Charities reject cocaine boycott

Katherine Demopoulos

Oxfam and Christian Aid have both rejected a Foreign Office suggestion that they participate in a plan to shame the middle classes into boycotting cocaine.

In an interview last week with The Observer, Foreign Office Minister Bill Rammell said users should view cocaine in the same light as consumers viewed South African wine during apartheid, when sales famously plummeted.

At the same time, Rammell suggested bringing Oxfam and Christian Aid on board to raise awareness of the levels of violence associated with Colombian cocaine production.

Rammell, in charge of Foreign Office policy on drugs and international crime, made the comments after a trip to Colombia for a drugs conference.

He was building on a reference by Britain's Metropolitan Police chief Sir Ian Blair to the 'trail of blood' that links a line of cocaine in the UK to the Colombian conflict. Blair had also highlighted the incongruence of the dinner-party set insisting on fair-trade coffee and organic vegetables, but using cocaine.

However, neither Oxfam nor Christian Aid have been consulted by Rammell yet, and they are not impressed by his plans for them. Christian Aid's Caribbean specialist Sarah Wilson said that such a role would fall outside the charity's remit: "It's not very well thought through. It should be recognised that we're a humanitarian international charity. Our focus is on poverty in the developing world, not crime in the UK."

While stressing Christian Aid's recognition of the damage caused by the cocaine industry, she said governments should also look at the reasons behind a Latin American farmer's decision to grow the drug.

"We think that trade policy is equally as significant a factor as cocaine use here. Rammell shouldn't take the spotlight off trade policies by focusing on middle class drug users."

Growing wheat in Bolivia has become more difficult because subsidies allow the US to export the crop cheaply, while international trade agreements have forced Jamaican clothing factories to move to Mexico, and contributed to the island's role as a cocaine trans-shipper.

An Oxfam spokeswoman said: "Nothing came from our office, nor from Christian Aid. We don't know anything about the campaign and it's not part of our plans. We are very aware that drugs are a problem and are linked to the perpetuation of conflict in Colombia, but we're not going to start asking people to boycott cocaine."

A Foreign Office spokeswoman qualified Rammell's comments, saying: "The approach trailed by Rammell is a possible solution to the problem. We are having initial discussions within government and will then canvass NGOs for their views. It is at a very early stage and is just a concept we're considering."

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