Puerto Asis and the surrounding areas are filled with armed groups [Al Jazeera]

The Amazon rainforest in the Colombian department of Putumayo hides many of the hardships that exist beneath its canopies.

Much of the dense jungle in the south of the country is territory of the now-faltering Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc) armed campaign and a centre for drug production.

The town of Puerto Asis, with its small airport, is a main access point to the sprawling region, about the size of Rwanda.

It is here,that 14-year-old Edward Saul Thomas is eking out a living.

Hazardous occupation

Typically he works to produce coca base, the product which is made into cocaine.

But recent times have been harder than usual for the campesinos, or peasants, of the region.

Coca growing has reduced in the targeted Putumayo state but has increased nationally
For about 30 years they have lived off the proceeds of the coca plant picking the leaf and making coca base.

The estimated $400 million in annual profits returning to Colombia from the cocaine trade - of which Colombia is the largest producer - translates to a monthly income of about $200 for the campesinos per hectare of coca farmed.

And, besides its illegality, the work does not come without hazards.

Landmines planted by fighters are frequently employed to safeguard territory and crops.

Chemicals and petroleum are used to make the base and Thomas' palms are lined with sores from picking the plant.

‘Not a child'

But still he says sees the benefits of harvesting coca.

"It's better to pick coca and make base than pick bananas because with the coca you always know where you are going to sell it, but with the bananas you don't know if you will sell it or not," he says.

Thomas began working in the industry at the age of 10, using the income to pay for clothes and education. But now, with less work, he has had to quit school.

"Now there are no jobs or food. I do domestic jobs now. Anything," he says.

Robyn Braverman, the director of Save the Children in Colombia, says that the industry is physically and mentally unhealthy.

"You become a money maker, not a child. Children begin to see themselves as a clandestine member of society."

Plan Colombia, a US-Colombian program begun in 2000 aimed at eradicating the coca plant by aerial fumigation or uprooting, has virtually removed that source of the campesinos' livelihoods.

The US has provided more than five billion dollars for Plan Colombia since 2000, aiming, it says, to attack narcotics production and trafficking, bolster the judicial system and security, help displaced communities and assist with development.

Attacking the cocaine industry at its source also aims to seize the huge amounts of money fuelling the Farc campaign and right-wing paramilitaries.

Anuc, a national peasants rights organisation, estimates that 15,000 households, with three children on average, currently work in the cocaine industry in Putumayo, down from 37,000 in 2000.

'Useless land'

The majority of Plan Colombia's budget goes on military hardware, including helicopters and aircraft to transport troops and destroy crops.

USAID (the US international development arm) statistics put the amount of Plan Colombia's budget spent on so-called "soft" aid - of which development aid is part - at only 29.8 per cent.

And many aspects of the plan - including the destruction of crops, have proved controversial.

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Coca pickers speak about their lost livelihoods

Fernando Hiro, 16, who has worked picking coca and making base on his family's farm for the past eight years, says: "Our land is useless right now as it has been fumigated.

"I want to continue to work in cocaine production - there is nothing else. I am worried because there is no more money.

"The fumigations have contaminated our water which we use for the animals and our legal crops - bananas and pineapples - have been contaminated also.

"We can't live on the land at the moment."

Ricardo Vargas, an independent researcher in drugs policy and its relationship with armed conflict and narcotics production, says alternative livelihoods projects  provided by USAID - such as vanilla and pepper plots, have also been unsuccessful, with many such crops subsequently destroyed by fumigations.

"It is a disaster basically. The most fumigated areas - Putumayo, Caqueta, Guaviare - are the areas with the lowest execution of alternative development strategies. It is a paradox," he says.

"Government policy doesn't see them as good areas and USAID focuses in areas where there is not lots of coca production."

"So people come back to the coca crops because it is more sustainable" even if it doesn't make a lot of money."

Displacement agony

The loss of livelihoods has displaced family members and whole households as they search for work.

One survey estimated that 50,000 people - about 15 per cent of Putumayo's population - left the region between late 2001 and October 2002, many to grow coca elsewhere.

Vargas says: "The breadwinners need to migrate for work and that changes the family structure. It is a crisis for the families ... as it decreases stability."

However, USAID said that claims of spraying of legal crops are investigated and potentially compensated.

"Since the beginning of the compensation programme in October 2001, DIRAN [the Antinarcotics Directorate of the Colombian Police] has received a total of 8,449 complaints, and a total of [about] $500,000 has been paid," the organisation said.

"Approximately 30 per cent of the complaints have been dismissed due to incomplete information, and in 57 per cent [all of which were rejected] it was determined that legal crops were mixed with illicit crops, or spray operations did not occur."

Asked about displacement of people due to Plan Colombia, USAID said there was no evidence and that the "opposite" had occured, with displaced citizens "returning to areas where security and state presence has returned and where illegal activities have been minimised".

Executions

Armed groups have forced many campesinos to take sides and arms in the conflict, or face punishment.

Executions still take place in Putumayo, and, while the army is winning its war in the region, mass graves have also been found.

Colombia's cocaine trade finances illegal armies and rebel fighters

Guillermo Leon Taborda, a former coca picker who gave up growing the crop because of the increasing dangers, said: "Pre-2000 the guerrillas were only involved in regulating the trade of cocaine with the mafia [drug cartels].

"[But] post-2000 they have become more involved in the production. So the mafia has lost out, which has led to fighting between the groups.

"The mafia are with the paramilitary groups. Guerrillas fight not for belief but for the market.

"Then the paramilitaries start killing many more people in Putumayo - the peasants, farmers - and this had the support of the army because the guerrillas are being targeted."

National politics has also been tainted by links to this violence. The Colombian supreme court is investigating more than 60 congressmen, most allies of Alvaro Uribe, the Colombian president, for alleged links to paramilitaries.

An unsuccessful plan?

Ultimately, without strong development strategies, Vargas, and several other critics, say they expect Plan Colombia to be unsuccessful.

In June the United Nations said coca production had increased by 27 per cent in 2007, as growers find more secluded areas to grow the crop and develop herbicide-resistant hybrids.

"There needs to be a new strategy for alternative development projects. The campesinos need the support of the state for sustainable development," Vargas said.

"I don't see a policy in the short-term that will focus on this, meaning that people will increase their involvement in coca in the succeeding years."

And for many of Colombia's children, the lack of alternatives means the likelihood of them joining the coca industry or armed groups.

"I think that the plantations should be legal, then there would be no problem to sell coca and to live," Thomas says.

"That way we can afford schools, clothes, food and everyone will be happy."

Source: Al Jazeera