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Lords Diary: Baroness Boycott

A worker uproots a coca plant as part of a government counter-narcotics programme, Colombia | Alamy

4 min read

The heating in my office has been unreliable of late and I have done many Zooms in my trusty winter coat, sometimes with gloves.

In our climate committee we took evidence from the governor of Tokyo where buildings account for 70 per cent of all carbon emissions. One solution is to abandon the traditional Japanese working outfit – suit and tie for men, dress and jacket for women. Now men are expected to wear short sleeve shirts and women to forgo their jackets. The temperature will be kept at 28 degrees.

Having just returned from Colombia, I’ve been luxuriating in similar warmth. I was in the Caribbean port of Cartagena for the 17th annual Hay Festival. I’ve been involved with Hay for more than 25 years and have seen it grow from collection of wobbly tents in a wet Welsh field to an international wonder. We came to Colombia because south American writers like Carlos Fuentes and Gabriel García Márquez said the continent needed a forum where stories could be shared and ideas mingled. The early years were scary. Festival director Cristina Fuentes La Roche was carjacked on her way into Bogota. That nearly derailed our plans, but we pushed on, choosing Cartagena as it has an extra police force, due to a naval base. Still, it wasn’t unusual to see armed guards hovering round street corners and outside the hotels.

Over the 17 years we’ve played a role in Colombian affairs, being able to take complex government decisions to the public even as talks were happening behind the scenes. In 2015, the first public event to discuss the peace process took place at Hay, while talks were happening in Havana. 

Cocaine is Colombia’s curse

When President Santos was wrestling with the problems of cocaine he chose Hay to make his declarations. Cocaine is Colombia’s curse. It distorts all attempts at lasting peace and has been the major driver of the longest conflict in South America. Santos announced legalisation of some kind was the only way forward but, he said firmly, Colombia could not do this alone. The rest of the world had to join in. It hasn’t worked: every year, the area of land put down to growing coca increases. The US blames the Colombians and ignores the fact that they – and indeed us – are guilty of rising consumption.

Washington is currently pressurising the Colombian government to start respraying vast acres of land where coca might be grown with organophosphates, which destroy huge tracts of pristine and bio-diverse land. Colombia’s biodiversity is among the world’s richest – 19 per cent of the worlds bird species are found there; almost 10 per cent are unique. 

Several years ago my friend the writer Ben Okri and I went bird watching in the Santa Marta mountains following the festival. Our guide was an ex-Liverpool docker who wound up as one of Colombia’s greatest bird experts. We spend days walking through forests as he tried to coax birds from the trees with remarkable mimicry. Staying in the same lodge with us were some hardy birders from Yorkshire. They were armed with a printout of every bird in the world, laboriously ticking off their “sightings”. They dragged around a ghetto blaster with which to play relevant bird calls, but our guide told us the birds had grown savvy and were fed up with gliding to ground in the hope of meeting a mate, instead finding themselves face-to-face with a lump of metal made in Japan.

Over lunch with my friend Brigitte Baptiste, the leading Colombian environmentalist who used to head up the Humboldt Institute, I learn that the latest way to launder cocaine money is through growing avocados. The appetite for them is as furious as for cocaine. Even though the Colombian government has offered “incentives” to farmers to change their crops, frankly the money will not add up. We badly need the world to start telling a new story about drugs.

Baroness Boycott is a Crossbench peer

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