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Farmers, Fields, and Fear: The Colombian Growers Caught in the War on Coca

“Quien no quiera cultivar, que se vaya o lo matamos.”

Anyone who doesn’t want to grow can either leave or be killed.

A young man with a hard look on his face and a weapon by his side said this to a group of farmers in Nariño, a department in western Colombia, according to a source who witnessed the interaction.

The source, who works for a Colombian non-governmental organization, said the young man was part of a criminal group that produces and sells cocaine, both inside and outside of Colombia. Government officials had just visited Nariño, offering money and seeds to farmers on the condition that they would agree to eliminate their crops of coca—their main source of income.

While cocaine attracts attention from U.S. media and politicians, the raw material used to make the drug—the coca plant—often goes unmentioned in public discourse. But coca is the primary source of income for thousands of families in rural Colombia, and its cultivation has complicated bilateral relations between Colombia and the U.S.

In the summer of 2016, the Nariño farmers faced a difficult choice. They could leave their hometown to avoid being killed by drug traffickers for refusing to grow coca, or they could reject the government’s offer and continue to grow the illicit coca crop in defiance of the authorities.

Growing coca is a dangerous business. Government airplanes deploy bombs to wipe out cartels, posing a serious risk to farmers living in the area. Cartels hide landmines in fields to kill soldiers sent by the government to eradicate the coca plants, endangering farmers’ lives, too.

Cocaine drives a vast transnational drug industry. High demand in the U.S. incentivizes cartels to continue their operations, and poor regulation of entry channels enables the transport of cocaine into the country.

The U.S. and Colombia’s joint efforts to counter cocaine production place a particular burden on the Colombian people. Drug cartels and former guerrilleros, civilians engaged in guerilla warfare, control coca production in Colombia. While the Colombian government is more concerned with disrupting criminal groups than with punishing coca growers, cartels provide farmers with financial support, which makes it difficult for the government to target cartels without harming coca growers.

Despite the Colombian government’s efforts, coca farmers have not been deterred from growing their crop. According to a 2016 report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, coca production increased by about 52 percent in 2016, from 237,000 to 360,000 acres of crop. The growth was concentrated in the departments of Nariño, Putumayo, and Santander. More than 85,000 families in Colombia earn their income by cultivating coca. A 2017 United Nations report estimated that each farmer was paid, on average, 1,200 dollars per year by cartels and other criminal groups for growing the crop illegally.

In 2016, Colombia signed a peace agreement with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), a Marxist-Leninist guerrilla group, in an attempt to end the Colombian conflict, a half-century-long war between the Colombian government and paramilitary and guerrilla groups. The  government hopes the agreement will establish peace, in addition to striking a blow to the nation’s cocaine industry. The agreement also includes a provision for compensating farmers who switch from coca cultivation to the production of other crops.

But coca eradication efforts have had unintended consequences. As FARC disbands its cocaine operations, other groups are stepping in to fill the void. At the same time, farmers across the country are rushing to plant coca so that they will be rewarded financially when they switch back to the crops they had grown before. Cocaine prices have dropped dramatically as the coca supply has surged.

Now, coca farmers are navigating uncertain terrain. They stand to benefit from cooperation with the government’s plan, but they must also negotiate with a new breed of criminal groups that have surfaced in the wake of FARC’s demilitarization.

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The U.S. government considers drug trafficking a matter of American national security. In an interview with The Politic, Juan Carlos Garzón Vergara, a global fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, D.C. and a research associate at Fundación Ideas para la Paz (Foundation of Ideas for Peace) in Colombia, said, “Given the United States’ perception of narco-trafficking, they have a dual agenda. First, to weaken guerrilla groups it became necessary to strike the narco[tics industry]. Second, the armed conflict surrounding the drug industry has reached the point at which it is considered terrorism.”

In 2000, the U.S. began the Plan Colombia initiative to fight drug cartels and insurgents in Colombia. But government officials in both the U.S. and Colombia have admitted publicly that their efforts have been insufficient. In 2017, President Trump publicly criticized Colombia’s eradication policies. He accused Colombia as being guilty of the surge of cocaine consumption in the U.S., and stated that the South American country had done very little to mitigate the problem, in spite of the ‘large’ amount of resources the U.S. had provided to tackle drug trafficking and organized crime.

“When the grand [drug] organizations and cartels leave the local market, new groups start to take advantage of local communities and enhance the local production,” Hernando Zuleta, the director of the Centre for Studies on Security and Drugs at the University of the Andes in Bogotá, explained in an interview with The Politic. “There is not permanent success in the fight against drugs.

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While coca crops are eradicated through either forced or voluntary elimination, rural farmers  in Colombia live in constant fear that armed forces will enter their lands in order to eliminate the crops. The strategy of forced elimination previously involved aerial spraying of glyphosate, an herbicide, in addition to manual extraction by the military. In 2015, however, the use of glyphosate was prohibited because of its high levels of toxicity, forcing the Colombian government to rely on exclusively on armed forces who would manually extract the crops. Voluntary elimination is also known as “illicit crop substitution.” The strategy allows farmers to continue using their lands only if they destroy their coca-crops and replace them with cacao, corn, sugar, or other legal crops.

But Garzón explained that there isn’t “one grand strategy for eradication.”

“Drug policies have to be thought about according to a specific context,” he said. “In the short term, forced eradication seems to work better. But if the strategy is not accompanied by government actions to continue monitoring areas of potential growth, then not only will it fail, but [it will] also provoke a high rate of re-sowing.”

Putumayo, next to Colombia’s border with Ecuador, is one of the main coca-producing regions in the country. Last year, the Colombian government, FARC, and local agriculture organizations began a joint project in Putumayo to substitute coca crops in at least 40 municipalities with cacao, corn, or coffee. But, according to the aforementioned source working for the Colombian NGO, farmers in Putumayo fear for their livelihoods.

“Coca crops have been a source of stable income for many families. It is impossible for them to stop growing these crops unless there are real opportunities for generating income,” Zuleta said.

Without better roads and infrastructure, the areas where farmers grow coca crops will remain largely inaccessible to outsiders, and the strategy of crop substitution will fail, said Daniel Cardona, a lawyer and researcher for Del Rosario University in Bogotá, in an interview with The Politic.

“Crop-substitution worked in Montes de María because it’s an area surrounded by economic centers, which gave local communities the opportunity to diversify their economy and streamline processes,” Cardona noted—but the strategy won’t work everywhere. In some of the most rural areas, changes in development policies—not only in drug policies—are overdue.

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On May 27, Colombia will hold presidential elections. The candidates have very different proposals for the eradication of coca crops, though they agree on the ultimate goal. Iván Duque, the candidate for the conservative party, Centro Democrático, wants to return to glyphosate air spraying. Leading in the polls, he believes that glyphosate techniques are integral to reducing the cultivation of illicit crops.

In contrast, Sergio Fajardo of the green Alianza Verde party forcefully opposes the use of glyphosate. Instead, he believes in enhancing crop substitution programs,  providing goods to rural communities, and increasing opportunities for young people.

Humberto de la Calle, of Partido Liberal Colombiano, believes that glyphosate should only be used as a last resort, given the harm it causes to the environment and to human health. For De la Calle, efforts to eradicate illicit drug trafficking should focus on seizing traffickers’ goods and implementing policies that prevent farmers from turning to coca cultivation for income.

The future of Colombia’s anti-coca campaign is uncertain. The fight against drug production and consumption continues, but the choice of a strategy to tackle these problems will depend on the upcoming election and the majority in Congress.

“I don’t know what happened to the Nariño farmers,” the source at the NGO told me. “I never went back. They were afraid of losing everything and starting from scratch, but they were more afraid of getting killed or being followed in case they ran away.