The Howard G. Buffett Foundation plans to spend $200 million over the next few years to eliminate coca in an impoverished municipality in rural Colombia and transform it into a model of regional state building, the Associated Press reports.
Located in the country's Catatumbo region, Tibu is home to 28,200 acres of coca, the raw material for cocaine, making it the second-largest coca crop in Colombia. Production of cocaine and the violence that accompanies it have skyrocketed since armed groups filled the void left by retreating rebels, who signed a peace deal with the government in 2016. Buffett's plans for the area include strengthening security forces and infrastructure for local law enforcement, as well as helping local farmers willing to substitute legal crops such as cacao for coca secure titles to their land and find buyers for their new crops. The first component of the plan calls for the construction of a hundred and eighty-five miles of roads to connect the municipality's thirty-seven thousand residents with national and international markets.
"The only way we have confidence that farmers can grow legal crops is if they can get those crops to market," Buffett, the son of multi-billionaire investor and Giving Pledge co-founder Warren Buffett, told farmers during a visit to Tibu last month with Colombian president Iván Duque, who has vowed to slash cocaine production in half by the end of 2023. Portland, Oregon-based Mercy Corps is working with Buffett to help farmers sort through Colombia's bureaucratic maze to obtain land titles. The project faces significant challenges, however, including entrenched political corruption, criminal gangs in the area recruiting Venezuelan migrants as muscle, and guerrilla activity.
Buffett — a Nebraska farmer whose foundation is focused on food security, conflict mitigation, and public safety — began working in Colombia in 2008 when he helped international pop star Shakira set up schools in her hometown of Barranquilla, the AP reports. Leveraging his business contacts, he has since established a program to help nearly a hundred families in southern Colombia switch from growing coca to producing high-quality coffee for Nespresso. Buffett also has funded an army unit working to remove landmines strewn across former conflict zones.
Buffett's commitment in support of Tibu is more than triple what the Colombian government has spent over the past two years on public works in a hundred and seventy high-risk municipalities as part of a rural development rescue plan mandated by the peace deal, and it rivals the $230 million USAID spends annually on projects across all of Colombia. A volunteer police officer in Decatur, Illinois, in his spare time, Buffett has seen firsthand the human toll caused by drug addiction, and his foundation has committed a total of $55 million for a healthcare and social services campus dedicated to addressing public health and drug addiction in Macon County, where he serves as undersheriff.
"These are people who need our help," Buffett said of people struggling with addiction. "They're not criminals."
(Photo credit: Howard G. Buffett Foundation)