Colombia

Colombia offers to buy coca crops from peasants

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BOGOTA, Colombia, July 24 (Reuters) - The Colombian government has offered to buy illegal drug crops from peasants in an effort to break the cocaine trade's stranglehold on violent rural areas.

"We are going to offer ... to pay peasants who have coca to bring in," President Alvaro Uribe, speaking in the town of Villavicencio, in steamy lowlands 40 miles (70 km) southeast of Bogota, said on Saturday.

Uribe did not say how much the government would pay farmers to get out of the coca business. Peasants currently can get about $800 for 2.2 pounds (1 kg) of coca paste, which is made from coca leaves, from Marxist guerrillas in some parts of the country.

The offer came as the government's massive, U.S.-funded program of spraying crops of coca, a leafy bush used to make cocaine, makes slow progress against the illegal trade.

U.S. satellite data earlier this year showed the size of the area planted with coca stayed stable throughout 2004, although it was still down a third from 2001 at the beginning of a $3 billion-plus anti-drug campaign funded by Washington.

The problem seems to be that peasants with few other ways of making a living are replanting as quickly as their crops are sprayed. Colombia's cocaine trade, the world's largest, also funds illegal armies fighting in the country's 41-year-old guerrilla war.

Uribe promised peasants handing in coca would be protected and their identities kept secret. Marxist rebels or far-right paramilitaries often kill growers who refuse to sell to them.

But the government's offer will not only have to overcome fear in order to work. Uribe said growers who sell to the government will have to promise not to plant more coca, which would force them to switch to less profitable crops.

Uribe did not say what the government would do with the coca it bought but it routinely burns seized narcotics.

Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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