by Charles Lemos, Tue Jun 01, 2010 at 12:26:19 AM EDT
If you've heard of the Putumayo, it's likely because you listen to world music and thus familiar with the Putumayo record label that is named after the isolated, rugged and jungle covered Colombian province on the Ecuadorian border. Otherwise, the Putumayo rarely makes news. It is a forgotten province though it is at the epicenter of the world drug trade. On Sunday, Putumayo did something no other Colombian province did, it voted for Antanas Mockus, the Green party candidate. Not only that, but in second place came Gustavo Petro, the candidate of the leftist Polo Democrático Alternativo. Juan Manuel Santos finished a distant third.
So why did Putumayo go green while the rest of the country succumbed to an orange, orange being the colour of the Santos campaign, landslide? Well as Carlos Hernán Castro, a Colombian political analyst noted in Semana, no other region of the country has so adversely affected by Uribe's economic policies. The Putumayo is an area rich in natural resources. It borders Ecuador's oil producing region and the area has ample oil resources which the Uribe government has begun to open up to foreign investment. Given the environmental disaster next door in Ecuador's Lago Agrio region, the inhabitants of the Putumayo are hardly enthusiastic about the prospects of having oil and logging companies drive them off their land. For the myriad people of the Putumayo, outsiders generally mean trouble.
And while Uribe's "Seguridad Democrática" policies have made road travel safe throughout the Putumayo, the only real investment in area has been in the military installations. Hospitals, clinics, schools remain on the do list. Nearly a decade after Plan Colombia began in Putumayo, even the main road between its capital, Mocoa, and its largest city, Puerto Asís – a stretch of less than 100 miles – has not been paved.
But there's another reason for a Green Putumayo and that's a direct result of the $1.3 billion US drug eradication programme that is part of an overall $7 billion in mostly military aid. It's called Plan Colombia but in terms of the so called war on drugs, it's really Plan Putumayo. Since 2001, Colombian army and police aircraft have begun spraying US supplied herbicides, Monsanto's glyphosate-based industrial strength Roundup Ultra (a 26% concentration of glyphosate, compared to 1% as recommended in the US for weed control in crops), on small farms in western Putumayo, an area that accounts for about half the country's coca production. In the United States the glyphosate-based herbicides are sold with warning labels advising users to "not apply this product in a way that will contact workers or other persons, either directly or through drift," but in the Putumayo it has been sprayed indiscriminately killing all crops -not just coca- and even livestock. Perhaps a third of the province has been subjected to the intense aerial fumigation now going on a decade. No other region of the country has been so bombarded and yet the results are meager. Perhaps fleeting is a better word. While aerial fumigation programme had early successes between 2001 and 2005 halving the number of hectares under production to just 4,400, by 2007 area under cultivation had again topped 9,000 hectares. Moreover, the intense focus on the Putumayo simply spread coca production to other parts of Colombia. Putumayo is still the largest coca growing area in Colombia but neighboring Nariño and Caquetá have caught up.
Lisa Haugaard, executive director of the Washington-based Latin American Working Group (LAWG) finds that "at best, fumigation has caused a temporary dip in coca cultivation levels in Colombia, but the fact remains that fumigation has failed at its main goal – reducing cocaine availability and use here at home – and has devastated small Colombian farming communities in the process. The entire policy needs to be reconsidered."
The human toll has been harder to measure but even the US State Department that the spraying has had an adverse health effect on thousands of people in the Putumayo. A 2007 study of Ecuadorians living on the border found that those exposed to glyosphate-based herbicides suffered a variety of ailments immediately following the spraying, including intestinal pain and vomiting, diarrhoea, headaches, dizziness, numbness, burning of eyes or skin, blurred vision, difficulty in breathing and rashes. But it is not just humans suffering. Colombia's rich biodiversity is being impacted beyond repair. While the government has been quick to blame the environmental damage on coca production itself, the reality is that for the average campesino in the Putumayo it's the aerial fumigation that is the cause of so much misery and destruction.
On Sunday, the Putumayo voted Green really as cry for help. Putumayans want an end to aerial spraying and they certainly don't want their lands sold off to international conglomerates.