Putumayo is one of the 32 departments of Colombia, one that bridges the Andes mountains and the Amazon basin, named for the river that separates it from Ecuador and Perú, and leads directly to the mighty Amazon River. It is the native territory of several indigenous groups, and was later inhabited by Inca colonists, before arrival of Spanish missionaries, leading to its integration into what is now Colombia.
Flying into Puerto Asis at low altitude in one of the small propeller planes that arrives there, one expects to see dense jungle covering the foothills. The disappointing reality today is small patches of dark jungle, almost black from above, and more than anything, yellow-green pastures. Grass and weeds struggle to survive and support cattle-grazing, the default commercial land use that absolves proprietors and tenants from any investment, maintenance, and risk, destroying the local environment in the process.
Indigenous rubber workers in colonial Putumayo.
The Rubber Genocide
Rubber fever engulfed the region in the late 19th century and part of it’s collateral damage was the genocide and mass enslavement of indigenous inhabitants of Putumayo’s rubber-rich jungle. In the 1960’s and 70’s, non-indigenous Colombians flocked to Putumayo, which was then frontier land. Peasants that could never hope to own land elsewhere were enticed. Commercial farmers took advantage of cheap land to set up profitable agricultural corporations. The jungle was cleared en masse in the name of progress and development. Corn, rice, and plantains… the most important Colombian staples, were planted and seen as the safest bets. When roads were built in other areas to connect farms with eaters and ports, but not in Putumayo, things got tough. When Colombian markets opened to the importation of subsidised corn and rice from the US, things got worse.
Coca field in the Colombian Andes mountains.
Resistance, Insurgency, and Coca
A history of abuse, abandonment, and economic hardship has led to desperation which helped left-wing insurgent groups gain support in the area. The FARC held a tight grip on the region for several decades. The opportunity to grow coca for cocaine production and export was well-received, and why wouldn’t it be? Without the ability to carry out any of the legal economic activities possible in other parts of the country, and with the opportunity to plant a native crop for export at stable prices, to take back a little money from the gringo that feels like putting poison in his nose… why not?
Puerto Asís, Putumayo has an impresive motorcycle-to-human ratio.
The Wild South
Walking around Puerto Asís, Putumayo there is something of a wild frontiersman or pirate spirit… entrepreneurial, scrappy, yet decadent, like the Peter Pan’s Lost Boys 50 years on. The people of Putumayo were left to fend for themselves, and the common opinion is that they did what they had to in order to survive. When coca growing and artisanal/illegal mining blew up, everything changed. Many people hit the jackpot. Windfalls didn’t come only from luck, but they didn’t come from education and prudent research either. The most “avispado” or crafty, got incredibly rich in no time while his schoolmates were buried in books hoping for a wage only a fraction of that of someone in the coca or mining business. Areas that experience this kind of economic phenomenon tend to lose appreciation for education and begin to condone some forms of criminality. Prostitution, drug use, robbery, and the use of deadly force to settle scores became more common in the area following the influx of easy money from the black market.
A helicopter parked at the Puerto Asís airport.
Today’s Puerto Asís is a maddening combination of opulence and poverty. The desperately poor and sick are visible in the streets, selling sweets and begging. Those same streets are lined with little more than consumer products: high-end electronic appliances, designer clothes (counterfeit or otherwise), gaudy fluorescent trainers, speakers the size of refrigerators, and at least 2 jewelry stores per block fully stocked with fat gold chains. Houses are generally modest concrete structures, many crumbling at their corners, often with 3-4 new motorcycles parked in front. The old “zona rosa” or high-end nightlife strip is now a gallery of prostitutes flashing with strobe lights 7 nights a week. Money not a consideration for many of the consumer class, markets have responded to low price elasticity of demand (people don’t buy more or less depending on price) buy raising prices. A basic hotel night in Puerto Asís costs 3x more than a comparable one in Planadas, Tolima.
Turmeric is one of the crops proposed to replace coca. It's a relatively sustainable crop and well suited to the area. A link to the market for large quantities of the spice remains to be seen.
There have been immense efforts to stop fighting in the area and provide farmers with alternatives to coca and illegal mining. Armies of agronomists have been sent in between aerial glyphosate (Roundup) spraying campaigns to teach farmers to grow other things like cacao, peppercorns, and vanilla. However, in many cases production and transportation costs are too high and/or commodity prices too low for these crops to provide families with the needed income. In other cases, like peppercorns, there is simply no market linkage. Colombia is a major importer of Indian black pepper while thousands of farmers in Putumayo have to sell to intermediaries across the border in Ecuador to earn prices well below market value. Economic displacement has brought millions of people to cities like Bogotá an Popayán, which are unable to provide exploding populations with basic public services and jobs, leading in many cases to further economic and social hardship.
The same condition that made traditional agriculture unprofitable and led to widespread illegal activity 40 years ago are largely the same as then. Why a different result is expected is unclear. The mayor passionately claimed to a group of farmers at a business round-table that “intermediaries are hurting our agriculture and stealing from those that get up at dawn and work with their hands.” What is missing from these agrarian operations are, in fact, intermediaries to link them with markets.
The consequences of inaction are grave. Cultivating the same amount of land that once grew coca, now with something less profitable creates motivation to clear more forest, to plant more, to make up the difference. When no crops are profitable, cattle grazing is the default, and an ecological disaster. Finally, what is already happening on a large scale, is the replanting of coca, filling the coffers of insurgent groups and powerful criminal organizations. The potential for change comes from the consumer level. Chicken fryers in Bogotá could choose Colombian vs. Indian pepper, though it may mean driving down the Corabastos, but only if their customers care. North American grocery shoppers could choose the $6/lb Colombian pepper vs. the $5 Indian, recognizing the catastrophe that dollar could help avert and accepting some of the blame for the damage North American cocaine demand has caused. This first step to become informed, and that is the responsibility of everyone involved, from the farmer to the Colombian government, to the chicken or chocolate brand.