Features

Property plight

International | Farmers in the Peruvian countryside don't have any legal rights to the land, and the result is that they plant the coca used to make cocaine

Issue: "Schundler's bliss," July 7, 2001

in Iquitos, Peru-The three pontoon planes in a tin-and-wood structure on the Amazon River at first appear to be nothing special. But a closer look brings into view the duct tape now covering the entry points of the bullets that sprayed the plane. The dozens of entry holes are small, but the holes created by the bullets as they exited the cockpit and skin of the plane are large and jagged. The physical damage to the plane brings to mind what must have been the horror and panic of the final moments of life for missionary Veronica Bowers and her newly adopted infant daughter Charity (see WORLD, "Drug war disaster," May 5). And what could this have been like for Mrs. Bowers's husband and young son who survived, or for the pilot, his legs shattered by bullets, who still managed to land the aircraft on the surface of the Amazon? It's clear that smoke and fire filled the cockpit. The flammable material on the seats is gone and reveals the metal structures that held it together. The windows of the plane are charred by smoke and warped by the heat. It must have been terrible in those final moments. Many people have asked questions about the pilot who shot at the plane on April 20, and about his commanders. Some have expanded the questioning to theological matters: Why did this happen? What is God's plan in all this? But a middle level of questioning is also useful: What can we learn from this about law and economics? The big picture is that Peru is at the bottom of the drug food chain. It is the nation that provides the raw product of coca leaves. Columbia is responsible for processing and the United States is responsible for consuming. But it all begins in Peru. The thinking goes that if it is possible to stop the raw product from being delivered to processors, the final product will not make it to the streets of major cities and small towns in the United States. Shooting down suspected drug planes is thus one of the first lines of defense in the battle against the drug trade. If we are at war and if this is the only way to limit cocaine, then perhaps the deaths of Mrs. Bowers and her daughter can be thought of as a regrettable, but realistic, part of the war on drugs. In all wars, people make mistakes and the innocent die. Sometimes intentional actions are taken and the innocent die. But there is more to consider in this complicated matter: a problem of law that we do not encounter in the United States. The economic push to grow and ship coca leaves to Columbia for processing is directly tied to the lack of property rights for many of the citizens of Peru. In the countryside of Peru, few formal property rights exist. The land is not surveyed and does not technically belong to anyone. Those who grow the coca plants are able to grow them on land for which they are not accountable. The drug officers have a difficult time holding anyone responsible when they discover a field of coca plants. Hernando de Soto, Peru's leading free-market economist, says that the first characteristic of an outlaw is that he does not have an address. Those who grow the coca have little incentive to plant a legitimate crop. Because they do not formally own the land, they cannot use the equity in their property to secure a loan to purchase equipment or seed. They cannot be assured that they will be able to harvest what they plant because they cannot be assured that the state will protect their property. The matter becomes more pronounced for crops that are not seasonal. Mr. De Soto points out that were the growers of coca to plant palms, they would earn six times more than they do growing coca. But it takes five years to grow a crop that will eventually produce palm oil. Farmers have no guarantee that they will still have access to the land in five years, so taking the short-term payoff makes economic sense. The war on drugs must become less focused on guns and more attentive to the real issues that make growing coca profitable. At the head of the line: how to establish property rights.

-Gerald Zandstra is director of programs for the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty

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