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The United States needs to rethink its drug war in Colombia. Opposition is rising -- at home and abroad -- to the U.S. approach, which relies on aerial spraying and the use of trained Colombian military troops to destroy coca and opium poppy crops on the ground. But without new protections for peasants and farmers, Washington will be drawn deeper into a bloody guerrilla war even as Colombia's own government loses legitimacy.
Critics don't oppose the goal of eradication itself. What they oppose is the method -- mass spraying of chemicals, which farmers, environmentalists and a growing number of politicians blame for a host of problems, from spoiling the land to damaging public health.
The United Nations' drug czar in Colombia has called the U.S. strategy "neither fair nor effective," and proposed international monitoring to gauge the spraying's long-term effect on people and legitimate crops. Last week, a Bogota judge ordered "the immediate suspension of the entire fumigation project"; he, too, wants definitive answers on the effect of glyphosate, a weed killer found in Roundup. The administration of Colombian President Andres Pastrana has said spraying will continue, at least outside native Indian lands. But governors and local politicians in the drug-producing regions are calling for the practice to end. Some members of the U.S. Congress want to use the controversy to place limits on American involvement there.
The selling point behind Plan Colombia, as the $1.3-billion U.S. assistance program is called, was that spraying would be part of a comprehensive plan to encourage growers to plant legitimate crops. But the Colombian government has not adequately followed through in helping farmers make the transition. And the growing reliance on spraying has raised doubts about whether Colombia is interested in fighting drugs and legalizing its agricultural base, or in denying leftist rebels of a cash crop that is financing their campaign of terror.
U.S. officials have expressed their intent to broaden military training under Plan Colombia. This comes as the first U.S. Blackhawk helicopters arrive to ferry Colombian troops on drug raids in rebel-held territory. With the stakes rising, Washington needs to encourage Colombia to confront the root of the problem -- poverty. The government needs to invest in social and economic programs to give farmers a viable alternative to growing coca and poppy as cash crops.
The U.N. representative, Klaus Nyholm, deserves credit for injecting common sense into the drug-war debate. Supplying more aid to farmers, improving the local economic infrastructure and providing better access to markets are among the first steps Colombia should take to demilitarize its drug policy. If the rebels are serious about weaning their economy away from drugs -- as they claim -- the government should call their hand. Soldiers and spraying alone won't eradicate the drug trade or improve the economic picture for ordinary Colombians caught in the middle.
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