Swapping Cocaine for Peace
A voluntary coca crop substitution initiative in Colombia is failing. It is still the country’s best option to address its cocaine production problem.
PUERTO ASÍS, Colombia—Just one year ago a drive through the rugged roads of Puerto Asís, a municipality in Colombia’s Putumayo department, would have passed by countless fields covered in emerald green coca crops. Coca is the substance used to make cocaine, and Putumayo, located on the border with Ecuador, has long been one of the country’s top cocaine-producing regions. But today more than half of Puerto Asís’s coca is gone.
The coca crops of Puerto Asís began to disappear one year after the Colombian government signed a peace deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerilla group in 2016 and the subsequent National Comprehensive Program for the Substitution of Illicit Crops. Under the program, which passed in 2017, coca farmers of this region voluntarily uprooted their crops in exchange for a series of government-provided benefits and programs to swap illegal crops for legal ones.
Marcos Rojas was one such coca farmer. Now 42, he had grown coca since age 17. That was when the FARC guerrilla group killed his mother, a single parent, and displaced him from his land in Meta, a department northeast of Putumayo. For 25 years coca was his only source of income. But he is now tired of it. “We never prospered with coca,” he says. “It only attracted armed groups and violence.”
At first glance, all of this sounds like a success story for the Colombian government. And it would seem Puerto Asís is on track to rid the region of coca for good. But, according to Rojas, by this time next year, coca is likely to take over once again. That is because the government hasn’t fulfilled its end of the agreement.
Under the substitution program, in exchange for uprooting their own coca plants, coca farmers were to receive a monthly subsidy of 1 million pesos, more than $300, for one year, and technical assistance to begin other projects—such as personal, self-sustaining vegetable gardens—beyond that. Rojas and his neighbors say they have fulfilled their part of the bargain; each eradicated their own coca crops in 2017. Yet thus far they have only received half the subsidies and no technical assistance. Meanwhile, with their coca gone, they’ve lost their livelihoods. To put food on his able, Rojas himself took some plantain and yucca plants from faraway plantations and tried to plant them in his land. But now his farm looks like it was ravaged by a hurricane; the plantains and yucca grow among fallen trees and burned coca leaves.
While the government drags its feet, other armed groups are taking advantage of the void created by the FARC’s demobilization. They now control the drug trade the FARC once created and are trying to stop crop substitution by killing those who take part in it. Farmers feel unsafe and poorer for the choice to rid their land of coca plants. All of that could lead to violence, backsliding, and a resurgence of the cocaine trade, if things don’t change quickly. That would mean one of Colombia’s greatest success stories could quickly turn into failure.
The project’s aim was to give coca farmers alternative options though which they could make a living. When the FARC was in power, prior to the peace deal, the militant group was the law of the land for these farmers in Putumayo. It was a symbiotic relationship: The FARC financed itself through the cocaine business, which meant they needed the farmers to grow it. The farmers benefited, because the FARC bought their coca. The promised stipend and assistance to build a vegetable garden under the substitution program was meant to help farmers survive while they transitioned into a legal way of making a living. In the long term, more technical assistance was meant to help farmers transform their arable land for crops they could eventually sell at markets, such as cacao and sacha inchi, a type of nut. The farmers first signed collective agreements expressing their communities’ interest in the program, and then individual ones with a commitment to voluntarily eradicate. The United Nations was put in charge of verifying that each farmer declares the right amount of coca. It also verifies that farmers fulfill their promises to uproot their own crops.
The program was considered revolutionary by drug policy experts in the country, because it was the government’s first large-scale attempt to deal with the country’s vast coca plantations as a problem of development, not of criminality. But even at the outset, its implementation was chaotic. Its creation coincided with a dramatic upsurge in the number of hectares planted with coca across Colombia (171,000 in 2017). Under pressure to produce results in the war against cocaine, the government rushed into signing contracts with thousands of coca farmer families without working out the finer details of the program.
The government’s first mistake was trying to roll out the program with an aggressive forced eradication initiative. Members of the armed forces forcefully uprooted more than 60,000 hectares of coca a year for the past two years. Coca growers often protested, leading to violent clashes with police. Forced eradication proceeds much more quickly than voluntary eradication and reached many coca farmers before they were able to sign on to the plan willingly. But forced eradication is more likely to lead to backsliding and replanting, as it doesn’t create alternatives or options to make a living without coca.
The second mistake was one of infrastructure. Across Colombia, underdevelopment threatens the substitution program’s success. Selling coca requires little infrastructure. A buyer typically shows up to a coca farm and takes it away. But to sell their, new, alternative crops, farmers will have to bring their own produce to market. That means they need roads—and these, largely, do not yet exist in coca regions. If the government doesn’t build them fast enough, the agricultural products meant to replace coca will rot before the farmers have a chance to sell them.
Verification, too, has hit stumbling blocks. The U.N.’s efforts to verify and confirm the thousands of hectares that are now part of the program are taking longer than anticipated They were supposed to take between 30 and 60 days to verify uprooting. Further, in some areas where the government has signed agreements, the presence of armed groups has made it too dangerous for the U.N. to do its job. But without the U.N.’s seal of approval, coca farmers cannot start receiving benefits. Some farmers I spoke to say they have been waiting for the U.N.’s arrival for about a year.
There are organizational problems too. Emilio Archila, the lawyer appointed as the high counselor for post-conflict by Colombian President Iván Duque after he took office in August—Archila’s office is in charge of articulating the government’s vision of post-conflict Colombia and implementing the peace deal—says delays with the program’s technical assistance are the previous government’s making. When he took over the job, there were only 17 contractors hired to provide technical assistance. They each had a capacity to help a maximum of 100 families. But just over 99,000 families signed up with the program. Archila is in the process of hiring providers that can tackle the magnitude of the job, but that, too, will take time.
There’s more. In Puerto Asís, the database for the Forest Ranger Families Program, a small-scale substitution program that pre-existed the National Comprehensive Program for the Substitution of Illicit Crops (it launched in 2005) lists as beneficiaries hundreds of farmers. But most of those farmers never actually received assistance from that program. That’s a problem: Though those farmers are still waiting for the Forest Ranger Families Program, they are rejected if they try to sign up for the new substitution plan because farmers cannot be part of two similar programs.
The Fundación Ideas Para la Paz, a nongovernmental organization and think tank that supports peace building in Colombia, says delays in the substitution program’s arrival, its perceived broken promises, and forced eradication generate mistrust in the government. Coca farmers are therefore susceptible to the influence of illegal armed groups and could continue to grow coca at their behest.
Those armed groups have been gaining ground. Colombia’s coca plantations usually exist in remote areas, far from urban centers in places where the state has been historically absent. The FARC used to control most of those areas. After their demobilization, the government failed to fill in the void they left behind. Instead, other armed groups, such as the National Liberation Army and FARC dissidents, or those who refused to adhere to the peace deal, arrived first. They now control the drug trade the FARC once created and are trying to stop crop substitution by killing leaders who advocate for it. Last year, 226 social leaders, most of them substitution advocates, were killed in Colombia.
If the government wants crop substitution to succeed, it will have to guarantee coca farmers’ safety. To do that, it cannot solely rely on the armed forces, said Hernando Zuleta, the director of the Center for Studies on Security and Drugs at the University of the Andes in Bogotá. It will have to largely expand its presence to areas where it has failed to do so in the past. Infrastructure spending will need a radical boost to build roads, schools, and hospitals. Education will have to be prioritized, as well as the presence of government institutions such as courts, notaries, and state banks.
And yet, for all its flaws, the program is still proving to be more effective than forced eradication. The police say growers replant around 40 percent of forcefully uprooted coca. On top of that, Zuleta said, forced eradication produces the so-called globe effect, in which coca forcefully uprooted in one area reappears in another where it wasn’t previously present. The program eradicates coca at a much slower pace. Since its creation, farmers have voluntarily eradicated 32,929 hectares. But in regions where the plan has been implemented, replanting rates are near zero. Putumayo is proof of the potential that a program like the National Comprehensive Program for the Substitution of Illicit Crops has in fighting the spread of coca. It has the largest number of voluntarily uprooted coca hectares in the country. Not a single productive project resulting from the program is found in the region. Yet farmers who signed contracts with the program have not gone back to coca, yet, and are hoping for the program’s success.
Archila has stated that the new government will fulfill every single such contract already signed. It is commendable that the new government did not end the program. But Duque’s anti-drugs policy is very similar to that of his predecessor, with a heavy focus on forced eradication and a return to aerial spraying of crop-killing chemicals. It’s true that the fear of forced eradication pushes farmers to consider signing up for a voluntary substitution program—after all, if farmers don’t voluntarily uproot, the armed forces will do it for them. The better option is voluntary eradication, because they get the benefits of the program. But Duque should not allow his policy to become too much stick and not enough carrot. Otherwise, he will lose the most viable option to finally strike a blow to the country’s decades-long cocaine production problem.
Reporting for this article was supported by the Pulitzer Center.