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New approach for rooting out drugs

"Do we want to grow drugs or do we want to continue being Indians?"

That is the question that anthropologist Carlos César Perafán-Simmonds is hoping that indigenous people in Colombia will pose to themselves as they confront the issue of what to do about illicit crops grown on their land. For while coca, marijuana and opium poppies earn high returns, their cultivation also erodes the traditional values and ways of life of indigenous communities.

Speaking at a recent seminar at the IDB's Washington, D.C., headquarters Perafán-Simmonds described how the traditional culture of indigenous peoples--their world view and struggle to maintain their identity--suggests an approach for eliminating these crops without resorting either to draconian measures or costly schemes such as crop substitution or outright payments. His talk was based on a study carried out as part of an IDB-financed project to support communities that have eradicated illicit crops in Colombia.

An estimated 17 percent of illicit crops in that country are grown in legally constituted indigenous reserves. A larger but less well defined portion is grown in indigenous areas that have not been legalized.

Unlike in Bolivia and Peru, the growing of coca leaves (the raw ingredient in cocaine) is not a part of the cultural heritage for most of Colombia's indigenous people. In fact, in many areas, the illicit crops are not even grown by indigenous communities themselves, but rather by colonists who invade their territories, upsetting the traditional economy and system of political authority.

Overall, an estimated 41 percent of the country's 638,600 indigenous people, or nearly two-thirds of indigenous communities, are to some degree affected by illicit crops.

In designing eradication programs, says Perafán-Simmonds, planners must understand that indigenous peoples in many cases see links between events in terms of a metonymic logical framework, in which a present event is associated with past events without the necessity of a causal relationship. Change the prior events--what he calls "nodes"--and it will be much easier to convince the people to eradicate the illicit crops. His field work turned up a number of these nodes that have implications for the design of future projects. One was the 1990 elimination of low-interest financing for the production of market crops. When the financing ended, many communities had accumulated debts they could not pay, opening a space for the drug traffickers to offer their own financing for illicit crops. The proposed project would support priority programs to strengthen traditional community economies.

Other proposed projects would protect the territorial integrity of indigenous lands, either through demarcation and enforcement, or by settling colonists elsewhere. Another project would subsidize river transport, because profits from legitimate crops are insufficient to purchase motors and fuel.

Still, profits from illicit crops are much higher than from whatever could substitute them. Is this a problem? Not necessarily, says Perafán-Simmonds. Because traditional norms put a limit on accumulation, much of the profits from illicit crop sales go to excessive consumption of food, drink and parties instead of being used to capitalize the economy. Therefore, new crops need not generate such profits, so long as the new earnings are used for savings and investment, specifically with the object of developing the economies and identities of indigenous communities rather than contributing to their erosion.

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