By Natalia Romero Peñuela, EL ESPECTADOR, December 22, 2022


(Translated by Eunice Gibson, CSN Volunteer Translator)

The Director of the agency for Substitution of Plantings for Illegal Use talked about Washington’s role in Petro’s proposal for gradualism, the direction of the program created by the Peace Agreement, and how they will compensate the campesinos for the failures in carrying out the Agreement.

The economist Felipe Tascón is familiar with the fields of coca since he was a boy, because in Cali, where he’s from, they used it to border the front yards and median strips. But his interest in the coca leaves began 25 years ago, when he went to Catatumbo to do a study of irrigation districts, and what he found was “a sea of coca”. Since then, he has dedicated his economic research to “transcend the legal and law enforcement explanations, which are what have been in vogue all my life,” he says.

Tascón led Gustavo Petro’s transition team in the areas of drugs and last December 6, he took over as Director of the Integrated Program for the Substitution of Plantings for Illegal Use (PNIS). His main task is to reformulate the strategy created by the Peace Agreement for those who plant coca to transfer to a legal economy.

You’re taking over a program that was planned to last 29 months, but five years later not even 3% of the families who signed up have completed it. What is your plan to kickstart the substitution and remedy the failure to comply with the Agreement?

Last Friday in El Tarra (Norte de Santander Department) there was a fundamental change in terms of drug policy (That’s where they carried out the Catatumbo Coca Growers Conference). President Gustavo Petro is the first to propose a policy that’s different from the one that the whole world has been immersed in for the last 120 years. Evaluating this program with the accountant’s question of “you owe these families this much” is going back to the same old obviously bankrupt formula. That doesn’t mean that we won’t comply. We have to comply, but we have to find a way of getting out of this gradually and collectively.

In the Meeting at Catatumbo, Petro accepted the campesinos’ proposal to maintain the coca “until we can show that the substitute crop will work”. Will that be applied on a national scale? How can you carry that out without prolonging the persistence of the coca?

Yes, it is going to be national; it can’t just be in Catatumbo. And we think that as the agro-industrial project shows success they will abandon the coca.

And how will the partnerships work?

I had a concrete example of that with the campesinos at El Dovio (Valle Department). There are 199 families, with 160 still in the program. We could make a new agreement where the people decide that it’s preferable to invest in a new industry instead of spending money on rolls of fencing for pens or buying hogs. It’s to modify that and, obviously, always coordinate with the communities. We have a situation and it’s that there are 22 mega-contracts identified from Bogotá that are in force. Two are in liquidation, others will end in 2023, and the last one ends in January 2024. Evidently, you have to go in and look, talk with the operators and with the campesinos, how is this going to end, but that individual model has shown that it’s failed.

When you were with the transition team, you said that one of your recommendations was to definitively put an end to the use of forced eradication and aerial aspersion of glyphosate. Petro promised that he would put a stop to the second, but the first is continuing. Will that be stopped?

That is not in our province. The order to us is to industrialize those territories in a collective manner, so as to provide a different economic activity for the rural families that are dedicated to the plantings for illegal use.

But if we don’t talk about eradication, how do we meet the goal of substituting in the more than 200,000 hectares planted in coca right now?

We have to understand what the President said. He introduced a radical change to the policy. You are going back into the logic of the 120 years of failure that tried to eradicate the fields totally. What the President said is: we are seeking another path and that path is gradualism. This program shouldn’t be measured in hectares eradicated or substituted, but precisely by the alternative developments. We ought to measure how many agro-industrial partnership companies we have created in the countryside. That must be the measure within a few years.

But while we are progressing toward a change of focus in the war on drugs, is the intention still to substitute the 200,000 hectares with legal agro-industrial projects?

The “politically correct” answer, in quotation marks, to that question is that it’s combined with eradication. That is what they want from the outside, but that would be to go back to the failed policy. That’s what was done ever since that was first begun in Colombia. And what happened? The coca keeps on growing. So that policy doesn’t work. Let’s look at the campesino as “homo economicus”. They have an economic rationality the same as anyone else, and in that sense, they have to have one source of income to allow them to abandon the other one. What has happened in Colombia is that the rural families risk the illegality in exchange for being assured of food and a living. We want them to have conditions of food, of life, of health, of education, without the necessity to risk illegality. And how do we do that? The government has to go into those areas and support that campesino industrialization into society.

In that regard, what would be your answer to the message sent last Tuesday by the U.S., saying that the substitution program needs to be organized before you stop eradication?

There is an excellent relationship right now between President Petro and President Joe Biden. I think that the U.S. could be an ally in this new policy. An example: the development that we are proposing is to put in place partnerships in properties belonging to campesinos, indigenous or Afro-Colombian people in Puerto Cachicamo (Guaviare Department) or in Llorente (Nariño Department), so they will have better connections. That could help to make the conditions and opportunities between city and countryside more equitable. But to keep on insisting on a failed policy makes no sense.

Will that policy only include the 99,097 families that signed agreements, or will it allow the admission of other families that have expressed their interest in substitution?

The goal is to get all of the new families into the program. There is a very complicated element there, and it’s that the 99,000 families that signed up only have 46,000 hectares, and now the North American statistics say that there are 237,000 and what the Justice Minister pays the United Nations says that there are 204,000 hectares. In the best case, what was removed won’t reach 25%. If we don’t count the industrial and large estate plantings, which have appeared during the time of noncompliance with the Peace Agreement, and if we suppose there are 50,000, we have on the order of 180,000 hectares that have to be resolved with this kind of exercise. That’s why we have to include everything, not just families, but also organizations, and we have to do it collectively.

One of the biggest complaints by the previous administration was that there wasn’t enough money for the implementation of the Peace Agreement or for the PNIS. Where will the money come from for this reformulation?

What we have found is that it’s a mistake to talk about under-financing. The fundamental problem is the brokering through centralist methods of contracting. That’s why the money never reached its happy ending; but the funds were there.

And now there will be funds for the reformulation of the program?

There will be.

When will the pathway be ready to go?

We designed it in the transition; we have to make a few adjustments and publish it again. But it’s that I just took over on December 6 and I have already made three trips: one to Valle; another to Catatumbo, and now to Caquetá. We will have to make an adaptation of the internal contracting system for the people that respond to the new policy, and I hope that by the start of 2023 we will have published the road map that people have been asking for.

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