Monday, April 17, 2006

Colombian coca cultivation greater than U.S. knew

It's an old media rule, "If the news is bad, release it on Friday." People don't pay as much attention to the news on Saturday as they do the rest of the week. So on Friday, April 14, the U.S. government released its estimate of coca cultivation in Colombia last year. They found 38,6000 hectares of coca growing in regions of Colombia where they never looked before.

Coca growing in the area where they looked previously, and sprayed herbicide, had gone down by 8 percent, a total of 8,700 hectares.

The U.S. has been fighting coca cultivation in Colombia for almost twenty-five years. I toured American-supported drug eradication in Colombia in August 1983. America is spending hundreds of millions of dollars a year on a small fleet of aircraft (about 100 planes and helicopters) to eradicate the coca fields with herbicides. The U.S. State Department has been reporting annally for years on the extent of coca cultivation and on American efforts to destroy it. Reporting in 1999, for example, the State Department reported Colombian coca cultivation,

In 1998, these crops were estimated to be 101,800 hectares and 6,100 hectares respectively. In 1999 there were estimated to be 122,500 hectares of coca and 7,500 hectares of poppy.
The logical first step in an eradication and reportin program is to locate where coca is grown. You can't destroy it if you haven't found it. You can't report on it accurately if you haven't adequately canvassed the areas where it can be grown.

The most recent report is that in 2005, 144,000 hectares of coca were grown!

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It has been attributed to H.L. Mencken that,
No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence [or taste] of the American people. (Bartlett's Familiar Quotations, 15th ed., 1980, p. 772)
I am sure that there are wits who have written corollaries to the effect that "The bureaucracy is even dumber than you feared." We would assume, for example, that with decades spending hundreds of millions of dollars per year, the U.S. government would have made locating the extant coca fields not only a first step, but a continuing part of the process. Our assumption would have been wrong -- until last year.

ONDCP now reports,
In an effort to improve the accuracy and comprehensiveness of the estimate, this year's survey expanded by 81 percent the size of the landmass that was imaged and sampled for coca cultivation.

Think about this. Enough of Colombia was not already being examined for coca cultivation that they could increase the area in which they were looking for coca by 81 percent. Can we assume that they still are not looking at the entire nation?

As a result the U.S. found 38,600 hectares of coca being cultivated that they never knew about in areas in which they had never been looking. This amounted to 26.8% of all the coca that was cultivated. If this is at all typical, it suggests that perhaps for years the U.S. was underestimating the amount of coca being grown by about a quarter, and overestimating its success in eradicating coca by similar amounts.

I feel so naive. I continue to be shocked that the oversight of the program has been so inept. In Congress, at the White House, in the agencies, no one manages the anti-drug programs properly. No one in charge really cares.

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The U.S. government insists that this is good policy. Yet they note,

The effect of the coca eradication program was to reduce the amount of production in traditional growing areas and force producers, which include illegal armed groups such as the FARC, to more isolated fields where expenses associated with transportation and start-up increase the production cost and reduce potential profit.
These "more isolated fields" are parts of the Amazon watershed! The result of the U.S. coca eradication program is to increase the destruction of rain forest that helps moderate the global climate.

Growers of coca and opium, over the past 20 years, have destroyed 2.3 million hectares of rainforest to create new fields for cultivation in fleeing from law enforcement efforts, according to a 2002 briefing by Rand Beers, then assistant secretary of state for international narcotics and law enforcement affairs.

This deforestation can lead to drought in the U.S.!

The State Department posts on its website the evidene that their policies are leading to environmental trouble, but no one in Congress is challenging them.

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