Of poppies, plantations — and parents

Jenny James looks out over Colombia’s opium crop.
The nearest fields are five minutes from her cabin.

The poppies in Colombia aren’t red, like those that grew in the cornfields of Kent when I was a child. They are every delicate pastel shade from pink to mauve to purple.

When they drop their petals and form large seed-cups, young children and muscled men who could be doing much heavier work bend over the vast fields, making fine razor-cuts in the pods. Then, day by day, the sticky ooze that emanates from the cut is collected. Final destination: heroin on the city streets of the Northern Hemisphere.

Poppies grow best on recently deforested cool mountain slopes; for at least a year the floor of the slaughtered forest will be fertile.

The nearest opium crop to us is about five minutes from our central cabin. The occupant of the versatile sprayer-plane that swooped down right over our heads as we weeded our vegetable garden would naturally have thought the crop was ours; in fact, its owner lives one hour down the mountainside. So far, we have avoided being sprayed by aerial herbicides; not so our nearest neighbour Chucho, just ten minutes along the muddy track, nor Don Carlos, the next neighbour. He is an Evangelist and preached to me how he would ‘never hurt other nations’ by growing poppies. Now he has several acres. There is no other form of agriculture in this area, now that a ban on logging has finally been imposed.

The FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) guerrilla force have been known kill drug-users, after the customary three cautions, or at least to drive them from the area. But they support the peasants and oppose aerial spraying. So do I.

Martyn, aged 15, was standing with some neighbours outside their shack watching the aerial antics. He had a small radio with him and caught the aircraft’s frequency.

‘Look at those sons-of-bitches watching us. Perhaps they’d like another dose,’ said one of the Colombian armed-helicopter crew, directing and protecting the American pilot of the spray-plane.

Martyn, being Irish, could understand both the languages spoken in the air above him. It’s handy for the Colombian Government that the Americans have decided it is easier to attack Third World peasants rather than deal with problems back home; the Colombian Government likes attacking peasants too, especially in guerrilla-controlled areas.

Meanwhile, we heard that my daughter Louise, also 15, was working on a poppy farm. She had told us that she and her teenage boyfriend, Alvaro, were tasting life in the nearest town.

Martyn’s mother, Mary, hit the roof, and eyed me for my reaction. I shrugged. I was caught somewhere between not wanting to play the authoritarian parent and feeling indignant that Louise would risk sullying our anti-drug reputation, thus weakening our environmental arguments. Mary flew off.

She returned many hours later, rosy and pleased with herself, with a pale Louise in tow. Mary and the neighbour’s poppy-workers had enjoyed the brawl. Alvaro had not. He was trained that it was not nice to hit ladies, even when attacked, and ended up being chased round the opium plantation by the robust and not-very-inhibited Mary. The plantation owner was also not pleased: Mary gave him an Irish-Colombian earful and he has not spoken to us since.

Louise was relieved to be rescued; she had hated every minute of her escapade. I couldn’t help a little private amusement as I mentally perused the generations: my own mother, born in 1910, had shocked her Victorian mother by leaving home at 22, becoming a professional artist and joining the Communist Party. I’d horrified her by beginning my sexual life at 14; what could Louise do in her turn? Well, she could go and work on an opium-poppy plantation.

Jenny James has lived and worked in the rainforest in Colombia since 1987. ~ End 2 ~

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