By David Ives

With our attention focused on Iraq and the November elections, the United States is overlooking a growing danger close to home that could potentially draw the U.S. military into combat in South America.

Colombia is on a path that could lead to an expansion of its civil war to areas outside the drug-exporting nation's borders - a conflict that would require the intervention of more U.S. troops than the handful of advisers currently serving in the region.

A closer look at international trade, specifically the role subsidies play in farming, could make this type of intervention unnecessary. Enlightened diplomacy and economic policies could spare many American lives lost to drug abuse today, and others claimed by street and jungle fighting tomorrow.

Colombia continues to ship large quantities of narcotics to be sold illicitly in the United States, where the appetite for cocaine remains very high and represents more of a daily threat to lives of American citizens than any weapons of mass destruction in Iraq ever did.

Peace will be unlikely in Colombia, or in any other drug-producing part of the world, until agricultural subsides are eliminated in Europe, North America, and Japan. The problem of drug production is directly linked to these subsidies, a fact that became clear to me when I taught agriculture as a Peace Corps volunteer in Central America in the early 1980s.

It was very difficult to look a poor, uneducated farmer in the eye and tell him that growing corn or cucumbers or strawberries in his field was a good idea when he knew that a very small plot of marijuana would bring him several times as much income as any legal agricultural staple.

Little has changed since then, as I have learned from recent visits to Latin America. These struggling farmers, and millions like them in underdeveloped, drug-producing corners of the globe, work to provide for their families in squalid, leaky huts with dirt floors, often polluted wells as a source for water, and no electricity. Meanwhile, farmers in Europe, North America and Japan enjoy subsidies that result in an uneven playing field and encourage Latin American farmers to grow drug crops to stay alive and feed their children.

This is often overlooked as political leaders promote and expand free-trade agreements. It is a little-known fact that European farmers can grow and export rice, wheat and other staples and sell it more cheaply to people in Colombia than a local farmer growing the same thing with only meters to go to sell his product. These farmers may be poor and they may have little formal schooling, but they are not stupid. What kind of message does this send them?

There is another free trade agreement under consideration right now among negotiators from the United States, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru. If the citizens of the United States really want to stop the scourge of drugs in their society, or at least make a serious dent in it, then the nature of agricultural subsidies needs to receive serious attention at the negotiating table.

The United States needs to recognize that its own citizens will be safer if in Colombia and in other source countries for drugs farmers can compete in a fair fight on an equal playing field.

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