At the root of the cocaine epidemic
Mike Power witnesses the pointlessness of cocaine eradication as he joins Colombia’s coca bush uprooters
The 300 arrancadores - literally, 'uprooters' - set off from the jungle camp before sunrise. Thirty or so Colombian soldiers, carrying sub-machine guns and grenades, cover their backs. The men have a long slog ahead of them through dense jungle.
We walk for nearly four hours - past deadly snakes and spiders, and destroyed guerilla encampments - before the men at the front of the column break into a clearing high in the Sierra de San Lucas and the cry goes up: 'La coca!' Now the back-breaking work must begin.
I watch as the men, working with spades, begin to strip the one hectare field of coca bushes. In this plantation alone there are thousands of the green bushes that have played a pivotal role in the country's bloody 40-year civil war.
The UN says Colombia supplies 60 per cent of the world's cocaine - 600 tonnes annually. The main players are the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or Farc, the leftist peasant army which has attracted global attention for its high-profile kidnappings.
But the remnants of the far-right paramilitary groups formed to protect farmers from Farc land-grabs are also involved: these demobilised paras trade cocaine by the tonne.
Until recently, the government's favoured method of tackling the coca plantations - always found at high altitude and impossible to access by road - was aerial fumigation. But the tactic has proved controversial and at times ineffective. Pilots have to find the fields in vast expanses of jungle, and neighbouring countries complain when drifting clouds of herbicide damage legitimate crops. Last Monday in The Hague, Ecuador began a lawsuit against Colombia, claiming damages for crops destroyed by fumigation.
Colombia has refused to halt its aerial assault, but in an attempt to do more to improve its image - and to create jobs - it has pledged to pull up 100,000 hectares of coca by hand this year. Hence the arrancadores and their army guards.
It's risky work. Some coca farmers plant bombs alongside the plants; six arrancadores were killed last year by a mine and 13 soldiers guarding the workers were shot by Farc guerillas. A fortnight ago, Farc fighters based across the border in Ecuador fired rudimentary bombs made of domestic gas tanks at arrancadores operating in border country.
The 300 men I have travelled with take about two hours to strip bare the one hectare field. It is a Sisyphean task - and they know it as well as the farmers who will replant the field as soon as they're gone. "I hope they plant more," one of the arrancadores tells me. "More work for us, isn't it?"
In the nearby town of Pueblo Lindo a coca farmer called Manuel tells me: "I'll plant it again soon. What else can I do? The government isn't offering us any support, no money, no training, no roads. And nothing pays like this bush."
The coca bush can produce leaves in only three months - there is no legal crop like it. And the crude cocaine paste sells for $1,500 per kilo to the disbanded paras.
Until coca ceases to be profitable and a new approach is taken in countries that buy the cocaine, says Vicente Torrijos, a security analyst at Bogota's Rosario University, destroying coca by any means will only ever be a half-measure. "Eradication is an exercise in restraint of problem-limitation," he said.