot afford the initial investment of the equivalent of about €3,000 per hectare which the switchover to pepper production involves,' Juan Carlos Albino explains. Moreover, coca is far easier to cultivate than pepper. 'For pepper you need a lot of expertise and a qualified workforce.' He therefore urges that in addition to cheap loans for farmers there should also be short, practical, training courses. 'Rural workers need to learn to produce more efficiently.'

'We have become accustomed to cheap, high-quality food,' Professor Pohlan adds, criticising the falling prices for agricultural products on world markets, which is largely fuelled by the farming subsidies used in the First World. 'These two elements do not fit together.' However, he does not ultimately believe that the financial distress which forces many farmers to turn to cultivating drugs can be controlled by changing agricultural policies. 'One of the most important solutions in future will be to encourage industrialisation of the cities.
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