By Sebastián Forero Rueda, EL ESPECTADOR, May 14, 2020
(Translated by Eunice Gibson, CSN Volunteer Translator)
Here is the testimony of Sandra Panchalo, a coca-growing leader in the southern part of the country. It reflects the situation for thousands of families that make their living growing coca leaves in Colombia. Who are these families? How much do they earn from the coca? Why do they plant coca and not other products? Why do they want to substitute it for different crops?
“I wasn’t born in a coca-growing municipality. I was born in El Tambo, in Nariño Province, but when I was 16 years old, I moved to Policarpa, in the mountains, and that’s where I learned about the coca. I went to work on a farm, to cook, and there I started growing it. I got a late start, you could say, because that’s very much coca country and the children start scraping coca sometimes when they’re ten, or even before that.
“When I was 17 I met the father of my children; he had a farm of his own, and I started to go with him to raise it, to harvest it, to work. That was in a district (corregimiento) in Policarpa; I can’t tell the name, for safety’s sake, but the whole municipality is a coca-growing area. I was there with him, and he said, ‘this can be your plot for planting it,’ and that’s where I got the first little pieces of my very own coca, and I learned how to plant it.
“You make a seedbed, and take the seedlings out at three months, you plant them in the ground and by six or seven months, you already produce your first crop. After that first harvest, the bushes will mature every four months, so every year you will have four harvests more or less. Really, a family doesn’t have more than one and a half hectares planted in coca. Big expanses that have four or five hectares per family, we don’t see those here.
“In this area the soil is also excellent for planting rice, yuca, watermelon, lemons, and mangos. Once my ex-husband and I tried to raise watermelons. We planted three hectares and out of that we got 15 tons, already sold, of good quality. We had to take it to a place that they call Remolino, over the Panamerican Highway, some five or six hours away. The truck came to the farm and collected the watermelons. You have to pay the truck driver for taking the watermelons and later, when you get them to the place, you have to pay the person that unloads. But that transportation was very expensive, because the roads are really bad. When we did the accounts we had made 450 pesos (a little over 11 cents) per kilo, and at that price, we didn’t even make what our labor was worth.
“Now with the coca you have a routine: harvest, sale, pay bills, go back and put some more things on the tab. That’s what goes on all over the countryside. You go to the storekeeper and you say ‘trust me on this amount’ and you take away what you need. You take the pesticide again to spray on the plantings and the little that remains is what you have left to feed your children, and pay for their school expenses. Because you sell it and you pay your bills, but to have something left over, it doesn’t happen. Because, let’s say, you harvest 1½ hectares and you get 100 arrobas (unit of weight) of coca leaf. From that you can get three kilos of base. That, at 2,000 pesos (about 51 cents) per gram would be 2 million pesos (about USD 509) per kilo, or six million pesos (about USD 1,500) in all. But you have to look at all you have to spend in those four months when you aren’t receiving a single peso. And then suppose it was at 2,000 pesos (about 51 cents) per gram but now it’s at 1,700 pesos (about 43 cents) per gram, there’s no money at all.
“That’s why every farm has its little hut, or ‘chongo’ to process the coca leaves. Or machucaderos, as they say in Cauca; or cambuches, as they call them in other parts of the country. The ones that after the Army searches them, they call them ‘laboratories’. Some laboratory! You only make the base there; the big laboratories are called ‘cocinas’ (kitchens), but now they have another kind of procedure. What the families in the coca-growing areas have are “ranchitos”, little huts that are very simple, very rustic. What they do there is, they take the coca leaf, dice it with a sickle, put in some fertilizer, some lime, tramp it down, stir it and dice it more, pour it into barrels, pour in some purified gasoline, leave it there until ‘the chemist’ is ready for it. Then you wash it with acid water and the acid water will put your merchandize together.
“The people that scrape the coca leaves to process it are the pickers, or ‘raspachines’. That’s the hardest part. They earn 7,000 pesos (about USD 1.80) for an arroba of coca leaves that they pick. An arroba is some 12 kilos. So that depends on how much you can carry on your shoulder in a day. The men can pick upwards of 11 arrobas; there are men that can fill a bag. You can make 80,000 pesos (about USD 20) 90,000 pesos (about USD 23) a day. A woman can pick five, six, at most seven arrobas. You get paid when the picking is done, or when the harvest is over. After that, the pickers get up and go to another farm where they’re harvesting. And that’s how it works.
“And with that money a lot of us have sent our children to school. Me, for example, I have my three children in school in Pasto. The two older ones are in ninth grade and the youngest is in fourth (primary). And in this district (corregimiento) we have cases where families whose children have professional degrees, with the coca money. For example, one man: his oldest daughter is a dentist; his other daughter is a public official, another is a psychologist and the youngest boy is studying music. They all went to school in Popayán. All of that with the coca leaves.
“But you want to get into the voluntary substitution of the crop because, with the coca there’s always violence. In my case, for example, on May 14, 2014 the paramilitaries grabbed my brother and took him away from the farm. He didn’t live around here; his family lived somewhere else; he just came here to work on the farms and he’s gone. When I woke up and realized that people were taking him away, never to come back, I started talking to people, with the Community Action Board. Actually, I started agitating with everybody and we went to talk with those people so they would turn my brother over to us. They said that couldn’t happen, they were in charge now, but the truth is that we kept on insisting and they finally had no choice but to give him back to us alive.
“But there in the mountains, the battle between those groups is to capture the coca base, to control the business. And that’s the way it is in the coca-growing areas in the province, in Tumaco, in Samaniego, in Santa Cruz de Guachavés. All of that is a red zone because that’s where they grow the coca and the armed groups are staying there.
“So then when the crop substitution program came, the people were enthusiastic and they joined it. In several areas they signed a collective agreement, but they stopped formally signing up people just in Tumaco, where there are more than 16,000 families in the program. But ever since then, I’ve been very active with the Coordinated National Coca, Amapola, and Marijuana Growers (Coccam) and that is what has brought me the threats. The first one was in June of 2018 when we re-activated the organization in Nariño. We were at a meeting with delegates from the municipalities, the FARC delegates, and the national government. Those people came to the municipality asking about me. Saying I had to meet with them, they wanted to talk to me. Obviously, I didn’t go.
“The next year, in August of 2019 I was in El Tambo. I talked regularly with an official in the Mayor’s Office about all of the substitution issues. He got a message on his cell phone: ‘Stupid! Stop hanging out with that old bag Sandra Panchalo, because they’re going to skin her for being a nark.’ Now I have bodyguards. And in November a couple of hit men also came looking for me. I got out of the territory and I’m far away now. I’m in another municipality. My husband I are separated now because of the threats. But he’s keeping on there with the hectare and a half of coca, and we’re still paying for the children’s education.”