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Colombia’s Drug Problem Is Worse Than Ever, But It Has a Radical Solution

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Bogota CNN  —  When Gustavo Petro, Colombia’s first progressive president, took office in August, he laid out an ambitious agenda.

His administration would finally achieve a stable peace with Colombia’s multiple rebel organizations; it would fight inequality by taxing the top 1% and lifting millions out of poverty; and it would abandon a punitive approach to drug policing that costed millions of lives around the world to little results, he promised.

Three months later, there are signs for optimism: Colombia and the largest rebel group still active in its territory, the National Liberation Army ELN, have signed a commitment to restart peace negotiations after a four years hiatus; and Congress has passed a fiscal plan that aims to collect almost 4 billion USD in new taxes next year.

But drugs remain perhaps the hardest challenge for Petro.

Drug production boomed in Colombia during the pandemic.

The total area harvested for coca leaves – the main ingredient for cocaine – grew 43% in 2021 according to a new annual survey by the United Nation’s Office on Drug and Crime. At the same time, the amount of potential coca produced per hectare grew a further 14%, the UN reported, leaving experts to believe Colombia is producing more cocaine than ever in its history.

In many rural parts of the country, the production of illicit drug became the only economic activity during pandemic lockdowns, the UN explains, as markets and agricultural routes shut down and farmers switched from food crops to coca.

According to Elizabeth Dickenson, a senior analyst at the International Crisis Group, the spike in harvests has become so evident even the casual traveler can see it.

“A few years ago, you’d have to drive for hours to see coca crops. Now they are much more common, less than one kilometer from the main highway,” she told CNN after a recent field trip to Cauca, part of a Colombian southwestern region that has seen a +76% increase in harvested area.

In the Indigenous reserve of Tacueyo, Cauca, the increase in coca and marijuana harvests have caused profound concern for the leaders of the community according to Nora Taquinas, an Indigenous environmental defender who has received multiple death threats from criminal organizations.

Two signs show a more sustained drug trade than in recent years, Taquinas says: informal checkpoints on the road leading up to Tacueyo and worrying trends of school dropouts as local children are pressed into service by criminal organizations for menial tasks around the production of narcotics.

“The cartels pay about 15’000COP (about 3USD) to clean a pound of marijuana sprouts. A kid can do up to six pounds per day, and that is solid money down here. It’s hard to stop that.”

The only positive aspect, Taquinas says, is that the increase in drug production and trade in her community has not caused higher levels of violence. “We are on the lookout. But soon enough, the cartels will start competing for the harvests here, and the competition between them is to the death. Right now, it’s like the calm before the storm.”

The proliferation of armed groups in recent years is one of the greatest shortcomings of the Colombian peace process, which in 2016 brought an end to more than half a century of civil warfare.

Before the deal, most of the guerrilla groups were disciplined like a regular army and this helped war negotiations between public officials and rebel groups. Now, the armed actors who didn’t abandon armed struggle have splintered in up to sixty different groups often in competition against themselves, according to the United Nations.

Even if the recently announced peace negotiation with the ELN succeeded, there are at least 59 more groups involved in the drug trade for the government to deal with.

Convincing farmers to stop growing coca has been one of Colombia’s largest problems for the last fifty years.

The traditional solution has been to punish the farmers by destroying crops through ever-more sophisticated and forceful measures: aerial fumigations, enforced eradication campaigns, aerial monitoring, and the deployment of troops to coca-growing regions.

But this cost millions of dollars, mostly financed through military aid from the United States to Colombia, and has claimed the lives of thousands of Colombian farmers and soldiers in clashes and drug-related violence. Until this year, few dared to question it from a position of power.

While Petro bears no responsibility for latest the production increases – the report details narcotic trends until December 2021, before this year’s election – his message to ditch the war on drugs resonates with the United Nations’ finding that the billions of dollars invested in preventing Colombian farmers from growing coca could be put to a better use.

“The first thing to notice from the report is the total failure of the war on drugs,” says Colombia’s Justice Minister Nestor Osuna and one of the people tasked with coming up with a new solution to the drug problem.

The government’s plan, Osuna told CNN, is centered on three key moments.

In the immediate, term, Petro’s administration aims to limit the spread of drug-related violence immediately, even if that means allowing further increases in coca harvesting areas might take place in the coming years.

In order to avoid confrontation with coca-growing communities and reduce retaliatory actions from the cartels, Colombia’s coca eradication campaign will be pared-down, although not completely suspended, and the justice ministry would embark in a series of ‘voluntary consultations’ to convince communities to replace illicit crops with legal ones in exchange for financial incentives.

Eventually, crop substitution will take place on a massive scale by expanding the farming frontier of Colombia, he says.

“If we offer a sustainable alternative to the farmers harvesting coca, they will take it. It is true that right now no agricultural product can compete with the revenue coca makes, but it’s also true that coca remains illegal, and we believe the farmers have signaled us they would rather work under the law, even at lower margins, than in illegality,” the justice minister said.

The plan is to relocate thousands of farmers who are currently harvesting coca into unused agricultural for a fresh start with legal crops. Last month, the Colombian government agreed to the purchase of up to three million hectares from the country’s rancher association to expand the agricultural lands.

Colombia has tried crop replacement in the past, but failed to overcome the appeal of coca. The coca bush can produce a harvest up to six times a year and requires minimal care, as an invasive plant that grows even in unfavorable conditions.

Coca buyers, the drug cartels, are willing to pay in advance for a harvest, often in cash, and crucially will also provide transport by picking it up from the farm – a significant incentive for farmers who live hours of unpaved road away from main market towns. That’s why the Petro government wants to relocate the cocaine workforce entirely.

The areas that are currently devoted to coca, once abandoned, would go through a process of reforestation, Osuna said, thanks to a new public investment fund worth 120 million USD to pay farmers to protect the rainforest for the next 20 years. Each family would receive up to 600 USD per month to launch reforestation projects in areas affected by coca harvesting as well as illegal ranching and logging.

Ultimately, Petro’s ultimate goal is to de-criminalize cocaine. But Osuna is adamant the government would not launch such a move unilaterally – cocaine’s criminal status is globally codified in a series of international treaties.

Petro has made a point of displaying the failures of the war on drugs at any international forum he took part to, from the official visit of US Secretary of State Antony Blinken to the United Nations General Assembly in September.

It’s a strategy Osuna labelled as “nagging offensive”, with the hope that the world would one day hold an informed debate on whether narcotics should still be considered prohibited substances.

“We must recognize that cocaine consumption takes place all around the world, it’s evident. For many people, that consumption is harmful, and that’s why it would be good if countries employed public health policies to deal with this issue,” said Osuna.

(For his part, Osuna noted that his only experience with drugs was a marijuana joint in his twenties in Amsterdam that left him sick for two days.)

While many world leaders have urged a global rethinking around the issues of drugs, this is the first time a sitting president of Colombia – the world’s largest cocaine producer – openly calls to give up the war on drugs.

According to a 2019 study from the University of Oxford, the drug trade is worth almost 2% of Colombia’s GDP. Nobody can predict how a Colombia free from the drug trade would eventually look like, and Osuna is well aware of how difficult the task ahead is: “The war on drugs has failed for the past fifty years, it’s not like we can come and solve it in fifty days,” he told CNN.

The government’s critics, such as former Colombian president Alvaro Uribe, who presided over the greatest crop reduction in the country’s history through a controversial all-out military campaign in the early 2000, believe legalizing cocaine would only make the cartels wealthier, not poorer.

But recent development on marijuana legislation around the world, with countries as far as Germany and Uruguay, as well as more than fifteen US states, passing legislation to allow recreational use, prove that it is possible to turn the tide, Osuna says.

Colombia is also discussing legalizing weed, a move that just three years ago would have been unthinkable and that, if passed, has the potential to legalize the work of dozens of families in Tacueyo.

A pilot project to produce textile fabrics made of hemp is already up and running, though demand for the fiber is very small compared to cartel demand for marijuana, Taquinas says. “What we need is more legal outlets, not fewer.”



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Peru Congress Backs Motion to Start 3rd Impeachment Attempt Against Castillo

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Pedro Castillo

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LIMA, Dec 1 (Reuters) – Peru’s Congress approved on Thursday a motion initiated by opposition lawmakers to start impeachment proceedings against President Pedro Castillo, the third formal attempt to oust the leftist leader since he took office last year.

With 73 votes in favor, 32 against and six abstentions, Congress approved the process and summoned Castillo to respond to accusations of constitutional breaches on Dec. 7.

Earlier on Thursday, a high-level mission of the Organization of American States (OAS) recommended a “political truce” between Peru’s executive and legislative branches, as it delivered its preliminary report on a visit to the Andean country in late November.

To oust the president, the votes of 87 of the 130 members of Congress are needed, a number Peru’s right-wing opposition parties hope to reach.

Before the vote, Prime Minister Betssy Chavez said Castillo should serve his term until 2026 and the truce and dialogue requested by the OAS “is vital when we have somewhat tense spirits between both branches of government.”

The South American country lives is plagued by political confrontation between the two braches, and has, including Castillo, had five acting presidents since 2016, due to dismissals and resignations.

Castillo, accused of using the presidency to the benefit of himself, his family and close allies, is also facing a constitutional complaint from the attorney general in Congress linked to corruption investigations.

The president says the complaint is an attempted “coup d’etat” orchestrated by the prosecutor’s office and Congress.

Reporting by Marco Aquino; Writing by Valentine Hilaire; Editing by Sarah Morland

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PM Mottley among Financial Times’ 25 most influential women of 2022 – NevisPages.com

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SOURCE: The Financial TIMES — Prime Minister Mia Mottley has been featured among the Financial Times’ 25 most influential women of 2022.

The list also includes Ketanji Brown Jackson, US Supreme Court Justice; Francia Elena Márquez Mina, Vice-President of Colombia; Sherry Rehman, Climate Minister in Pakistan; Serena Williams, Tennis player; and Tsitsi Dangarembga, author and activist.

The magazine says its Women of the Year issue reaffirms every December that influence comes in many forms, by exploring achievement across cultures, industries and artistries.
“For 2022, we again commissioned entries by some of the world’s most powerful women. But we also sought contributors who could speak to their subject’s influence in diverse, even unexpected dimensions,” the magazine said.
In January, after Mottley won a landslide re-election victory, she told the Financial Times that she believed in “moral strategic leadership”.

That is apparent in everything she does, making her one of the most formidable leaders of her generation.
A lawyer who trained at the London School of Economics, Mottley won her first political seat at the age of 28.
At COP26 she made clear that the failure of industrialised states to meaningfully invest to halt climate change was catastrophic for the planet. Her speech was as inspiring as it was humbling, and citizens globally were gripped.
This year her “Bridgetown Agenda” to reform the international financial system offers real, practical solutions. Her ability to speak truth to power is also apparent at home, where she oversaw the birth of Barbados as a republic, leaving its colonial past behind.

Mottley expects this term as premier to be her last; whatever she does next, the world is lucky to have her.



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Higher Cost of Living Demands Competent Governments

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Saunders Portrait 2022
File photo: Sir Ronald Saunders.

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By Sir Ronald Sanders  

(The writer is Antigua and Barbuda’s Ambassador to the United States of America and the Organization of American States.   He is also a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London and Massey College in the University of Toronto)  

Throughout the world, people and their governments and Central Banks are worrying about inflation, or the rate of increase in the cost of living.  In many countries, this concern about the cost of living has become a prime consideration in general elections because electorates want competent governments in whose hands they commit their expectations.

Two questions arise: what is responsible for the cost of living, and can governments in small, developing countries, such as those in the Caribbean, take actions that would address the issue satisfactorily?

In the mid-term elections in the United States of America (U.S.) last month, inflation (roughly translated as ‘the Economy’) was an issue that surfaced in early campaigning, although it waned toward the end.   The main concern in the U.S. was the high cost of oil that followed Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the consequent efforts in Europe and North America to boycott Russian oil, or at least to minimize dependence on it.

The refusal of the big oil producing countries to increase their output to compensate for shortages created by the isolation of Russia, increased oil prices globally.  In turn, this caused the Biden administration in the U.S. to release oil supplies from its strategic stock, reducing gasoline and diesel prices.  Because of Biden’s action, by the time the mid-term elections were held, the value of this issue, in political terms, dropped to 38% amongst the electorate.

However, the oil issue persisted in Europe which had developed a dependence on Russian oil and gas.  Europe will barely manage to keep prices down this winter only because European nations will utilize Russian supplies that they had stockpiled prior to the Russian war on Ukraine.

Both for the US and Europe, heating and its attendant costs to consumers will be a problem this winter.  But next year will be worse if the isolation of Russian oil and gas from the world market continues.  Stocks will be depleted if not exhausted, causing prices to soar.

All this could cause serious social unrest in Europe.  There have already been protests in Greece, Belgium, Germany,  France, Spain, Austria and the Czech Republic – the latter of which has seen household energy bills surge tenfold.

The world is also still experiencing the residual impact of the COVID-19 pandemic that severely disrupted supply chains for food, medicines, and commodities for construction and agriculture.  Costs of construction material increased by as much as 90% since the start of the pandemic.

The Caribbean Community (CARICOM) countries, particularly the six smaller nations that comprise the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS), have little control over the cost of living being experienced in their respective countries.   As the Governor of the Eastern Caribbean Central Bank (ECCB), Timothy Antoine, put it in July, “We import inflation, principally from the US and also from Europe our major trading partners”.

In the specific case of The Bahamas, largely because of geographic proximity, it conducts 85% of its trade with the U.S., importing almost $3 billion in goods in 2021 and giving the U.S. a balance of trade surplus of $2.5 billion.   Therefore, the Bahamas is very vulnerable to the impact of inflation in the U.S.

As small states, with limited capacity for the production of goods, Caribbean countries import from the U.S. and Europe, bringing to their shores the high costs in those countries.  Belize, Guyana and Suriname have some capacity to dull the impact of importing agricultural products because they are less reliant on such imports due to their relatively larger agricultural sectors.  But even these three states still confront both the shortages and high prices for agricultural inputs, such as urea and ammonia.

In a sentence, the current rise in the cost of living is not due to policies of Caribbean governments; it is caused by external factors beyond the control of governments.

To be fair, all Caribbean governments, to one extent or another, have taken steps to cushion the effects of inflation on their populations, especially the poor and vulnerable.   Many governments have introduced measures to subsidise the prices of basic foods.  In the case of Antigua and Barbuda and St Lucia, for instance, the governments subsidise the costs of oil and gas.  Furthermore, in Antigua and Barbuda, the government has written off arrears owed for electricity, water and property taxes, as further measures to ease the impact of imported inflation  on the population.

A major consequence of these actions is that government revenues are diminishing, and their ability to service the demands of every sector of their society is considerably strained.

As is presently happening in Antigua and Barbuda and in Guyana, Caribbean governments will also have to increase wages and salaries, including the minimum wage, so that the general population can cope with increased prices.  Overall, this will lead to higher per capita incomes, resulting in disqualification by international financial institutions from access to low-cost borrowing, precisely when Caribbean countries need it most.

In Antigua and Barbuda, the Government and the private sector managed to agree on an increased minimum wage, recognizing that cost of living increases had to be met to maintain social and economic stability.

The big question that remains for the region is: when will the global economic disruption caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and consequent retaliation by the US, Canada and the European Union end?  Right now, it looks set to drag on into next year.

Caribbean countries, therefore, should be working feverishly to implement the many plans, which they have agreed to increase trade in goods and services among themselves; to establish joint ventures for the manufacturing and agricultural production; and for air and sea transportation.   They also have to enhance the Caribbean Development Bank and consider new ways of investing Caribbean savings and profits by investing them within the region, rather than abroad.

In other words, the Caribbean has to become more self-sufficient and less vulnerable to external factors.

Responses and previous commentaries: www.sirronaldsanders.com  

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