Semana, August 23, 2019

(Translated by Eunice Gibson, CSN Volunteer Translator)

The investigator from the Institute for the Study of Politics and International Relations (IEPRI in Spanish) at the National University talked with Semana about the results of a revealing opinion survey that the Institute led among the users of the Integrated National Program for the Substitution of Illegal Crops (PNIS in Spanish).

SEMANA: In the two years that implementation of the PNIS has been carried out, what has been the impact that the program has had in the territories?

Francisco Gutiérrez:  It has had effects of different kinds. The most important positive effect, of which there are very few, is that it has allowed those who grew coca to have a clear and direct point of contact with the government. Surprisingly, people talk about this very rarely in Colombia’s public debate. But it’s absolutely vital, not just for the growers but also for the government. For example, the opinions of the people we surveyed about the PNIS officials was generally pretty good. In terms of legitimacy and presence, there are important advances here. In addition, those people really have done the substitution and they are trying to find viable alternatives.

At the same time, the failures and the irregularities associated with the program are permanent. The connection between the so-called integrated rural reform, the furnishing of public services, those have not arrived. The question is whether in those conditions the effort to construct a legal agrarian economy is viable.

SEMANA: What are the characteristics of those communities that depend on planting coca?

F.G:  That question is key. Those who plant coca are not rich but neither do they live in absolute misery. A good number are ordinary farm families, although with coca they have reached what I would call a real but rather modest social advance. The small owners do predominate.  One thing to point out is that for the great majority, coca is not their only crop. The patterns of spending and investment seems to be pretty conventional; in reality they are much like those of your readers (at least of the most responsible): they are very focused on education, finances, and fixed assets. That has produced a certain generational advance in terms of basic well-being and education.

All of that goes against the very established stereotype of “easy money” and patterns of out-of-control spending. It could be that there has been an evolution here and a learning process, and that the first generation coca economies have suffered a lot from that. But on the other hand, the people we surveyed are thinking a lot about saving and educating their children.

SEMANA: How informed are the campesinos about the program?

F.G: You could say that they don’t know about all of their rights, but they understand them reasonably well. Most of all if you keep in mind that it is a very complex public policy. The associative and participative level of the communities play a key role here, and that is rather impressive. Even the rates of voting participation are very high (90% in the presidential election). We find that the information about the program comes to the users from afar by way of the community action groups and other kinds of association, but on the other hand, the government’s role in education about the program has been marginal.

SEMANA: Have you found successful cases? Campesino families that have been able to put together a productive and sustainable and legal project?

F.G: Sustainability is still an open question. Growers and officials are making a real effort. What isn’t clear is whether there is a crop  other than coca that will be viable in the conditions of a brutal lack of public services, roads, access to markets, etc. Look at the massive lack even just of public services. It’s because of that that the peace agreement required that a substitution program would have to be combined with territorial development and the “integrated rural reform”. But that has not happened; nor is there any sign that they want to implement it.

SEMANA: How frequent are the cases of going back to coca planting? Why do they happen? What is lacking?

F.G: Results are in agreement with what has been found by other sources. Our survey finds that the percentage of going back to planting coca after giving it up because of fumigation are very high. On the other hand, with this program the rates of going back to planting coca are very low, even though, of course, we are still in the initial stages.

 SEMANA: How serious is it that they still have not passed the law calling for differential criminal treatment? Does that worry you?

F.G: Extremely serious, because it leaves in a legal limbo the people who absolutely enter in good faith into a program promoted by the government.

SEMANA: What role do women play in the coca economies?

F.G: It looks as if women have been able to advance in some key aspects in this economy. For example, they now have a clear voice in the decisions on production; since this is a very important aspect of social life, it could irradiate over other aspects. This needs to be studied more. Besides, it might be subject to relatively important regional variations; but the survey produces data that suggest what I just said.

SEMANA: What lessons have you learned from this investigation that should be considered at the national level?

F.G: I would say three things. In the first place, the people surveyed are perfectly aware of the fact that the coca economy involves a brutal exchange: a modest but tangible social advance (one woman who planted coca said, “I can’t be ungrateful for the coca.”) On the other hand, it’s in exchange for instability, risk, and violence. The violence results,  naturally, from the fact that it is an illegal economy and, because of that, there is a strong presence of illegal actors who are prone to violence. Because of those problems, the users of the program have to incur some real costs to make the transfer to legal economies.

There is an important window of opportunity: for the country and for them. But the window could close. And that is the second point that is worth mentioning. The country has an interesting proposal, and the farmers have taken part in it overwhelmingly (there are nearly 100,000 users). It is paid for by all of the taxpayers and by international cooperation. The question that has to be asked to society is: is that effort and that money going to be wasted or not? If the answer is no, then how can we protect the program and make it viable? We have to have a national conversation on that.

And in that conversation, and this is the third point, those directly involved have to participate, as with any other political issue. You can’t make public policy regarding an industry, without the industrialists, just as you can’t make public policy regarding rock music without the rock stars. It’s exactly the same here. You can’t make crop substitution policy by systematically ignoring the people doing the substitution. We can’t be afraid of the voices of these producers. They are Colombians, very, very much like us in a lot of ways. The peace process was designed so that we could hear those voices; and it starts with simple and logical assumptions, such as, for example, that the government needs somebody to talk to in the territories. Furthermore, they are the people who know the most about the problem. And the survey clearly shows that they want the program to work. Even the minority of those surveyed who were disappointed had a simple and, I think, very positive demand: they want the government “to govern and do what it promised”. That’s not a bad slogan, is it?

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