Coca and Agriculture in Post- Peace Accord Colombia (Part I)

After the peace accord, can the Colombian government incentivize coca planters to cultivate other crops? Not if they don’t address the inequality and land grabbing that prompted them to start growing coca in the first place.

Isabel Peñaranda
11/29/2017

In June 2017, a coca harvester picks his last harvest in the village of Pueblo Nuevo before the uprooting of their plants. (Photo by Isabel Peñaranda)

This piece is first in a two-part series on crop substitution efforts in post-peace accord Colombia.

Jairo’s fields are covered with weeds. Only weeks before, they had sported the bright green of coca bushes, like the mountains surrounding the Colombian municipality of Briceño, where until recently, the local economy ran on the bimonthly coca harvest—its outputs processed into coca paste and eventually, cocaine.

In July of last year, Briceño was selected as the pilot site of the National Comprehensive Program for Illicit Crop Substitution, meaning that over the course of 60 days, every coca grower in Briceño pulled up, plant by plant, the crop that had provided their livelihood for the past 15 years. Since then, Jairo hasn’t planted anything, because in this remote region in the northeastern department of Antioquia, where the rural villages are six hours by car from the nearest town of Yarumal, no other crop would be economically viable.

The National Comprehensive Program for Illicit Crop Substitution—or the PNIS, its somewhat unfortunate Spanish acronym—is one of the first programs to be implemented under the Peace Agreements signed between the Juan Manuel Santos administration and the Revolutionary Armed Forces (FARC) in November 2016. The agreement put a definitive end to the 52-year armed conflict between the Colombian state and the hemisphere’s oldest and largest guerrilla group. The agreements included a broad rural reform involving land redistribution, access to credit, and state services. They also incorporate an expansion of political participation for all sectors, particularly those afflicted by the armed conflict, as well as a truth commission and transitional justice mechanism. Its policies in terms of drug policy would shift focus from the “weakest links” of the drug supply chain—producers and consumers—and instead go after buyers and distributors who profit most. Despite these positive developments, the structural causes that led to the expansion of the coca economy and the armed conflict in the first place persist. But coca farmers and demobilized members of the FARC targeted by the Crop Substitution program as well as renewed eradication efforts find themselves in a bind as they participate in the implementation of peace agreements while bearing the brunt of its limitations.

Crop Substitution in Briceño

Briceño welcomed peace after five decades of armed conflict. Armed actors sought control of the region it due to its strategic location as part of a drug-trafficking and military corridor linking the Pacific coast, the Atlantic coast and Venezuela. Since the ‘70s, three guerrilla groups have operated here, including the FARC. By the 1980s, Right-wing paramilitary blocs had also moved in, with only occasional state intervention. By the beginning of the peace negotiations in 2012, the FARC’s 36th Front had driven out paramilitaries and controlled a good portion of the region, essentially taking on the role of a de-facto state. Beginning in the early 2000s, Briceño’s isolation made it ideal for cultivating coca. Economically, it was a win-win for all involved: the FARC (and before them, the paramilitaries) who financed themselves by controlling the local economy. Peasants who had previously lived on subsistence farming and artisanal gold mining found a lucrative crop that ensured their livelihood.

In talks prior to the signing of the agreements, officials selected Briceño as the site for the pilot program as a measure of early trust building between the government and the FARC. A team comprised of FARC members, national and local government officials, UN staff, and community representatives came together to implement the substitution program last year. The novelty of the substitution program lies in its voluntary and integral approach to substitution. In previous crop substitution programs in Colombia, coca plants have been forcefully eradicated. But the majority of planters simply recultivate the plants— forceful eradication has re-cultivation rates around 30% within the first three months, and 50% within the year, according to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime. Massive eradication campaigns in Peru have also appeared to fail. As in neighboring Peru, previous programs in Colombia have sometimes also included cash payments to planters for transitioning to licit crops, but have ultimately failed to change the conditions that led to the cultivation of coca in the first place.

Unlike past attempts, participation in this crop substitution program is voluntary. The program is set to be implemented in two phases: the first, similar to previous campaigns, proportions cash payments to growers, harvesters, and their families of about $300 per month for a year to ensure basic subsistence, in addition to in-kind payments to help them cultivate crops that grow quickly, like plantains, and those that take longer to develop, like cocoa. During this phase they also are promised technical assistance in production and commercialization to ensure the economic viability of the new crops. In the second phase, which would start around the same time but extend for up to 15 years, communities involved in the substitution process would also participate in drafting alternative development plans for their municipalities, departments, and regions, weaving together different goals of the agreements to expand infrastructure, education, health, and security in their communities, and foster new forms of political participation. In the words of the agreement, this process would transform the territory and build a “stable and lasting peace.”

Yet three months after the growers who decided to participate uprooted their plants, none of these promises have been met. Providers of technical assistance have yet to be contracted, would-be recipients have not received any funding for switching crops, which has led some coca harvesters to leave town. Rumors abound that armed groups are regrouping and battling over control of the territory. Three men have been assassinated in Briceño past weeks under unclear circumstances—one of whom, Ramón Alcides García Zapata, was a recognized leader in the crop substitution program. The ongoing failure of crop substitution is symptomatic of a deeper crisis underway in the Colombian countryside, though it has not been the focus of international media attention on the peace agreements.

Coca and Agriculture in Rural Colombia

I first met Jairo, a 37-year-old cocalero (coca grower) in February of this year. Orphaned as a child in Medellín, he would have been an easy target for its drug-trafficking gangs, he told me in an interview. But fate brought him to the countryside, where he sought work on farms to scrape a living. Through cultivating coca, he has achieved a relative level of material comfort.

Not everyone has been so lucky. According to a recent report released by the Colombian government, the rural poverty rate in Colombia is 38% and growing, three times higher than the urban poverty rate. The report estimates that over 90% in “dispersed” rural areas like Briceño are poor or at risk of being poor, in the second most unequal country in Latin America, where 0.4% of property owners possess 67% of the land.

Statistics reveal that the agricultural economy has been decimated since the 1970s. This has occurred due to a number of neoliberal policies including the deregulation of the agricultural sector, culminating in a free trade agreement with the United States in 2011, reduced state intervention in institutions responsible for rural development, and the revaluation of the Colombian peso. These factors prompted immigration to the cities. Starting in the 1990s, cultivated area dropped while rural unemployment rose, while the agricultural sector’s share in GDP plummeted to a quarter of its level in the 1970s. Still, between 2014 and 2016 alone, the Ministry of Agriculture’s budget was halved.

Whereas before he had barely eked out a living, Jairo’s life changed when he started cultivating and processing coca into paste and selling it to the FARC around 2004. He bought a farm, where he grew around 30,000 coca plants, as well as coffee, cattle, cacao, and avocados. With a good harvest, he produced over 70 kilos of coca paste, amounting to approximately $3,000, 12 times the earnings of 75% of Colombia’s rural inhabitants.

Unlike traditional conceptions of rural agricultural workers and peasants—who have access to their own means of production, produce primarily for self-consumption, and practice traditional values—many cocaleros do not own the land they work on and grow coca as a commodity to sell. Raspachines (pickers) work for wages and often float between urban and rural settings. In fact, the coca-production economy reflects a new norm in rural Colombia: half of rural Colombians do not work in agricultural production, and 55% work for wages.  The rural sector has become highly-commodified: while smallholder farmers do produce 70% of the food consumed in the country, agro-business commodities possess more than twice as many hectares of land.

Jairo processes coca leaves into coca paste, near his mother’s house in Briceño in February 2017. (Photo by Gerald Bermúdez)

Jairo’s story reveals that coca provides more than mere subsistence: while he still lives a mule ride away from the nearest road, his wife and kids have smartphones, and he hopes he can pay for their university studies in Medellin. With a harvest every two and a half months, growing coca permits a certain level of material prosperity as well as a degree of social mobility, economic security and liquidity, key economic parameters that cash handouts are unable to address. Resilient to drought and heavy rain, coca has relatively high profit margins, yielding a financial stability impossible to achieve with other crops. It is portable and can be easily carried by hand to the seller, rather than paying transportation costs of a low-value crop like plantains. And, while integrated into the world commodity market, coca in Briceño was mostly regulated by the FARC, who ensured price stability, guaranteed commercialization and secured transactions with local buyers, a more efficient process than having to transport other local crops to the municipal head in hopes that the selling price will at least cover the trip home. Finally, coca is profitable in small or large quantitites, whereas other crops, like palm oil, are only profitable if produced in large scale. So even coca growers with little or no land who rent, a majority here, can secure a livelihood.

In short, coca is not just a crop, but an entire economy providing communities vital material well-being, liquidity, security, social mobility, and independence in a moment when the agricultural sector is increasingly precarious. It is a commodity that represents new social relations not just among growers and the rest of the supply chain, but also with urban centers, and the state itself. Its significance contemplates dynamics far more complex than the substitution program seems able to address.

Crop Substitution, the Drug War, and Rural Reform

The first phase of the crop substitution program continues to operate with the same logic of antinarcotic strategies employed during the armed conflict and the War on Drugs. Crop substitution figured into Plan Colombia, a U.S.-funded security aid package that fueled counterinsurgent violence in the Colombian countryside. The structure of the crop substitution program positions the state as a “benefactor” that makes former coca growers dependent on the state and thereby neutralized politically. This clientilistic relationship—a phenomenon referred to as “asistencialismo” in Latin America—promotes a monetized relationship between the individual peasant and the state rather than developing collective solutions that simultaneously strengthen the state’s role as a provider of public services.

But even more problematically, while the program touts itself on being voluntary, it goes alongside a simultaneous strategy of forcefully eradicating coca plants over 50,000 hectares—the same number of hectares being targeted for substitution. The criteria determining which territories are targeted for substitution and which are targeted for eradication is unclear. There have even been cases where both are implemented at once, leaving peasants in coca regions in seeming states of exception. While the rest of the country lives in a post-peace accord society, certain regions continue to live under the wartime threat of under eradication, criminalization and the militarization of their territories. For example, despite the peace accord’s promise to shift focus from growers, Colombia’s congress recently proposed a law to criminalize any grower with more than 3.8 hectares Such measures will only aggravate conflict, further impoverish peasants, and enable the state to justify, once again, bringing in the military.

Unfortunately, the aspect of the accords that would most directly addresses structural problems that first made coca production so attractive to the rural population is probably least likely to be implemented. This so-called “Integral Rural Reform” may end up on a long list of failed attempts to enact rural reforms. For example, the 1961 Agrarian Reform law ultimately failed for lack of political commitment to a structural transformation. The agricultural crisis has its roots in older power structures honed by economic and political elites, which Colombia’s congress is unlikely to touch. In fact, the first draft of the Law Decree 902 of 2017, which would implement rural reform, provoked strong opposition among peasant organizations, academics, and the FARC itself. It attempted to pass measures that many found to be contrary to the spirit of the agreements, reversing previous protections secured in 1994 against land concentration and large-scale land privatization. Such blatant attempts to hijack the peace agreements are blows to anyone hoping that the Colombian government can overcome internal interests that have historically sabotaged a progressive agrarian policy.

Despite this, the coca growers of Briceño are still demanding the state meet its side of the substitution deal, as are cocaleros all over the country, who call for the implementation of the agreements instead of another militarized forceful eradication strategy. This is a new moment in Colombian politics, and for Colombian peasants, and new strategies must be considered for the peace deal to succeed.

As for Jairo, he worries about the future ahead: “If the government doesn’t support us with productive projects and uphold its side of the agreements, we will be obligated to continue cultivating coca. Why? Because there is no other way.”

Look out for Part II of this piece next week!


Isabel Peñaranda is an anthropologist from Columbia University and MA candidate in History based in Bogotá, Colombia. She focuses on implementation of the Havana peace agreements, and currently works in the Amazon region of Caquetá.

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