She packs up the last of the pantry, putting pots, pans, cups and plantains into large sacks and tying off the ends. All that remains are the chickens and the turkeys. She rounds up the birds and places them, flapping and clucking, into their own sacks for the journey. She steals one more look at the empty kitchen. Is it merely one final glance, making sure she’s not leaving anything behind? Or is it a hint of a distant memory, thinking back to a time when her husband and four children gathered around this table in the warm Colombian evenings for dinner?
Outside the farmhouse, Olga helps load the last of the bags onto the waiting mules. We have our cameras rolling, trying to capture the weight of this moment. After the mules are ready and Olga prepares to leave her home for the last time, we ask what emotions she’s feeling. Her eyes water. “It’s hard, very hard to leave. This is our home.”
The reasons for this exodus are evident as we leave the farm with Olga and the mules. On the hill to our left is a yellowed field of brittle plants. This once was a yucca crop, grown to feed the family. On the top of the hill to our right is another dead field of the chocolate-producing cacao plant. This was the crop that Olga and her husband, Abelardo, cultivated for profit. This was their livelihood. Now it’s useless. The family can no longer sustain itself or grow crops to take to market. They must go to the city in search of a new life.
We leave the farm with dead crops on the hills to our left and our right. But on the hill in front of us, in between these brown fields, rests a vibrant patch of lime green. Even now, we see workers in the field, going about their work. This field belongs to neighboring farmers, who resorted to growing coca as a means to provide for their families. It was this field, and others like it in the area, that drew the attention of Blackhawk helicopters and crop-dusting airplanes. They have flown overhead twice in the last five months, fumigating the region in an effort to halt the cultivation of coca. But the coca fields live on, while the food crops around us wither and die.
This is a direct result of Plan Colombia, a U.S. policy put into effect 10 years ago to combat narco-terrorism. The idea is to attack the heart of the drug problem—eradicate the coca fields in Colombia and there will be less cocaine in our city streets here in the U.S. Since inception, this policy has cost U.S. taxpayers around $7 billion. Has this anti-drug method, with the majority of this money going to strengthening the Colombian military, been effective in eliminating the supply of cocaine?
According to analysis from policy experts, no. The street price of cocaine has remained steady, indicating that there’s still adequate supply to meet the demand. And although a number of hectares of coca have been eradicated in Colombia, many farmers are pushing deeper into the jungles, leading to deforestation. Other farmers are honing their craft, learning how to harvest a higher yield on smaller parcels of land.
We’ve visited coca fields mere hours after they had been fumigated. The farmers brought in some extra hands and picked the sprayed leaves, telling us they had at least three days before the leaves would die. They were able to completely harvest their crop, convert it to coca paste and sell it to a buyer without losing a single leaf. We saw the same field about six weeks later, as healthy as can be, starting to sprout new leaves. The coca survived the attempted eradication; the food crops did not. They say it may be years, if ever, that a fruit-bearing crop can once again yield plants in soil that has been subjected to so many rounds of fumigation.
This method of aerial fumigation doesn’t consider the health and environmental impacts of the herbicide. The chemical, glyphosate, is sprayed over entire regions, trickling into streams and rivers, polluting water sources and damaging a very diverse ecosystem. Many of the farmers who come in contact with the chemical report health problems such as severe skin irritation. Also, many smaller animals, like chickens, have been killed by the herbicide.
More so than the amount of money dedicated to this program, however, is the direct negative impact this policy has on the lives of Colombian farmers.
In the face of such a complicated issue, what can be done? Let’s go back to Olga, packing up the belongings of her family and moving to the city. They find a one-room shack, without electricity, without running water. Abelardo, Olga, their four (soon to be five) children and a close family friend all move in. Abelardo finds a construction job, working 12 hours a night, seven nights a week, building a tunnel many meters underground for very little pay. This is their life now.
Abelardo and Olga. Their story is not unique. They are two of the more than 3 million displaced people in Colombia. But what makes them special is the fact that you now know their name. That’s a powerful thing.
Caleb Collier recently got back from a three-month stint working with Give Us Names, an organization working to tell the story of Abelardo and Olga to the world. They’ll hopefully be launching a film by year’s end that tells this story and looks at alternatives to current drug policy. Visit GiveUsNames.com for more information.