Shooting Ourselves in the Foot: Paying Twice in Colombia to Grow and Kill Legal Crops

Note to US taxpayers: when we pay to offer carrots, and also pay to hit people with sticks, perhaps we shouldn't hit the people who take our carrots with sticks?

One of the top social entrepreneurs working in the Amazon is Liliana Madrigal of Amazon Conservation Team. She and I are part of the Skoll social entrepreneur network, and this year we've been discussing how technology can help indigenous communities in the Amazon region, as well as improve relationships between social entrepreneurs and USAID -- the gigantic US foreign aid agency.

I recently heard something astonishing and discouraging from Liliana: they run a USAID-funded program to help farmers switch from growing coca (the plant that gives us cocaine) to growing organic products like cacao (the plant that gives us cocoa and chocolate). So far, this has been a very successful program, helping provide real alternatives to make money growing legal crops.

Imagine their surprise, as they were touring one of their model farms with representatives of the Avina Foundation (one of the top Latin American funders of social entrepreneurs), when the farm was sprayed aerially with glyphosate (aka Roundup).

One has to assume that the planes were trying to kill coca plants being grown by other farmers in the region and that spraying this farm was an accident, but a mistake like this does far more than kill the entire legal crop -- it poisons the water, blows the farm's organic status for years, and isn't all that terrific for morale.

It's frustrating. The US government pays one group of people to help convince people to switch to growing legal crops, and then while paying another group of people to kill illegal crops, they accidentally kill the legal plantings. This problem has been known for years: the State Department calls it "spray drift."

Liliana asked me whether there was technology to identify plots growing legal plants (especially those funded by foreign aid programs). The answer is, of course, yes.

We now have terrific GIS solutions like Google Earth. It would be really straightforward to look at satellite imagery and identify the legal crops, or ask NGOs like Amazon Conservation Team to provide the GPS coordinates for the projects they're backing. Technically, it's cheap and well worth doing. I hope that in the future the folks running the spraying campaigns will consider using this type of technology so that both US-funded programs are more effective. Let's keep those carrots and sticks separate!