From Coca to Cocaine in Indigenous Amazonia

Many Amazonian Indians, similar to their Andean counterparts, have shifted the status of the coca plant from one among hundreds in their house gardens to a cash crop. Others are obtaining higher profits by processing the leaves into a paste - PBS, which is refined further to produce the white powder, cocaine hydrochloride. Almost overnight segments of a population which, by and large, had been involved only marginally in the cash economy, have become conspicuous consumers. Brightly painted outboard motors, shiny digital watches and radios with huge speakers glitter in settlements across the lush Amazonian landscape.

Many Amazonian Indian leaders, however, dissuade community members' involvement in the cocaine trade. They do not puritanically reject cocaine or the flashy gadgets it engenders; they simply recognize the grave legal, political and economic implications of coca production or cocaine processing. Indians are more likely to suffer police action than the moguls who dominate the trade. Small plantations and factories are easier targets than the heavily armed camps of the major producers. And Indians can rarely afford to pay the police to keep them at bay.

Small local efforts at drug control illustrate, in an innocuous way, compliance with US government pressure and aid programs to control cocaine. Selective raiding of Indian communities also serves those who suggest Indian involvement in the drug trade, guerrilla movements or any other activity which-casts Indians in shadowy, sinister or criminal imagery. Such accusations weaken Indian organizations and diminish the threat they pose to the status quo that supports them. Leaders also recognize that, despite increases in household income, small Indian cocaine producers obtain only a minuscule fraction of the ultimate value of their labor.

Beyond these immediate problems are more subtle and potentially tragic long-term implications. Amazonian Indians, for the most part, do not need large amounts of cash, but a secure land base and a sustainable economic program. Politically, socially and economically, cocaine impedes such developments. Two small Amazonian groups, the Ashaninca (Campa) of Peru and the Siona-Secoya of Ecuador, whose situations are not only similar but, in many respects, can be generalized to numerous Amazonian populations, illustrate this dilemma.

Peru: The Ashaninca (Campa)

The valleys plunging east from the Peruvian Andes contain some of the continent's largest coca plantations and most active PBS factories. Correspondingly, the greatest efforts to control production and processing occur here. In the Ene River area of the Peruvian Amazon, however, cocaine-related police and army actions are compounded by efforts to control the radical guerrilla movement, Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path), in the adjacent Andean highlands. Cocaine traffickers have been on the Ene River, quietly, for over fifteen years. Sendero Luminoso entered with a bang in late 1983. Their presence alone placed the Ashaninca (Campa) Indian residents in a dangerous position.

The Campa's situation, however, is more seriously threatened by land rights problems unrelated to the cocaine trade or Sendero's Maoist politics. When the Spanish arrived in Peru, the Ashaninca occupied about 90,000 square miles. Now colonization has forced most Campa in Peru's Central Montana to live in isolated settlements amidst non-Indian land holdings. Others migrated to the isolated Ene and Tambo valleys, where they lived in relative calm until early 1979 when a series of colonists' "associations" began to settle the upper reaches of the Ene. In November, a lumber concern, Forestal Apurimac S.A. (FASA), began efforts to obtain over 200,000 hectares of forest alongside the Ene. Following an agreement between the Peruvian Indian support group, CIPA, and the Ministry of Agriculture, survey teams during 1979 demarcated 99,000 acres and deposited papers for processing and titling with the Ministry of Agriculture.

In May 1979, however, several self-proclaimed "agricultural cooperatives" formed in the nearby urban areas of Ayacucho and, without consulting the Ministry of Agriculture, began to settle land on both sides of the lower Ene River which they identified as tierras baldias (unoccupied lands). None of these organizations were the sort of cooperatives agrarian reform legislators envisioned. Rather, the "colonists" were peons who represented speculators' and other entrepreneurs' interests. Meanwhile, FASA was attempting to whittle away other large sectors of the Ene valley.

While the Ene Campa initiated a large national and international campaign to protect their land, projects in other areas helped make it more effective. In late 1980, the Peruvian government announced the establishment of the Special Projects Office. Under the President's control, it was intended to oversee a large colonization and intensive agricultural project on Campa and Amuesha Indian lands in the Pichis and Palcazu valleys. It was successful to the extent that the financing agency, US Aid, required formal titling of all Indian communities in the project area before it would disburse funds for other activities. Although the Ene Campa communities were outside the limits of the project area, the Special Projects Office, nonetheless, began to demarcate land in that area.

Since large amounts of Campa land were not visibly utilized, they were vulnerable to settlers' claims. To decrease this threat, as well as alleviate the extreme poverty of the region, a small-scale agricultural development and marketing program was established. Although the program required only a modest alteration in existing agricultural patterns (add rice and beans to predominantly manioc-swidden plots), most traditional communities were disinterested. The incipient local Indian organization, OCARE, was not well established either. Meanwhile, a road was advancing toward the Ene River, colonists were settling the area and by 1982, planting the upper Amazon's most lucrative crop.

Cocaine traffickers, however, left the Ashaninca alone for the most part. Although Ashaninca community airstrips were utilized for transfers, Indians were neither included nor informed of the activities; cocaine trafficking had little impact on Ene Campa's early efforts to organize their communities, coordinate new economic activities and work toward land titling.

The situation changed in 1983, when the police and army were drawn to the area by a series of events. In late August, suspecting that local cocaine factories were also the source of Sendero's weapons, 100 policemen moved down the Ene, killing and arresting a large number of Peruvian colonists and Colombian traffickers. The remaining non-Indians had obtained sophisticated weapons from Colombians and resisted the government forces. Taking advantage of the conflict and confusion, Sendero Luminoso declared the area a "liberated zone."

On November 23 and 25, 1985, twelve Lima-based detectives, who initiated an operation on the lower Ene in the typically uncoordinated fashion that characterized actions in the area, were killed. This caused national scandal and embarrassment to an apparently impotent government. Anticipating large-scale reprisals, the Peruvian and Colombian traffickers evacuated the area.

The events of late 1982 threatened to turn the Ene into an area controlled, or at least heavily influenced, by the guerrillas. This immediately affected those working with Ashaninca settlements in the area. In August 1983, the Franciscan mission was nearly abandoned. A health project supported by Save the Children was forced to reduce its visibility. An Oxfam-supported agriculture and marketing project was able to continue by maintaining a relatively low profile, but the Special Projects teams from the area were forced to withdraw. As government officials, Special Project staff were prime targets for Sendero Luminoso. These events, however, had some positive features: they forced Campa leaders to recognize that outside assistance is temporary and vulnerable to external pressures and that local leadership and organization was essential if their communities were to confront encroaching colonization and retain even minimal control over their land and resources.

In summary, the Ene Ashaninca situation illustrates at least three positive features related to coca production and cocaine procession: 1) By remaining outside of the cocaine traffic, the Campa obtained a certain immunity from police and military repression; 2) By increasing small-scale agriculture and participation in the market economy, the Campa are defending their land and natural resources; and 3) Leaders recognize that when individual communities become involved in the trafficking or production of cocaine, they threaten community solidarity. One Ashaninca's efforts at individual community "self-improvement" through alliances with drug traffickers attracted so many new, non-Indian settlers that they eventually took over the community and prevented its titling as a native community.

Ecuador: The Siona-Secoya

The Siona-Secoya are, similar to the Ene Campa, highly dependent on the tropical forest for subsistence. Ecuador, at present, is neither a major producer nor trafficker of cocaine; Ecuadorian Amazonian Indians' political organizations are perhaps the most well-organized in the hemisphere.

Until the late 1960s, the Siona-Secoya settlements were relatively free of colonist land invasions. The situation changed radically in the early 1970s, when high quality petroleum was found northeast of the Siona-Secoya. By 1972, a pipeline was pumping oil from the jungle to the Pacific seaport of Esmeraldas. A road parallel to the pipeline allowed access to one of the previously most inaccessible areas of the country, permitting an influx of colonists and workers.

From 1962 to 1980, the non-Indian population jumped from less than 5,000 to about 70,000 (Uquillas 1983). In contrast, by the late 1970s, the Siona-Secoya were reduced to a population of about 300 and a few small settlements. At the time, Siona-Secoya communities were minimally organized and unable to remove 12 colonist families who had squatted in the middle of their territory and whose presence delayed the land titling project.

The political situation on the Aguarico, and throughout the Ecuadorian Oriente changed in 1982, when the Confederation of Indian Nations of the Ecuadorian Amazon (CONFENIAE) formed, and helped Siona-Secoya communities organize and develop strategies to defend their rights to land and natural resources. By late 1983, the Aguarico settlement had consolidated to form the Organization of Indigenous Siona-Secoya of Ecuador (OISSE).

OISSE's main concern was to obtain clear title to their land, which the National Agrarian Reform Institute (IERAC) had allocated to them. The land the 12 colonist families claimed hardly constituted major development land use. Since no permanent presence had been established either, the Siona-Secoya felt they had the right to evict the colonists. Expulsion was strengthened by the colonists' irregular involvement in cocaine trafficking. However, by 1983, coca plantations and a small processing plant had been set up. In August 1983, police tried to raid the operation but the colonists were armed. More effective policing activities could have been mobilized easily if problems on the Aguarico escalated, since there were additional forces nearby due to the extensive Petroleum deposits in the area, but trafficking colonists decided to move their operations elsewhere. The cocaine threat nonetheless wounded the Siona-Secoya community. Of the 247 Indians who lived in the area, about three families had joined the colonists in the cocaine trade. They sported luxury personal goods and purchased a series of Yamaha outboard motors which required repair.

Materially, cocaine provided few lasting benefits for any Siona-Secoya.

Politically, even limited involvement in cocaine production ruptured community solidarity, essential for strengthening OISSE and its efforts to guarantee land tenure. The minority of Indians who joined the traffickers had done so against community leaders' advice and undermined efforts to link OISSE more closely with CONFENIAE.

Cocaine and Indian Economic Activities

The Campa and Siona-Secoya cases, which illustrate local concerns about the risks of cocaine trade and about promoting economic development programs aimed toward securing land tenure, raise two significant questions: 1) Regardless of the risks and the attitudes of the leaders, could the economic gains from cocaine produce more positive results than small-scale economic activities? and 2) What would such profits produce in political as well as economic terms?

Both the Ene Campa and the Siona-Secoya, similar to most other Amazonian Indians, are linked to the market economy, but their activities are small in scale and do not produce high returns. Why not turn to large-scale coca production or cocaine processing, and simply get rich?

Some individuals and families are directly involved in production and processing. But patterns of spending and investment of money earned from this trade parallels that of money obtained from remittances - those who seek employment outside of their family's or group's traditional territory and economy send cash home. Recent research on remittances indicates that "as much as two-thirds of repatriated savings are spent on housing". Several observers have noted that such expenditures do not provide basic shelter but are used to embellish the appearance of an existing dwelling. Most other funds are spent on clothing, debt repayment, appliances and "luxury" goods such as radios, large outboard motors and watches which, in the Amazon environment, quickly deteriorate. To assume that consumerism is some sort of magnet that draws individuals as if they were flecks of metal shavings, however, is to assume that those who enter the cash economy are mindless. An alternative approach would be to ask, "What else could they do with the money?" or "What opportunities exist for investment in long-term productive activities?"

One could argue that cocaine would provide Indians with the capital needed to purchase land which is being taken by encroaching colonists. But to purchase land is to acknowledge alien ownership. Most national governments declare themselves the de facto "owners" by labeling Amazonian lands tierras baldias, and claiming the right to determine ownership. Indian organizations, who argue that the land is and always has been their property, want the government to recognize existing Aboriginal rights through formal titling rather than to sell or to give away the land.

The success of Amazonian groups in obtaining their principal goals - land and economic self-determination - will depend largely on their ability to present a united front against any threat and to be able to argue from a position of relative strength and equality with regard to the national government. Throughout the Amazon such a united front is developing and gaining strength and sophistication. In addition to organizing previously disparate communities and entire ethnic groups, these ethnic organizations have also developed programs of economic self-sufficiency. Such programs illustrate efforts to obtain capital for essential purchases without linking one's self, family or community to local, non-Indian elites. The elite arose through lopsided patron-client ties which took advantage of relatively atomistic family or settlement-oriented forms of political organization. The programs of economic self-sufficiency promoted by the developing ethnic organizations could break exploitive patron-client ties.

Cocaine production and trafficking, however, would simply perpetuate this pattern. It is not surprising that Colombia's Regional Indian Council of the Vaupes (CRIV), located in the area of most intense Amazonian Indian involvement in national and international cocaine trade, is one of Colombia's weakest ethnic organizations. Any involvement in illegal economic activities also weakens the Indians' image as respectable, responsible citizens. This allows those threatened by Indian organizations an opportunity to undermine them, which in turn weakens the Indian organizations' ability to argue their claims for land, resources and economic assistance. Finally, as a purely cash-oriented economic activity, however lucrative it may appear in the short term, cocaine does little to provide a basis for long-term economic programs and a sustainable lifestyle. Cocaine trade is simply the current undulation in a series of boom-and-bust economic cycles that have hit the Amazon, none of which have improved the Indians' position.

To shy away from cocaine is not to deprive Indians of economic opportunities or prevent them from becoming the Indian equivalents of Roberto Suarez Gomez, Bolivia's "King of Cocaine" or Carlos Lender, Colombia's number one narcotraficante. Noninvolvement allows Indians to continue taking advantage of opportunities for long-term economic growth and stability, political power in a plural society and cultural survival.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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