Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Peru's Latest Tool in the War on Drugs: Land Ownership

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Peru's Latest Tool in the War on Drugs: Land Ownership

Article excerpt

Despite torrential rains, Alfredo Flores has no qualms about dashing into his fields to show off his palm-oil trees. A few years ago, Mr. Flores and many of the other 400 farmers in Shambillo, in the deep jungle some 300 miles northeast of Lima, Peru's capital, had no interest in letting anyone see their crops. That's because they were growing coca, the raw material from which cocaine is extracted. Not only that, Flores didn't even own the land. He had cleared 34 acres of once-lush Amazon jungle and farmed it for nearly 15 years.

But in September 2002, Flores was one of the first farmers to opt for a plan financed by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) to get coca growers to pull up their illicit crops in favor of palm-oil trees and pineapples. Farmers received approximately $60 for each acre of coca eradicated, as well as assistance to plant alternative crops. More than 80 percent of Shambillo's farmers have eradicated their coca.

Now he is ready to take the final step in his transition from clandestine coca grower to legitimate farmer. He will be given official ownership of the land in February. It's all part of a new stage in Peru's drug-eradication effort, started last month. Thousands of farmers like Flores will be given title to their land as a way to formalize the economy in the country's vast drug- growing regions.

"Having title to land is an incentive for us. With the titles, we now know the land is ours and we can use it to improve our standard of living," Flores says.

The Peruvian government and US Embassy officials hope that ownership in the land and the equity that comes with it will help solidify recent gains in the decades-long war on drugs.

"We are trying to formalize the economy in these areas to increase investment and production, which is the only answer to combat drug trafficking," says a US Embassy official in Lima.

Hernando de Soto, author of "The Other Path," the 1986 bible on the importance of formalizing the economy, says the process is a major step toward changing the entire illicit economy on which drug trafficking is based.

"Property changes the rules of the game. It gives farmers something tangible they can use as collateral. It is a bargaining chip they never had before," he says.

With land titles, farmers can enroll individually or as communities in a number of government programs, like housing services or agricultural assistance.

USAID has earmarked $1.3 million to title 4,300 plots of land, most averaging about 30 acres. The Peruvian government's Special Land Titling Program (PETT) is carrying out the program, which involves 15 eight-person brigades. The value of the plots being titled in Shambillo is approximately $5 million.

Omar Valderrama, a PETT director, says the program shows people that the state is interested in improving the livelihoods of farmers and not simply eliminating the illegal drug industry. …

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