Scarlet flower poisons a culture Poppy: Indians in the Andes Mountains of Colombia try to shake off their dependence on a cash crop that threatens to destroy them.

Sun Journal

October 26, 1998|By Kirk Semple | Kirk Semple,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

PITAYO, Colombia -- Eight people were murdered last year in this small mountain village of Paez Indians; at least six of the deaths are blamed on a flower.

Townspeople also tell of the advent of prostitution and the rape of more than a dozen girls, all in the past few years. Same cause: "la flor."

So it has gone since the beginning of the decade when this reservation of 5,200 residents, wedged high in the Andes of southwest Colombia, saw the arrival of the opium poppy -- the source of heroin -- and with it the disintegration of a community.

It is a disturbing irony that the scarlet-blossom poppy is such an impossibly beautiful plant. For generations, certain varieties were used to decorate houses here, and to make balms against pain.

But then intermediaries for narco-traffickers showed the Paez farmers how they could double, triple, even quadruple their meager monthly incomes by sprinkling a special -- and illegal -- kind of poppy seed among their corn and other crops. When it was time to harvest the bulbs, someone would come around and exchange the plants for money.

Suddenly a barter economy was flooded with cash. A rise in alcoholism followed, and firearms proliferated. Most of the town's recent murders are said to stem from alcohol-fueled arguments over poppy deals. Consumerism took hold. Bicycles, then motorcycles, began to replace donkeys and horses on the village's dirt roads. Edible crops disappeared, as did self-sufficiency.

And the reservation suffered a collapse of familial and political authority. "There was a loss of authority in the father, a loss of authority in the school; it was a total loss of social control," said Masedonio Perdomo, a primary-school teacher.

The new money also accelerated the disappearance of the Paez culture. Years earlier, the villagers had thrown off their ponchos and wide-brimmed hats for American-style T-shirts and baseball caps. Youngsters no longer learned the language and history of the Paez, said Perdomo, who has started a program to replant a Paez curriculum in the local schools.

"There was a loss of pride, a loss of Paez culture," said Maria Lastenia Pito, vice governor of the reservation's governing council. "The whole community was falling apart."

Return to potatoes

Pito, a weaver and founder of a cooperative of female artisans, had seen some of her colleagues abandon their crafts for the easy money of poppy. She wasn't about to watch her entire community go, too, so she launched a campaign to eradicate the plant.

A year ago, in cooperation with a government agency, the farmers agreed to wipe out their 865 acres of poppy and return to traditional, legal crops such as potatoes, corn, wheat and onions. In return, the government promised to provide more than $200,000 to support community projects and the renaissance of Pitayo.

A year later, it is not so much anger or frustration that emerges in Pito's voice; it is concern.

Pitayo has yet to receive nearly half of the promised funding, she said, so planned community-development projects have stalled. Worse, by her estimate, as many as 50 percent of the farmers are growing poppy again. (Government officials reply that the town has known all along that the money would be paid in stages, and that the remaining money will reach Pitayo soon. As for the recidivism rate, the officials contend that it is closer to 15 percent.)

The misunderstandings come at a significant moment in the international battle against cultivation of illicit crops in Colombia, the source of as much as 75 percent of the U.S. cocaine supply and 70 percent of its heroin.

In August, the U.S. government agreed to finance programs that help coca and poppy growers switch to legal crops.

Development or fumigation

That is "an important step forward," said Juan Carlos Palou, past director of Plante, the government agency that is sponsoring the eradication program in Pitayo. He argues that alternative development is the most effective approach for small farmers, who account for about half the coca and opium poppy production in Colombia.

Military-assisted aerial fumigation, a cornerstone of the U.S. anti-narcotics efforts here, only tends to make the peasants more intractable, he asserts, even compelling some to seek protection from guerrillas, who have been at war against the government for more than three decades.

Pitayo is the second community to decide to rid itself of its illicit crops. The other is Guambia, a neighboring Indian reservation. Though separated by culture, language and a mountain ridge, the two indigenous communities shared the corrosive experience of "la flor."

On its face, Guambia appears to have preserved its traditions better than Pitayo. Nearly the entire population dresses in traditional, brightly colored Guambiano clothing, with its striking, iris-colored cloth that the women wear as shawls and the men as skirts. A thin-brimmed derby hat -- inherited from Spanish colonists -- tops all outfits.

Eradication and recidivism

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