Coca stands at the heart of a fierce debate over Colombia’s worsening rural insecurity. The plant’s leaves are the sole raw material from which cocaine, an illegal drug that generates outlandish profits and finances armed and criminal groups, can be manufactured. Colombian President Iván Duque argues that the whole narcotic supply chain – from coca cultivation to global cocaine trafficking – is the scourge behind rising massacres, forced displacement and assassinations of community leaders in Colombia. With cultivation hitting new highs in recent years, Bogotá has vastly expanded campaigns that involve sending in the army and police to pull up or otherwise eradicate coca crops. It also threatens to restart aerial fumigation. Yet an approach based on forceful eradication of coca, which the U.S. has stoutly backed, tends to worsen rural violence, while failing to reduce drug supply. A new strategy is needed that persuades coca farmers to abandon a plant that offers a stable income and an attractive alternative to other legal crops.
Dismantling the illicit drug economy was one of six main planks of the landmark 2016 peace accord between the state and the guerrilla Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). That accord promised to institute a nationwide crop substitution program enabling roughly 200,000 coca-growing families to pursue other legal businesses. It sought to sever links between the insurgency and drug trafficking, while establishing state authority in pockets of the country where criminal rule and poverty had long allowed cocaine production to thrive.
Four years later, few of those promises have been met. Coca cultivation began rising to historical highs during peace negotiations, driven in part by the expectation that any eventual accord would benefit coca farmers who pledged to substitute their crops. This trend worsened as the government struggled to meet the promises made to farmers. Bogotá has not been able to transform the economic fundamentals that make coca – fast-growing and destined for a loyal international market – such a reliable crop. New armed groups have swooped in to control the supply chain the FARC left behind. An array of hustlers, guerrillas and criminals vie for control over the purchase and refining of coca, as well as trafficking routes out of the country.
The Duque government’s policies have not helped. Rather than redouble efforts to fulfil the 2016 accords, the government has placed coercive methods such as manual eradication at the centre of its push to bring order to Colombia’s violent countryside. Little suggests this strategy will succeed, either in curbing coca supply or reducing violence. Eradication pushes farmers into unwilling alignment with armed groups, since the state’s only service to them is perceived as a disservice that uproots their livelihoods. Vulnerable to traffickers’ coercion yet also stigmatised as illegal collaborators by the military, farmers experience violence from both. Soldiers have also suffered casualties and psychological damage during manual eradication. Worse, the military and cultivators both know that these efforts will have only a partial effect, as replanting rates reach 40 to 50 per cent, or higher.
A strategy to reduce violence should focus on bringing coca farmers back under the state’s protective umbrella while providing them with genuine licit alternatives to the crop. Given support, the vast majority of cultivators have already signalled that they would willingly forsake the coca economy. Farmers need more systematic help to make that transition. Above all, this would entail major improvements to rural roads, access to credit and provision of formal land titles, as laid out in the transformative package of rural reforms promised in the 2016 peace accord. In the interim, Bogotá should de-emphasise forced eradication methods and abandon plans for a return to aerial fumigation. To salvage trust between farmers and the military and police, security forces should not be at the forefront of crop destruction if it does take place.
In support of these reforms, the new U.S. administration should turn the page on Washington’s long history of backing tough yet in essence counterproductive measures to destroy drug supply. The administration should instead back comprehensive efforts to boost Colombia’s rural economies. Together with the U.S. Congress, it should also review the merits of a requirement that the U.S. president certify key countries’ compliance with U.S. counter-narcotic policy each year in order to receive foreign assistance. This process has placed great pressure on Colombia to focus its rural security policy on reducing coca supply in a way that is insensitive to local dynamics and exacerbates threats to civilians.
The past decades have demonstrated that Colombia is losing the battle against a plant that has been at the centre of a dangerous drug market, but whose cultivation has provided the poorest rural communities with a lifeline. It is time to take a hard look at a strategy that has focused too hard on destroying that lifeline, and not enough on replacing it with something better.
Bogotá/New York/Washington/Brussels, 26 February 2021