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U.S. looking for 'softer' approach to drug fight

In Colombia, funds for the military and eradication efforts are instead being shifted to the grass-roots level.

October 04, 2007|Chris Kraul | Times Staff Writer

NAPIPI, COLOMBIA — From his dugout canoe in the Napipi River, Jefferson Rojas spotted what he was after: a 40-foot-high jagua tree, its canopy dotted with dozens of thick-skinned fruits the size of tennis balls.

Rojas pulled his boat to shore, macheted his way through thick foliage and with his telephone lineman gear quickly scaled the tree. He lopped off the fruits, which fell with thuds to the floor of the jungle.

Why did Rojas go to such lengths for a fruit that isn't even ripe? Because the body-marking market has caught on to what indigenous tribes here in Choco state have known for centuries: Jagua is an excellent source of nonpermanent tattoo ink.

Ink that eventually makes its way to the biceps or backsides of trendy teenagers thousands of miles away might appear to have a tenuous connection to Plan Colombia, the seven-year program that has funneled $5.4 billion in U.S. taxpayer money into fighting drug traffickers and guerrillas. But with the current fiscal year, which began Monday, more of those funds are to go to economic projects such as Rojas' tattoo ink venture and fewer to finance the Colombian military and anti-coca spraying than in past years.

The initiative will soon take on a "softer" profile, at the insistence of the Democratic-controlled U.S. Congress. It is expected to contain more money to fund "alternative development" programs to encourage farmers to grow legal crops and steer clear of joining armed groups.

After seven years, the "hard" features of Plan Colombia -- the spraying and military aid -- have done little to stem the flow of cocaine to North America and elsewhere, and members of Congress and like-minded Colombian officials want to try a new approach.

A quarter of the approximately $550 million in annual Plan Colombia aid typically has been earmarked for economic development, justice reform and institution-building, but the percentage could grow to 40% next fiscal year. That means the U.S. Agency for International Development office at the U.S. Embassy in Bogota could see its budget balloon to as much as $218 million from this year's $139 million, said U.S. congressional staffers familiar with the appropriations process.

"It is beyond dispute that spraying chemicals is not a sustainable strategy," Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee controlling foreign aid expenditures, said in an e-mailed comment. "Without real economic alternatives, coca farmers will find ways to grow coca. . . . Rather than continue to act as a rubber stamp, we are shifting more funds into economic and social programs."

The jagua tattoo ink project is just the sort that aid officials will be looking to fund. It is environment-friendly, gives incentives for peasants to stay away from violence and drug trafficking, and it helps Afro-Colombian communities, which many aid critics consider a neglected constituency.

In Choco, Afro-Colombian communities such as Napipi have received about $350,000 in aid from the United States and from the Organization of American States through its Pan American Development Foundation arm.

The fruit gathered by Rojas will be peeled by other members of his cooperative in this impoverished river town of 900, and the pulp sent on charter flights to the EcoFlora factory near Medellin. The family-owned company, which sells cut flowers, extracts an inky blue liquid from the fruit and ships it in powder form to a tattoo parlor supply distributor called Primal Cosmetics in Manchester, England.

In less than a year, the venture between EcoFlora and the largely Afro-Colombian community in this remote corner of Colombia's wettest rain forest expects to generate $300,000 in sales, via Primal Cosmetics, to tattoo parlors in Britain, the United States, Australia and other countries.

EcoFlora Chief Executive Nicolas Cock Duque said that figure could grow significantly if plans to sell the extract as food coloring to an unnamed soft drink manufacturer come through.

The EcoFlora project provides a case study of how renewable resources can produce real economic gain in isolated, grindingly poor towns like this one.

About half of the $300,000 in revenue comes back to Napipi in wages to Rojas and 30 other cooperative members. That's a bonanza in this depressed town where people eke out subsistence living by fishing, farming and illegal logging.

Choco has been the scene of considerable strife in recent years as narco-traffickers, leftist rebels and right-wing paramilitary groups have fought over its strategic geography. Much of Colombia's estimated 500 tons of cocaine shipped annually to the U.S. is processed in the region. More than half a dozen Napipi residents have been killed in drug and insurgent violence in recent years, locals say. In 2002, more than 100 Afro-Colombians in the neighboring town of Bojoya were killed when guerrillas engaged in fighting paramilitary forces launched mortar attacks on a church where residents had taken refuge.

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