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Opinion: To End The Drug War, Help Coca Farmers Find A Way Out

Coca plants in the Guaviare department, Colombia. The leaves are the raw ingredient used to make cocaine.
Raul Arboleda
AFP via Getty Images
Coca plants in the Guaviare department, Colombia. The leaves are the raw ingredient used to make cocaine.

Elizabeth Dickinson (@dickinsonbeth) is senior analyst for Colombia at International Crisis Group, based in Bogotá. Before joining Crisis Group in 2017, she worked for a decade as a journalist including in Africa, Latin America and the Middle East.

SAN JOSÉ DEL GUAVIARE, Colombia — When Lida grew coca, the harvest was bountiful and frequent. Every three months the whole family — even her young children — threaded themselves through the branches to collect leaves. Picking coca came naturally; Lida's single mother raised her to work on the crop. Their fingers were often numb with calluses and they earned only enough to eat and start over again. But she remembers now, "it was either that or go hungry. We knew about coca's problems, but this was the only way to have a life."

Lida's daughter had just turned 5 when she grew interested in the ritual of pulling coca leaves to pack and sell. "What's it for?" she asked one day as they stood collecting in the fields. "I didn't have a voice or words to reply to her," recalls Lida. Like others interviewed for this commentary, she is not fully named because of the risks to her security as someone who for years grew an illegal crop. Lida knew that coca was the raw material for the drug cocaine. "That is when I started to think, we have to get out of this crop."

Now, four years after that day in the fields, Lida's coca is gone, replaced with neatly arranged vines of passion fruit that grow so big her toddler carries them with both hands. As part of a 2016 peace accord between Colombia's government and the country's main rebel group, nearly 100,000 families like hers agreed to rip up their crops in exchange for government subsidies and assistance. The program intended two things: to help farmers change their livelihoods and to stop the violent conflict around the illicit drug trade.

Lida joined eagerly, hoping to save her children from the experiences she suffered while growing up: armed men showing up to her house to buy the coca crop, or fumigation planes strafing overhead, spraying pesticide on the family's sustenance.

Today, however, Lida is poorer and not much safer. As her story makes clear, growing coca is not a happy life; few continue growing by choice. Nevertheless, even harder than growing coca may be leaving the crop behind.

Nationwide, former coca farmers have lost about half their income since they joined the peace process' crop substitution program. Armed groups involved in trafficking still pass by these rural outposts, so communities haven't shed their fear. Desperate for income, some young men have left to join the groups or go pick coca at other plots. The military, neighbors agree, assumes rural residents are allied with traffickers, despite the sacrifices they have made to abandon coca. "We are demoralized," Lida says.

Helping farmers like her is not the focus of U.S. drug policy, which for the last 20 years has funded Colombia's prolonged efforts to eradicate coca. Since 2000, the United States has devoted part of its $11.6 billion in Colombian aid to eradication programs including fumigation and security operations against traffickersaimed at reducing the amount of processed cocaine reaching U.S. shores. Despite that, coca crops have reached record highs in recent years. The United States accounts for about 30% of global cocaine consumption, and in 2018, 90% of the cocaine in the U.S. originated in Colombia.

The economics behind coca's persistence are obvious when seen from Lida's open farmhouse, at the edge of the Amazon jungle. Her plot sits just back from a pitted dirt road that floods when it rains — which it does except in December, when the merciless sun cracks the soil. Transporting harvested crops to market is expensive and requires cash up front, but it's rare to find a lender who will offer credit or advance pesticides and fertilizer. With crop prices fluctuating, Lida wonders whether she is better off paying to ship her fruit to the city or just letting it rot.

A Colombian police officer stands guard next to coca plants during an operation to eradicate illicit crops in Colombia. Colombian security forces have ripped up hundreds of thousands of acres of coca, but some farmers have struggled to change to other agricultural activities.
Juan Barreto / AFP via Getty Images
AFP via Getty Images
A Colombian police officer stands guard next to coca plants during an operation to eradicate illicit crops in Colombia. Colombian security forces have ripped up hundreds of thousands of acres of coca, but some farmers have struggled to change to other agricultural activities.

Coca traffickers solve those market problems: For decades, armed groups have set a fixed price for coca that ensures the farmer breaks even — and gives local grocers and merchants the confidence to lend credit for inputs. Traffickers or intermediaries they hire collect the leaf house-to-house. If families need extra income, coca creates enormous demand for day labor, paying as much as $20 per day. Many families invest that stable income in their families, including sending their children to school and university.

The 2016 peace accord's substitution program was intended to level the playing field between coca and other crops, but its promises have been slow to materialize. According to a substitution program official, as of December, only 3% of the families who signed up have the long-term seed money they were promised to invest in planting an alternative crop.

Fixing roads and building rural infrastructure will still take time — but four years have already passed since the peace accord. Many poor farmers have exhausted their savings waiting for help. One of Lida's neighbors put it simply: "If there is no change, someone would find it easy to convince farmers to grow coca again. It is the only way to have a dignified life."

Down the road from Lida's farm, a mother with teenage children, Janeth, speaks in a hushed voice about why she and her family continue to hold out for a new life away from coca. Growing up, she watched brothers and cousins recruited into insurgent and other fighting groups, including the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, which disarmed after signing the peace deal. Traffickers are often the only real authority in far-flung rural areas, and they set rules, impose taxes and penalize non-compliance. "Our security is silence," Janeth says. "We are unprotected, and have had to learn how to survive."

Farmers say they fear the military and police at least as much as any armed group. With substitution help delayed, some families have gone back to coca to make ends meet, or sent a family member to work for day wages. The threat of forced eradication is constant. With U.S. encouragement, last year Colombian soldiers and police ripped up more than 320,000 acres of coca. Bogotá is also seeking to restart aerial fumigation, halted in 2015 over health concerns.

From the counternarcotic standpoint, eradication also has had mixed results. When farmers lose their livelihoods, they may turn to the only reliable rural economy that could possibly get them back on their feet: coca. Estimates vary, but half or more of the land eradicated is replanted with the crop. Soldiers involved in eradication describe the taxing and relentless work that achieves little over the long-term. Worse, it forces them into confrontation with poor communities, many of whom protest against eradication. "Soldiers are trained with the idea that they are heroes," one military officer explained. "But this work has them up against farmers, women and children."

Washington and Colombia still have a chance to change course, and help bring farmers back into the legal economy. The 2016 peace accord set out a clear route — through rural development, state services, and better trust between communities and police.

Instead of endlessly eradicating a crop that will grow back, because the demand for its derivate is insatiable, they might look to ask farmers like Lida what they need to make the switch from coca to other livelihoods permanent.

"We are trying to get out of this life," she says. "They always say that we don't want to grow anything except coca. But it's not that. It is necessity. We have nothing else."

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Elizabeth Dickinson