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Thursday 4 November 1999


U.S. accused of creating blight,
Killing coca plants and harming other crops


By Eric J. Lyman
Special to the San Francisco Chronicle

UCHIZA, Peru -- Standing on the edge of the dying 10-acre plot of land where he lives, coca farmer Felipe Vargas kicked the bone dry earth, raising a small cloud of dust from the land he said would produce enough to feed his family for months.

 Less than two years ago, Vargas' small farm an estimated 100,000 acres in the surrounding Huallaga Valley was lush and green with coca material used for cocaine.

 But most of the plants have shriveled and died, victims of a fungus sweeping the area a blight many observers say may have been sparked by U.S. antidrug programs.

 Critics charge that the coca killing fungus has also mutated and is killing many traditional crops, including bananas, cacao, coffee, corn, lemon grass, papaya and yucca. The U.S. government denies any connection to the fungus, arguing that the problems stem from antiquated farming methods and naturally occurring parasites.

 Whatever its origins, the situation is a new twist in the decades long standoff between coca eradication and survival for the farmers in this Amazon jungle valley, which is the size of New Jersey.

 Farmers are reluctant to abandon mature coca plants to make room for other crops that may be killed by the fungus before yielding fruit.

 "I may be able to harvest a small amount of coca from the land thi year, and that will at least be a little help," said Vargas, 37, one of an estimated 2,500 coca farmers in the valley.

 "If I pulled up my last few coca plants to plant coffee or cacao, I wouldn't have anything to sell for two or three years or more, even if the new plants survived."

 Though the blight, known as seca seca (Spanish for "dry, dry") has helped curb coca production in the Huallaga Valley along with legal eradication efforts like alternative crop development the area remains the world's largest coca producing region. The valley produces about 125,000 tons of raw coca a year, one fifth of all coca produced worldwide.

 The coca is made into a compact coca paste and smuggled to Colombia to be made into cocaine. The traffic pumped an illicit $445 million into Peru's economy last year, the equivalent of nearly 1 percent of the country's gross domestic product.

 About 5 percent of coca production is legal in Peru, where the broad leaf has some industrial uses and is also central to many Andean ceremonies. A blight that attacks both legal coca and mainstream agricultural crops is a recipe for disaster in a region that has already been punished over the past decade by the Shining Path rebel movement and extreme poverty.

 It is extremely difficult to pinpoint the root causes of the fungus. But Juan Reymundo Navarro, a neighbor of Vargas' and the mayor of Uchiza, a village in the heart of the Huallaga, claims to have seen U.S. owned helicopters spreading a powder that he says causes seca seca.

 Eloy Molpartido Ayola, president of the Huallaga coca growers association, said he has little doubt the United States is behind the spread of the fungus. The association has started the process of filing an injunction to prohibit the spraying, he said.

 The U.S. government has said they want to eliminate coca in this area," Molpartido said. "Why would they care if a few farmers can no longer make a living if that helps their goals?"

 But U.S. government officials insist that charges that they are connected in some way to the fungus are groundless. A senior level U.S. antinarcotics official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said stories blaming the United States for the blight were invented by coca farmers upset that Peru's anticoca laws are finally being enforced.

 The U.S. Embassy in Lima has even produced a glossy fact sheet detailing the characteristics of Fusarium oxysporum the scientific name for seca seca and the United States' reasons for not employing the fungus.

 "This story surfaces whenever the situation starts to get difficult for the coca farmers," the official said. "But the facts are that the fungus is spread by the use of infected seeds and by other natural means. There is absolutely no effort by the United States government or its agents to spread the fungus."

 According to the official, the United States' anti coca strategy in Peru, which costs around $100 million a year, is based on economics: driving down the price by limiting buyers. That strategy involves controlling access to the coca producing areas through air and river patrols. When the price gets low enough, the official said, traditional crops become more attractive.

 Although eradication efforts and the fungus together have reduced the cultivated acres in the valley to 57,750 acres last year from 117,250 four years ago, the effect on coca prices has so far been mixed.

 The price for coca is now between $25 and $36 per 25-pound bag, depending on the zone, according to Hugo Cabieses, an agroeconomist specializing in Amazon-related issues.

 That's up from $4.60 four years ago but far lower than the all time high of $58.50 per bag in 1994. No legal crop is competitive economically if coca sells for more than about $13 per bag, experts say.

 "It's difficult to eradicate coca with a strategy based purely on lowering the price, because as the supply drops, the prices are driven higher," Cabieses said. "Few farmers are willing to pull up coca plants if there's a chance the crop may rise in value again. Obviously, the U.S. needs another aspect to its strategy."

 Nonetheless, U.S. officials call the past three years the most successful in antinarcotics history in Peru.

 "The program in Peru is the most effective in Latin America, and we are very proud of that," said an anti narcotics official. "To be honest, we don't spray fungal agents because the Peruvian government doesn't want us to. If they'd give us permission, we'd probably do it. But we are not going to do something illegal."

 Independent observers, however, aren't so sure. Many say there is a possibility that the bug that causes seca seca is spread either by the U.S. government or by Peruvians working for it.

 "I've talked to all sides involved, and I can't discount the possibility that U.S. forces are involved," said Roger Rumrrill, the author of two dozen books on Amazon affairs and an expert on coca related issues. "The problem is that there's no proof aside from accounts from farmers. It's a very difficult thing to prove either way."

 Cabieses agreed. "The main point is that there is a fungus that is affecting all agriculture in the area, and it should be in the interest of the Peruvian and U.S. governments to learn how to stop it, since it affects their official goals for the area," he said. "(Peru's) Congress should really vote to fund an investigation into the cause of the seca seca. It is suspicious in itself that nobody is looking into it."

 Copyright 1999 San Francisco Chronicle


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