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Coca, Petroleum and Conflict in Cofán Territory
mapa bajo putumayo

Spraying, displacement and economic interests

By examining the recent history of the Cofán people, this paper shows how, under the guise of the war on drugs and terror, the way is being cleared for major economic interests in the Lower Putumayo. Paramilitary groups have been the principal ally of large investors, corporations and public forces, and are just as active in 2007 as they were before they were demobilised. This paper specifically examines the impact of coca cultivation, petroleum activity and the armed conflict in Cofán territory on this ancestral community.
The Cofán people’s ancestral territory is located in the tropical forest between Ecuador and Colombia, near the major rivers that flow from the Andes mountains to the Amazon basin. About 1,000 Cofán live in Colombia, most of them in 11 communities in the municipalities of San Miguel, Valle del Guamuez and Orito, in the department of Putumayo. Their territory, culture and survival are seriously threatened by dynamics associated with the drugs trade, the armed conflict and large mega-projects being developed in their territory.

Since 1999, many members of Cofán communities have been displaced because of frequent incursions into indigenous territory, selective assassinations, disappearances, forced recruitment, accusations, lawsuits, sexual abuse, destruction of property and the destruction of legal crops by aerial spraying. This displacement is not only the result of armed actions by the various factions fighting in the area; it must also be seen as the outcome of a strategy for expropriating lands that are part of the Cofán’s ancestral territory1

Cofán communities in the Bajo Putumayo region

comunidades cofan en el bajo putumayo

Source: Plan de vida del pueblo Cofán (2000) 


For thousands of years, the Cofán have used yagé2, and there is no generalised consumption of coca leaves in their communities. The main coca crops began to appear in the 1970s, with the colonisation of territory linked to petroleum interests. Many work contracts in the petroleum sector were temporary, and workers sought alternative sources of income, including coca cultivation.
In the Life Plan of the Cofán People (2002),3 the Cofán recognise that there are coca fields in their reserves. Because of the lack of arable land, markets and transportation infrastructure, coca has been one of the few alternatives for subsistence. In 1999, before aerial spraying began, there were 427 hectares of coca in the entire Cofán territory, out of 66,000 hectares dedicated to coca production at the time in the Putumayo region, mainly in the Lower Putumayo.
Between 2000 and 2004, 143,771 hectares of coca were sprayed in the Putumayo region. At the end of 2004, only 4,400 hectares were left in the department. Between 2005 and 2006, there was a sharp increase to 12,000 hectares. Ironically, this period coincided with the Patriot Plan and the change in the focus of the government’s military strategy. The border between Ecuador and Colombia, part of which is Cofán territory, is one of the zones with the largest area of coca crops.
There was still coca in Cofán reserves in 2007. With a lack of viable economic alternatives, coca remained lucrative for the Cofán. Some of the fields where coca had been sprayed or eradicated were replanted, while in other cases the crops were moved to other fields in the reserves. Nevertheless, most of the coca in the reserves belongs not to the Cofán, but to colonists who have purchased plots of land in Cofán territory or planted coca illegally.

According to the Cofán, the introduction of coca has greatly changed their culture and systems of production in their communities. Dependence on cash has resulted in a decrease in food crops and has led to a “white man’s” mentality of materialism and individualism. The arrival of illicit crops has also increased colonisation by outsiders in their territory and has destroyed much of the forest reserve. The herbicides used for weed control in coca fields and the chemicals used to produce cocaine base and cocaine chloride, which run off into rivers, have had a negative impact on human health, fauna and water quality. Along with coca and drug trafficking came the insurgency and paramilitary groups that partly fund their activities with trade in coca and cocaine base. This has led to an intense war on drugs in the area.


Manual eradication, aerial spraying and the perverse effects of “development assistance”
On 22 December 2000, aerial spraying with glyphosate over Cofán communities began as part of Plan Colombia. This strategy has continued with occasional pauses, and has been combined with forced manual eradication.
There have been many complaints about the aerial spraying because of its negative impact on human health, the destruction of legal crops, especially gardens of medicinal plants, the pollution of water sources and the killing of fish and wildlife. Paradoxically, coca is one of the crops most resistant to aerial spraying, which means that while the herbicide has destroyed food crops, coca can be harvested three or four months after being sprayed.
Thanks to many public complaints by national and international human rights organisations, in December 2005 the Colombian government signed an agreement with Ecuador to stop aerial spraying within 10 kilometres of the border. But a year later, on 11 December 2006, the Colombian government decided to resume widespread spraying in this area. According to colonists in the area, during these operations the people doing the eradication committed abuses against local residents, including raping women and girls, and the presence of supposedly demobilised paramilitaries from the Central Bolívar Block was noted. But there is no record of formal complaints from those affected, which could be due to fear or to a lack of confidence that filing a complaint will result in a response by Colombian Attorney General’s Office leading to justice or reparation of damages.
All of the farmers have refused to file complaints about the spraying, as allowed under National Police Anti-Drug Office procedures, because everyone knows that in the past the effort has been in vain. In the past, when complaints about spraying were filed, even though they were investigated and all procedures were followed, the cases ended up being thrown out.
— César Andrés Chapal Legarda, municipal representative from Puerto Asís, 15 February 2007
Aerial spraying under Plan Colombia has destroyed food crops, while militarisation has exacerbated the conflict in the region, leading to loss of life and large-scale displacement of the population. Funds for social investment and alternative development have not served to reinforce grassroots processes; rather, they have created divisions within communities and organisations. As part of Plan Colombia, for example, the US Agency for International Development (USAID) has transferred millions of dollars to local organisations and indigenous and peasant farming communities4 for institution building, alternative development and emergency assistance. But because there has been no direct monitoring of these investments, instead of mitigating the effects of military intervention, the funds have indirectly created divisions and conflicts within the communities and the various organisations representing them. Differing political opinions about Plan Colombia have also aggravated differences among organisations and communities, especially between those that have accepted money and those that have not.


Coca production in 2006 in the Bajo Putumayo region 


Source: United nations Office on Drugs and Crime (2007)


The increased presence of state security forces as part of Plan Colombia, on the pretext of fighting drugs and terrorism, has also served the economic interests of the petroleum sector. To reactivate exploration and the quest for petroleum, we have deployed a brigade of 4,300 men in Putumayo (…) to safeguard petroleum infrastructure and storage facilities, wells and the pipeline (President Álvaro Uribe Vélez, 18 June 2005).
The oil giant Texaco began exploration in the region in 1964 in the municipalities of La Hormiga, Valle del Guamuez and San Miguel, which are also located in ancestral Cofán territory. The largest well in southern Colombia, which has been in production since 1968, is in Orito. It was operated first by Texaco and later by Ecopetrol. Besides various wells, in Putumayo there are four major pipelines, several of which connect with Ecuador and the port of Tumaco on the Pacific Coast.
After 2000, there was a decrease in petroleum production in Colombia. But in 2004, the Uribe government reactivated production with the creation of the National Hydrocarbon Agency. This agency changed regulations, decreased the role of the national company Ecopetrol, and offered highly favourable economic terms for foreign companies. Besides the contractual modifications, the new royalty structure also favours petroleum companies.
These changes in the petroleum sector led to the signing of many contracts for hydrocarbon exploration and technical studies in 2004 and 2005. These include the return of the company Operaciones Petroleras Andinas (OPA) to the Coatí lot, an area of approximately 28,000 hectares that crosses the Cofán communities of Afilador and Yarinal, and the communities of San Marcelino (Kichwa) and Monterrey (Awa). OPA, a Colombian company, will remain in the area for at least three years and will invest US$18.7 million.5 The company held no prior consultation with the indigenous communities, claiming that the work it was reinitiating had begun before the passage of Law 99 in 1993.6
When paramilitaries from the United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia, AUC) arrived in Putumayo, according to testimony from some of the paramilitaries themselves, one of their objectives was to facilitate the development of resources by transnational companies.7 One specific case that reveals the role of paramilitaries in defending economic interests in the area is that of an armed paramilitary incursion on 18 October 2005 in the community of San Marcelino, which is overlapped by the Coatí petroleum lot. The paramilitaries made threats and ransacked local government offices, took six indigenous people captive and forced 11 families to flee.8 A few weeks later, state security forces arrived to take control of the area, and in December of that year OPA began exploration.
Most Cofán settlements are located in or near petroleum exploration or production camps, many of which operate under contracts that have been signed since 2004. The 569,000-hectare Alea lot, for which a contract was signed with Repsol and Chaco in December 2004, overlaps ancestral lands of the Cofán and is very near some Cofán reserves. Ecopetrol’s exploration and production camps, including the Western Area, Southern Area and Churuco lot, border or overlap several Cofán reserves. Like coca, petroleum exploration has multiple impacts on the communities. According to members of several communities, the petroleum companies’ work has led to the appearance of diseases such as cancer, anaemia, diarrhoea, nausea, skin diseases, eye problems and respiratory illnesses. In addition, petroleum production, as currently done:
• Has resulted in a breakdown in political and social organisation because the flow of cash creates divisions among community members.


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