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An uneasy peace for Colombia’s coca farmers

Colombian anti-drug policemen and a dog stand guard at a coca plantation in Tumaco, Colombia in February, 2020.
REUTERS/Luisa Gonzalez

Despite a historic peace accord signed in 2016, Colombia is in the midst of its biggest civil uprisings in recent history. A national strike declared earlier this year overturned the government’s proposed tax reforms and then spread to other issues including corruption, healthcare and application of the accord. Since May, peaceful marches across the country have been met by state violence that left at least 60 dead and thousands injured during May’s demonstrations.

One key grievance for long-neglected rural communities has been the government’s failure to reduce violence and deliver alternatives to growing coca. Colombia is the world’s largest producer of the plant, the primary ingredient in cocaine. Cultivation is mostly undertaken by subsistence producers in areas with poor infrastructure, where the army, paramilitaries and guerrilla groups vie for control.

A national body – the Coordinator of Cultivators of Coca, Poppy and Marijuana (COCCAM) – seeks ‘to effectively transform the coca economy into a viable, sustainable and legal economy’. Alongside campesinos (farmers and their communities) involved in illicit crop production, they have lobbied hard for proper implementation of the National Programme for the Substitution of Illicit Crops (PNIS). As one of the key features of the peace deal, this UN-backed framework was designed to manage economic transitions away from coca and other illegal crops. COCCAM believes that if implemented correctly, it could improve economic and social security for communities.

Many coca-growing areas are up to 10 hours from the nearest urban centre. ‘There aren’t any roads, there aren’t other viable business models,’ explains Arnobis Zapata, COCCAM’s leader. ‘Selling a sack of rice in town isn’t feasible: the donkey to transport it works out as more expensive.’

For decades, the Colombian government’s approach to tackling coca production has been callous and ineffective

As it stands, farmers have limited options. Most are forced to either stop producing coca – voluntarily or as a result of state crop destruction – and face the subsequent threats of hunger or dispossession by armed groups; move to a city along with the thousands of other displaced people in search of scarce employment; or carry on. The last option presents other risks.

A history of malign intervention

For decades, the Colombian government’s approach to tackling coca production has been callous and ineffective. US-backed policies of forced eradication and aerial fumigation have been pursued by successive administrations, despite extremely poor outcomes – both in terms of reducing coca production and the welfare of farming communities.

Forced eradication by the military, police and other armed forces has not only failed to deter farmers from growing coca – 80 per cent go on to replant – but it has also incurred grave human costs. In 2018, New Internationalist reported the killing of at least seven people by security forces in southwest Nariño. Scores more have been killed or injured during crop destruction operations over the last four years.

Aerial fumigation with glyphosate, which was banned under the previous Santos government after the World Health Organisation (WHO) deemed it to be ‘probably carcinogenic to humans’, had even worse results. Around 70 per cent of affected producers would resew crops in the same location, with the remainder migrating to new areas (often in national parks) to do the same. Environmental destruction caused by glyphosate fumigation is well documented: soil and water contamination can lead to fatalities, crop destruction and the displacement of entire communities.

Instead of facilitating just economic transitions and development for coca growing communities, the conservative Duque government has doubled-down on coercive methods. Evidence shows this doesn’t reduce violence, economic precarity or even coca production (which increased last year). Farmers are sandwiched between a government threatening to destroy their livelihood by eradicating their crops, and armed groups threatening the same through dispossession or worse.

Arnobis and others are pressuring authorities to actually implement ‘different policies to the ones they have relied on for over 25 years’ which simply perpetuate a ‘vicious cycle’ where the government eradicates and farmers replant.

No long-term vision

The policy of voluntary substitution, which is set out in the peace agreement, should offer cultivators financial and other safeguards to safely transition from illegal crops, with forced eradication as a last resort.

But, Colombia is yet to see the benefits of what the PNIS could bring – if carried out as planned. Over 98 per cent of farmers intially approached to join the programme agreed to voluntarily remove their coca plantations and replace them with licit crops that provide legal livelihoods. But less than half of the subsequent applicants were accepted. For those who did join however, replanting rates were just 0.6 per cent.  In other words, voluntary substitution with the prospect of alternative forms of earning income – as in the PNIS – could reduce replanting rates by at least 130 times more than coercive methods.

According to Arnobis, this shows what many have been saying for decades: ‘It’s not simply a question of getting rid of the crops; you have to create the conditions for viable economic alternatives to emerge so people don’t have to go back to planting coca.’

This government doesn’t want a dialogue with anyone: not with us, not with the farmers

Unfortunately, most illicit cultivators have not had access to the PNIS at all, and many face the same problems as participants in the 2006 predecessor, Familias Guardabosques (Forest Ranger Families). These include a lack of promised financial and other commercial support, infrastructure and access to profitable markets, declines in living standards and ongoing insecurity.

According to research published in the Journal of Intervention and Statebuilding in May, farmers directed to adopt alternative crops such as pineapple, coffee, sugar cane, and rubber encountered saturated markets, low and unstable prices or long harvest wait times, with few opportunities for scaling production. On top of this, many peasants lack titles to their land – also promised by the peace deal as part of the Integral Rural Reform – a further access barrier to legal livelihood. This has led to widespread community distrust that the government will deliver on any guarantees.

Violent retribution from armed groups with a vested interest in maintaining coca production is common. Justice for Colombia quoted a recent study that found 75 people working on substitution programmes were murdered between late 2016 and June 2020.

Moreover, according to Arnobis, the programme ‘hasn’t even touched the areas with the highest levels of coca production’, such as Catatumbo and Nariño. Country-wide, the PNIS has reached less than 20 per cent of territories where illegal cultivation occurs. And since 2018 the Duque government has actively sought to defund the program: no new producers have been registered, and the PNIS now faces decommission.

Duque’s alternative proposal for voluntary substitution aims to cover less than a third of coca plantations, strips back support for transitioning families, and depends on ad hoc contributions from the international community. Arnobis is clear: ‘This government doesn’t want a dialogue with anyone: not with us, not with the farmers’.

Warning signs

Despite the WHO ruling, Duque is also pushing to restart dangerous aerial fumigation, and the Biden government has made no signs of opposing this. The only approval now required is from Colombia’s constitutional court. With the help of organizations like the José Alvear Restrepo Lawyer Collective (CAJAR), COCCAM have secured injunctions to stall this process, but fear they are running out of options.

Historically, much of Colombia’s foreign aid has funded forced eradication and aerial spraying strategies. Local campaigners are appealing to the international community to introduce conditionality on future monies, so voluntary substitution programs and small-producer welfare are prioritized, aerial fumigation is prohibited, and any military efforts target drug traffickers only.

With domestic and international pressure to save the PNIS and advance the implementation of key rural reforms, there is hope for coca-growing campesinos. Reorienting efforts away from forced eradication and aerial fumigation, and towards voluntary substitution with wrap-around transition support for small-scale producers, is crucial for the creation of sustainable, legal livelihoods. The war on coca farmers and their families must end.


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