AGENCIAPrensaRural, April 2, 2023
from El Espectador
(Translated by Eunice Gibson, CSN Volunteer Translator)
Experts and leaders in areas where the most plantings for illegal use have been grown, talk about the consequences of the fall in prices and lack of buyers, which has halted the economy in several regions. What are the solutions they suggest?
The crisis that’s hitting the principal regions where coca leaves and coca paste are produced in this country has been going on for seven months now. By this time, nearly 200 thousand families—according to the United Nations Office Against Drugs and Crime (UNODC)—whose principal support is from this illegal economy, have suffered the falling prices and lack of buyers. Hunger didn’t wait long, and it appears to be the principal effect in a long list that includes the paralysis of commerce, for lack of income, the muted displacement of former growers, and a desperate search for odd jobs and casual labor in legal and illegal activities.
The consequences of this crisis, which will be much more serious than the one they lived through in the times of aspersions with glyphosate, are felt, above all, at the local level. “The campesinos have debts at the stores, in the agricultural warehouses, because they haven’t been able sell and they have no money coming in. In places like this, the coca drives the economy, and without that money, commerce doesn’t move, not for clothing, not for food, not for supplies, nothing,” relates an inhabitant of Putumayo, one of the three departments with the most plantings for illegal use (something more than 22 thousand hectares).
Without cash—and, in many of the coca-growing municipalities, without plantings of subsistence crops that would guarantee food security—several planters summarize the seriousness of this situation with the same phrase: “We are dying of hunger.”
One of the effects has been that the growers abandon and leave standing the crops for illegal use that they were growing. What at first glance sounds like a positive consequence, is really a two-edged sword. Although for some leaders and experts it represents an opportunity for the government to progress in changing the economy and making the transformation that has been hoped for in the countryside for decades, it also constitutes a serious risk, such as changing to illegal activities like illegal mining, which adds fuel to the conflict just like the coca, and it generates serious damage to the environment.
What set off this crisis?
For Ana María Rueda, researcher at the Ideas For Peace Foundation (FIP), the factors driving the coca growers crisis are different in the different territories. Although the primary cause is excess supply of the paste base and a fall in prices, events like the failure to carry out the Integrated National Substitution Program (PNIS) have also had an effect, as well as the capture or death of leaders of the illegal groups that regulated the transactions, like Otoniel (boss of the Clan del Golfo) and Mayimbú (leader of the FARC dissidents in Cauca). Also, the territorial disputes between structures (generating the absence of fixed buyers, the refusal to sell to some because of the fear of reprisal) and simultaneous extortions by several groups.
Another serious point could be the confidential request by the government to illegal groups to discourage growing coca as a demonstration of willingness to be part of “total peace”, added to the lack of export route capacity to carry such a large production. (It’s worth remembering that, in 2021, the most recent measure by the United Nations showed that Colombia had achieved the highest production of hydrochloride of cocaine in history, with 1,400 tons).
Felipe Tascón, who heads the Administration for Substitution of Plants for Illegal Use in the Petro administration, assured Colombia+20 that over-production “results from the FARC guerrillas’ leaving the territory, because they had regulated the market and fixed a price.” That would have generated, since 2017, the disappearance of a number of merchants of pasta base, which opened the door to having more urban micro-trafficking organizations buying the production, imposing a price nearly 50% lower than the price fixed by the FARC. (1.2 million pesos per kilogram) (roughly USD $260 at today’s exchange rates).
Next, with the arrival of the Mexican mafias who improved the price, (They paid a thousand dollars for a kilogram at the port of departure.) they over-estimated the production. “At the same time, there was a reduction of demand from the United States, so cocaine fell into fourth place in drug demand,” Tascón explains.
Added to that, in strategic regions like Catatumbo (Norte de Santander Department) where 21% of the hectares planted in coca are located, the war has led to enemy groups destroying laboratories and landing strips that were key to producing and moving the illegal merchandise.
In spite of this panorama, which has led hundreds of families to abandon their crops for illegal use, the experts consulted by this newspaper agreed that it’s not going to be the end of the market.
“The market will come back some time, but in this interval it’s necessary, first, to alleviate the hunger and make sure that the people have food, and after that, start the whole process of territorial transformation and establish the bases for the economic transition of these regions,” says researcher Estefanía Ciro, of the Amazonia Colombiana A la Orilla del Río Think Tank.
The challenge is that that answer arrives before the coca can take off again. A manager of the ANUC in Putumayo stated that “some of the coca growers have been motivated to plant food crops. The people want a lifeline against despair, but if the coca price rises again, they will dump their new crops and go back to it. The people have faith that the price will go up again, but that’s farther and farther away.
Gustavo Ancízar, a producer of cacao (to make chocolate) in Sardinata (Norte de Santander), says that, although some districts (corregimientos) in the municipality are “riddled” with coca plantings, now many of the farmers have left those plantings to rot and have turned to planting coffee or cacao.
Nevertheless, the scenario of voluntary substitution of legal crops is only an option for a few people. In that region of the country, coal mining, legal and illegal, has absorbed a good part of the work force that used to be employed in the drug trafficking chain. Many of the mines have neither titles nor operating permits, but the boom in international prices after the energy crisis that exploded with the war in Ukraine has made that exploitation profitable.
The movement from the coca economy to illegal mining was already seen in a notorious manner in 2013, as a final gasp of the strategies of forced eradication. And right now, as government sources have warned, in areas like the south of Córdoba and Bolívar, groups like the Clan del Golfo (or AGC) are helping the coca growers to get into illegal gold mining.
The Coordinator in the area of drug policy at Dejusticia, Isabel Pereira, explains that, “generally the regions that subsist on coca have a high cost of living, because those are remote areas; a lot of them you can only get to by river. Therefore, the goal is always to move to an economy that can compete with the coca, and oftentimes they don’t migrate to a legal activity but instead to one that can generate the same income,” such as illegal mining.
For Estefanía Ciro, who took part in the investigations by the Truth Commission into the drug traffic, it’s necessary to see beyond the leap from coca to gold and other minerals. “One variable that has not been studied thoroughly is the silent impacts of economic deterioration related to recruitment and displacement. With the Commission, we heard many stories from people who had been part of the coca economy, for example, working as coca leaf harvesters, scrapers, and for economic reasons, they moved into the conflict and connected with the guerrillas,” said Ciro.
With regard to displacement, she explains that although there are growers who were able to save up and do some cattle raising, some business in cities, or raising other crops; but those that didn’t have that ability are facing extreme conditions. “It’s very serious because they are forced into displacement and that’s when the profiteers move in. Recent reports show that there are processes of destruction of whole towns (veredas), where a whole town is turned into somebody’s ranch, generating a hidden displacement. The people are going, just as happened with the failures to carry out the Peace Agreement, although there is no data on this,” says Ciro.
Neither is the displacement anything new. In fact, the forced eradication of coca operations that were deployed for more than two decades resulted in hundreds of coca growers from Caquetá and Putumayo moving on to plots of land in departments like Nariño, where those plantations multiplied to a level that, for 2021, was the location with the highest number of hectares planted with the stuff.
“In Nariño, the government has broken its promises and failed to meet expectations. Many growers are hungry, asking for concrete help for food security and integrated development. Here many government and international cooperation investments have taken place, to solve the matter of the crops grown for illegal use, but they have been neither lasting nor effective. Now people are feeling anxious, but this is the opportunity to put together a public policy that’s effective and makes a transition, finally,” says the Representative in the Chamber from the electoral district for peace from the Pacific and border area, Gerson Montaño, who has taken on social leadership in Tumaco, one of the municipalities with the most coca in the whole country.
What solutions are being proposed?
For leaders in the countryside and for experts, the greatest urgency in the midst of the coca growers’ crisis is taking care of the hunger the communities are living with. In fact, that was one of the central petitions raised in a public hearing called together by the Human Rights Commission of the Congress last Thursday, March 30. “We told them that this is the opportunity for the government to make progress in carrying out the Peace Agreement, but also for the rapid implementation of a contingency plan to respond to the hunger,” says Nidia Quintero, spokeswoman for the National Coordinator of Growers of Coca, Amapola (poppies), and Marijuana (Coccam).
The administration’s Director of Substitution, Felipe Tascón, stated that a strategy to do all of that has already been designed, but it won’t be as immediate as the communities are calling for, because of some agency adjustments in relation to the contracting systems left over from the Iván Duque administration. “That’s made it difficult for us to react quickly on the collective projects, community kitchens, everything in an approach to generating rapid options for income for the communities,” Tascón explains.
Even so, Tascón said that the administration is planning to settle the debts of PNIS, which represent funds amounting to more than 1 billón pesos (roughly USD $217,000,000 at today’s exchange rates) which are cash on hand and will go to fund work in those parts of the countryside. “We have to do some rapid hiring so that there will be income.”
However, complying with the PNIS—which accumulated a backlog of more than four years—is merely one of the urgent measures needed. What would really have long run effects would be taking advantage of the coca growers crisis to get under way the new drug policy that the Petro administration has talked so much about, and that focuses on substituting economies, not plants.
“The campesinos aren’t in this in order to have a career in crime, but because of economic necessity. Substituting crops has been a failure, and so, we are going to substitute economies, income for the campesino and ethnic families that are now growing coca, amapola, and marijuana,” Tascón says.
Researcher Estafanía Ciro urges that the administration release the budgeted funds and make the institutional adjustments to get the new policy going. The key, she says, is aiming at the collective and the regional, the building of secure lines of marketing that will allow the growers to sell the new products that they plant, open the window to a communitarian agro-industrialization, and thus begin an economic transition and a broad transformation of the countryside. A transformation that was the banner of Petro’s campaign.
It means finally implementing a strategy that breaks the circle of failures on drug issues in the last 30 years that has the country at its historic maximums of production and its communities in crisis. The risk of not doing this would be to worsen the factors generated by the conflict and maintain hunger in the population that has always been the most affected by the decisions on drug issues and that is not only the last link in the chain, but also the most disadvantaged.