By Lina Álvarez*, Colombia+20, EL ESPECTADOR, August 2, 2022

(Translated by Eunice Gibson, CSN Volunteer Translator)

In Guaviare Department, 7,196 families decided to make the change that leaves behind their subsistence by an illegal crop. Nevertheless, a number of them are complaining that the failures to carry out the substitution program have caused them to lose income, and to have problems finding enough food to allow them to eat three meals a day.

About an hour away from the urban part of the Municipality of Calamar (Guaviare Department) lives Don Fabio de Jesús Bedoya, a campesino who is 81 years old. Eighteen years ago, he arrived in Antioquia with the dream of a better future. His wooden house is small but pleasant, and from the kitchen ceiling hang great quantities of corn to feed the chickens and, once in a while, the family.

At the time when that territory was depending entirely on the coca, Don Fabio was able to get two and a half hectares planted, which barely furnished income to supply the minimum for his home. He says that made sure that he was never without “a bite of meat” to eat.

Along with his wife, in 2017, they joined the Integrated National Program for the Substitution of Illegal Crops (PNIS in Spanish—as did the whole town of La Ceiba, where they live—because they were tired of the fumigation that didn’t just kill off the coca, but also killed their subsistence crops.

In Guaviare, 7,196 families decided to make the switch and stop subsisting on what is considered a planting for an illegal use. They dreamed of finding something else that would succeed on their property. In 2017, between the municipalities of Calamar and El Retorno, 2,312 families joined PNIS, trusting in what was promised in the Peace Agreement, which established an alternative to replace plantings for illegal use with productive projects, according to the United Nations Office Against Drugs and Crime (UNODC in English).

“At that time, one of the difficulties was the fear of joining the program while the Dissidents were close by, but we got organized and made the decision, because it was a transition to the legal economy. We signed the contracts and they gave us sixty days to eradicate the coca. It was a really big job to meet those deadlines,” emphasized Tito Roldán, a member of the municipal council in Calamar and a member of the campesino organization Ascatrui.

But complaints from the campesinos in the municipalities of Calamar and El Retorno indicated that the non-fulfillment of the program contracts has meant a food crisis that is keeping people from being able to have three meals a day. Don Fabio and the other farmers have gone nearly six months without a smell of meat; they have only potatoes, yuca, and plantain that they can grow on their farms, occasionally accompanied by a fried egg.

It’s not just the aches and pains of his age that have decreased his capacity to work from dawn to dusk on his farm, but rather, he says, during his work days he has to keep stopping to rest because of his constant dizziness to the point of fainting, because of lack of food. “The truth is that here we’re putting up with near starvation (. . .) our only income was from the coca (. . .) they have us just about beaten up now, they told us they would give us something and they showed up with nothing,” he concluded, shedding tears, this elderly man.

In its 2020 report, the UNODC reported that 91% of all the homes that now have joined PNIS have some level of food insecurity, and that 12.6% have serious problems in being able to eat three meals a day.

This in spite of the fact that the first component of PNIS was immediate food assistance. It consisted in providing that, for every family that eradicated all the coca on its chagra (plots)–as they call those plantings around here—was to be paid 1,800,000 pesos (roughly USD $417 at today’s exchange rate) initially, and later there would be six bimonthly payments of 2,000,000 pesos (roughly $463 at today’s exchange rates) until the payments have totaled 12,000,000 pesos (roughly $2,800). That money was intended to assure food security, and the time of delivery was estimated to be in enough time, so that the recipient would be able to commence the other phases of the program. The problem is that some of those payments were never made, or never arrived in time.

The stipend of 12 million pesos was projected by some as a possibility for investment in improving their quality of life, but the reality is that every time the agency delivered the funds belatedly, they ended up being used to pay bills. In Calamar, 426 out of 780 families had access to the food security program, while in El Retorno 1,244 out of 1,532 families had such access, according to figures from UNODC.

Another resident of the rural part of Calamar—who prefers not to give her name—states that they had some money saved, the product of their coca crops, and they used it to buy a few head of cattle and were able to sell them. Part of the food security money—which also arrived late—they used to buy some more cows and so were able to sell some milk. “You ended up with what you had to eat, and now what?” she emphasized.

But that didn’t only happen in Calamar, but in most of the municipalities in Guaviare that joined the PNIS. The most serious consequence was that a fluctuating population that saw their lives made precarious went into areas close to the National Natural Parks to go back to planting coca, because that gave them a possibility of subsistence.

“It’s true that some people planted coca again in different places and others stayed in the program with great effort and difficulty, because it’s not easy to leave an illegal economy to go into a legal one when the government is throwing a monkey wrench into the works,” comments Mayerly Pinilla, a leader in the Municipality of El Retorno.

In other cases, there are families that still have their property, but have not found a way to subsist and ended up selling their farms and abandoning the territory. “Those people couldn’t keep going because they only had a very small farm, some coca fields, and no pasture. Then people came in with money to buy it dirt cheap. So anybody that doesn’t have money, with the family hungry, they had to sell and they went away to suffer in some other area. The people that bought the little farm started cutting down the jungle and so then we have the conflict about deforestation. The PNIS was a failure,” states Luis Eduardo Vaca, who is also in the program

The PNIS, failure after failure

Several families in Calamar and El Retorno also complain that after they eradicated their crop and believed they were making the transformation to legality, they were suspended and not given any reason, or sometimes given reasons they thought were inconsistent. “Many families received their payment on time and others ended up with their payments suspended (. . .) there were people that up until the last minute they didn’t receive the payment, without knowing why they were kicked out of the program,” explained Council member Roldán.

Other people complain that they cut the coca down in reliance on the promise that they could enter PNIS, but when they received visits from the United Nations, they were left out of the process because they had no plantings that would support their application.

Pablo Enrique Peña, Vice President of the Ascatruir organization, was also a beneficiary of the program, but he was expelled, supposedly for failing to do a complete eradication. When his situation became more difficult, he recounts, he got a job helping some of his neighbors turn their farms into pastures, just to be able to feed their families. “They told us that in December the UN would come to verify that he had not pulled out the coca; they wouldn’t pay him and so we all gathered what we had grown, so they would pay us. We believed in the government’s proposal  and from there to here, it’s been failure after failure,” he says.

According to the UNODC, on December 31, 2020, that is, three years after they joined PNIS, 4,568 families had received the food assistance payment, and 2,649 were still waiting. The figures from the Agency for Renovation of the Territory (ARN in Spanish) on this point talk about 2,082 families not yet paid.

For many families, their hope for change has been changed to rage. “We all believed that our lives would change, and that’s why we signed the contract to cut down the coca, but they robbed us (. . .) it almost makes you furious, just remembering that,” explained Vaca.

This sentiment is not just because the short term and long term projects that really could have assured minimum subsistence were never implemented, but rather the materials they gave us to plant a kitchen garden came with extra costs. For example, in the case of the animals, many of them were in bad shape when they were delivered, and they died. “From the town to the farms there were people who got between ten and fifteen chickens that died. Or, I would say, that was a failure. For example, for the people that had to feed their chickens Purina, they sent them pig food instead, and for the pigs they sent chicken feed,” detailed Vaca.

In the sixth report on the monitoring of the Peace Agreement by the Kroc Institute, it states that in the countryside there was a lack of conformity in the price of “supplies and materials they were acquiring so that, according to information from some of the beneficiaries, they cost more than would have been charged by the local merchants.” For example, this newspaper learned that they delivered baby pigs to some campesinos in Guaviare at a cost that they would likely bring if they had already been ready for sale, and in the case of the seed, a lot of it never came up.

In spite of the loss of his animals, Vaca planned to support the creation of the association with which the campesinos are now managing some projects. The process has been slow. Two years ago, eleven families were able to manage a fish farm project, and after only eight months they were able to place the fish in the pond after constructing the necessary assembly and taking out the first fish. After that, they are hoping to abandon their idea of having to abandon the property.

There are other cases of success, like the case of María, the campesina that worked in the coca fields, scraping, or in the kitchen. She says that, from that time until now, there is an enormous difference in her life. With her family, she was able to buy a lot and build a house with the money she received for food assistance. In addition, working on several jobs along with her husband, they were able to get a location to set up a store that she can administer from home, while he does deliveries on his motorcycle.

For now, in Guaviare Department, according to the UNODC report, only 133 families have begun the process of doing a project, either short or long term. In this case, starting to grow cacao. That means that 7,084 will be continuing to wait. Nevertheless, ART reports that they have carried out some 67%, so 3,195 people have begun the last phase of implementation.

In Calamar and El Retorno, the people report the contrary. “Day after day, we are saying that PNIS was a fraud, a leap in the dark, as we’ve been saying. Sadly, all of our hopes have been dashed. We were telling someone that it’s like when you fall in love, and in the most subtle manner they tell you that it’s not going to work. They put up barriers for us that we didn’t expect,” says the leader Mayerli Pinilla.

The implications for land use

According to the UNODC report for 2020, in Guaviare there were only 0.2% that continued to plant coca. The families that were beneficiaries of PNIS were continuing to be at loose ends, and the delays added to the land use contracts—a change from the initial conditions—that were being requested of them by those who wanted access to productive projects.

It’s about the Contracts for the Right to Use Unawardable Uncultivated Land. This tool was created in 2018 so that campesinos who have historically lived in protected areas, such as Amazonia (where Guaviare is located) could make use of the land where they were living legally. The problem is that that contract converts the campesinos into users of their properties (instead of owners) and only for ten years. This would mean that their title could be taken away at any moment. The PNIS office has told the leaders of Guaviare of their obligation to continue with the process of implementation. “They told us that in order to be able to invest funds, we had to have this contract, but when we signed the voluntary substitution agreement, there is nothing on the papers we have that talks about this wild card,” complains Pena, who states that they have not been allowed to look over those contracts in order to make a thorough study of their implications.

The certificates and application documents that every campesino signed in 2017 are not public information. The Alvear Restrepo Lawyers Collective (CAJAR in Spanish) filed an application with ART to obtain access to those documents, as representatives of the communities in several municipalities in Guaviare, but their petition was denied, with the argument that they contained personal information that could not be made public. “We decided to file suit against this failure to carry out the program because we believe that they are violating the legitimate reliance of the campesinos that signed the substitution agreement, and imposing a new obstacle to their access to projects,” CAJAR explains.

The challenges for the new administration

The expectations are now on the administration that’s about to begin. For now, President-Elect Gustavo Petro has expressed his commitment to the implementation of the Peace Agreement, which increases the hopes not just for the implementation of PNIS, the PDET, and even the Integrated Rural Reform, but also that the countryside really will receive his attention. “We believe that this administration is very cohesive and ready for dialog, compromise, and listening to the people, and that they will be able to resolve the socio-environmental conflicts in the countryside, and will implement this project (. . .). PNIS is a minimal problem compared to the necessities that we have in this part of the country,” emphasizes Roldán.

Among the petitions that will be discussed by the campesino communities and social organizations is the repeal of the Second Law, so that rural reform can really be talked about. This provides that the implementation of PNIS would stop completely; the biggest obstacles would be identified, and entire municipalities would be outside of the program. “There would be a few delays that way, but when it’s resumed, it would be a program that’s especially fitted to these times (. . .) There’s one thing that the communities and the organizations that represent the communities have been asking for, and this is that the execution of the mission of PNIS be carried out through the social organizations and not through the big contractors, which is what they’ve been doing,” says Andrés Mejía, a spokesman for the Producers Association in the High Zone of San Pablo Municipality—Asocazul. He maintains that these proposals, especially the repeal—will be part of the fifty bills that are being introduced in the new Congress.

*Director of Cuarto Mosquetero (a digital news organization)

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