SALT LAKE CITY, Utah —The Colombian Civil War has destroyed the lives of millions. Although the conflict ended with the 2016 peace deal, many Colombians still suffer from the leftovers. The cocaine industry flourished during the war years. Unfortunately, it still endangers the lives of Colombians and creates problems for the government. The post-peace deal decisions of the official Bogota failed to convince farmers to abandon the cultivation of a plant used in cocaine production. The failure is primarily because of unrealized promises to create alternative economic opportunities for Colombia’s coca farmers.
Decades-old military conflict in Colombia between the Revolutionary Armed Forces (known by its Spanish acronym, FARC) and the country’s government has resulted in the death of more than 220,000 people. The Civil War began in 1948 with the assassination of a liberal political leader, Jorge Eliecer Gaitan. The anti-communist repressions that often victimized rural Colombians in an attempt to drive out communist sympathizers from their communities followed the assassination. In 1964, as a reaction to the state-sponsored violence, Marxist-inspired FARC formed and took up arms against Colombian military forces.
Since 1964, the Civil War has devastated many parts of Colombia. Particularly rural communities in the Southeast, where FARC had a stronger influence and power. Apart from hundreds of thousands of fatalities, including a significant number of civilians, around 7 million Colombians had to abandon their homes. According to the United Nations, it accounts for the largest number of internally displaced people (IDPs) globally. Moreover, the land mines in the residential areas after the war killed many Colombians.
On June 23, 2016, the Colombian government and the FARC rebels signed a deal that ended the Civil War officially. The negotiation process was not without its issues. The original deal experienced rejection in the subsequent October plebiscite and Congress later revised and approved it. Moreover, a small number of FARC rebels refused the agreement and continued fighting. Despite these issues, Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos received the Nobel Peace Prize for his role in bringing peace to the country.
Why Farmers Farm Coca
Colombia’s decades-long conflict and instability created suitable conditions for cocaine production to flourish. Various armed groups used the economic vulnerability of Colombian farmers, especially in war-torn rural areas, to force them into farming coca, a plant used in cocaine production.
Since the 2016 peace deal, eradicating coca farming and cocaine production has been difficult. Although the government is gaining control over greater parts of the Colombian territory. For a meaningful change in the war on drugs, the Colombian government needs to address the root cause that forces its citizens to farm coca – the lack of feasible economic opportunities.
During the years of the military conflict in Colombia, farming coca was the most profitable and, for some, the only realistic economic way to provide for themselves and their families. Although the regions where the farmers grow the plant experience disproportionately more violence, many farmers, especially the ones without access to the banking services and official land titles, are ready to take a risk. Moreover, coca is easier to grow and has more frequent harvests than other crops. Cartels usually take care of transportation. This solves a significant issue in the areas where infrastructure experienced destruction due to the conflict.
The War on Drugs
The Colombian government failed to deliver the 2016 peace deal promises and chose an iron fist to make farmers stop coca farming. Eradicating the illicit drug was one of six main aspects of the 2016 peace deal. The deal had a more humane approach to the problem and focused on supporting the main victims of the conflict and cocaine production – poor farmers and domestic drug users, instead of punishing them. For creating economic alternatives for Colombia’s coca farmers, the government promised nationwide crop substitution programs. Moreover, the government implied improvements for the most affected regions. For example, improved infrastructure and access to low-interest credits, among other reforms that would help them abandon coca cultivation.
The attitude changed soon after the 2016 peace deal. The Colombian government abandoned the promises given to the coca-producing farmers and started forceful eradication of the plant. Since becoming the president, Iván Duque Márquez started the largest campaign of forcible coca eradication. Following his orders, police and the army have destroyed thousands and thousands of hectares of coca plants across Colombia.
No Proper Alternatives
Without proper economic alternatives, the forcible coca eradication campaign met criticism from human rights groups. Erika Guevara-Rosas, the director of Amnesty International in the Americas, said that “operations to forcibly eradicate coca crops in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic are a death sentence for rural communities. Spraying illicit crops does not only mean robbing rural communities of their only livelihood amid the pandemic, but it could also destroy legal crops, an important source of food.”
The lack of cooperation with rural communities and the use of force against them has counterproductive effects on coca production. For example, the number of hectares used in coca cultivation has increased from 48,000 hectares in 2012 to 154,000 in 2019, the third-highest annual figure since 2000. However, the number did decline to 143,000 hectares in 2020. Although farmers still seem ready to take a risk and grow coca if they have no viable economic alternatives. Moreover, many experts believe that Bogota’s aggressive policies could lead to violence from the coca growers. The remaining FARC rebels or other armed groups could easily exploit economically vulnerable farmers. They often convinced the farmers to fight with them against the government forces. In other words, the government’s intransigence in the coca-eradication strategy can renew a military conflict in Colombia.
Aid Map Attempts to Help Colombia’s Coca Farmers
Many local and international non-governmental organizations (NGOs) attempt to support Colombia’s coca farmers transitioning from coca farming to other crops. One of those organizations is Aid Map. Under the auspices of project Farmer-to-Farmer, it provides technical assistance to the farmers in the Meta region of Orinoquia, Colombia. The $700,000 project helped the local population develop and adopt new technologies to increase productivity. Moreover, it assisted farmers in finding new markets and selling their products. However, achieving meaningful change will be hard without systematic solutions to coca farmers’ problems.
– Aleksandre Jgarkava