Colombian farmers keep growing coca despite government crackdown and U.S. pressure

Coca farmers marched down the streets of San Jose del Guaviare on Tuesday Oct. 24 to protest forced eradication campaigns. They demanded more investment in their region, so that they can grow legal crops.
Coca farmers marched down the streets of San Jose del Guaviare on Tuesday Oct. 24 to protest forced eradication campaigns. They demanded more investment in their region, so that they can grow legal crops.

Mario Tellez lives in the remote village of La Tigra where most families continue to grow the coca leaf — despite the sustained efforts of the Colombian military and pressure from the U.S. to curtail the booming business that produces the base ingredient for cocaine.

This week, Tellez made a three-hour boat trip to San Jose in south-central Colombia to join dozens more coca growers in a protest against the Colombian military’s efforts to forcefully eradicate coca bushes. Bearing a banner that identified them as “cocaleros,” they demanded greater government investment in their territories — part of the country’s recent peace deal with the FARC guerillas and development projects that will help to make legal crops profitable.

“When we see the government building us a road, we’ll agree to take down our bushes,” Tellez said.

Though he can grow plantains and yucca on his land, transporting the crops from a village only accessible by river is too costly to be profitable. Coca leaves are far easier to carry around, and buyers are easy to find.

“At this moment, it’s the only crop that works for us,” Tellez said.

Mario Tellez travelled by boat for three hours, to attend the coca growers protest. He says coca is the only profitable crop in his community due to the lack of infrastructure. Manuel Rueda

According to the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime, the country’s overall coca crop grew by a staggering 52 percent last year, to 345,000 acres, an area ten times the size of Miami. The military and police are trying to crack down, sending teams to places like La Tigra to rip the plants out of the ground.

Many farmers are resisting, taking to the streets this week in several areas of rural Colombia, claiming they aren’t being offered any other feasible ways to make a living. They say the forced-eradication programs, which receive U.S. support, are leading to deadly clashes in the countryside, as farmers struggle to protect their crops.

“It used to be that the army came to our area, and we would form a protest, and then we could negotiate with them how much coca could be cut,” said Samuel Avellaneda, a grower from La Reforma, a village reached only by river and then horseback.

“Now they are more aggressive,” said Victor Ibarbo, a neighbor of Avellaneda’s. The residents of La Reforma say that in August they were shot at by Colombian riot police as they tried to stop a group of soldiers from pulling out coca plants. Seven farmers were killed near the southwestern city of Tumaco during a similar protest in the first week of October.

These efforts to crack down on coca plantations are being carried out as U.S. officials pressure Colombia to reduce its coca crop. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration said in a report released Tuesday that there is a “historical correlation” between increased coca cultivation in Colombia and cocaine use in the United States. According to the agency, Colombian cocaine production rose to 710 tons in 2016. In 2014, less than half — 320 tons — was produced.

This vast expansion of the coca crop has led to several complaints from Washington policy makers worried about Colombia’s growing cocaine exports.

In a memo sent to the State Department in September, President Donald Trump threatened to place Colombia on a list of countries that do not meet international counter-narcotics obligations. Trump said he would hold back on the designation — which would jeopardize a proposed $300 million aid package for Colombia — because the Colombian police had been recently “improving” interdiction efforts and had restarted “some” coca eradication.

The Colombian government seems to be responding to pressure from Washington. Colombia’s military and police have ripped out almost 99,000 acres of coca so far this year, according to the Ministry of Defense. That’s more than twice the amount eradicated last year. At the same time, the country has begun to roll out a voluntary crop-substitution program that provides subsidies to families who agree to destroy their coca bushes. The initiative promises to help participants develop alternative crops.

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Colombian Post-Conflict Minister Rafael Pardo says that 28,000 coca-growing families have already enrolled in the program, which doles out monthly payments of around $330 over two years to farmers who want to stop growing the crop.

But the protesters in San Jose voiced several concerns over the government plan.

Isabel Rivero said she joined the program mostly because she doesn’t want to risk having her crops ripped out by the Colombian military. But she’s not sure if the payment will be enough to support her family while she finds a new, reliable crop — especially because she lives in a village with no road access, where regular crops like plantains would be hard and costly to transport.

She already knows what she’ll do: “If it doesn’t work, we will have to go back to coca.”

Benjamin Cortez, who also joined the voluntary-substitution program, says he would rather have the chance to phase out his coca crops slowly as he tries others.

“Taking down our coca is a risk,” he said.

Analysts of Colombia’s cocaine problem, aware of these complaints by farmers, have asked U.S. officials to be “patient” with eradication goals.

Juan Carlos Garzon, an associate at Colombia’s Ideas for Peace think tank, said he met last week with U.S. State Department officials and members of the U.S. Senate Caucus on International Narcotics Control to warn them of possible drawbacks of forced eradication. A U.N. census conducted last year in Colombia’s coca-growing areas estimates that 28 percent of coca-production areas that were eradicated last year were replanted within months.

“Forced eradication may be faster than implementing voluntary-substitution projects,” Garzon said. “But it doesn’t force you to make agreements with communities, it doesn’t leave anything on the ground to make this sustainable.”

The U.S. government finances some rural development schemes in Colombia, including USAID projects that work with farmers’ cooperatives to help them market their products and another that helps municipal governments become better at obtaining funds for infrastructure projects, which could help address the lack of roads in some areas.

But so far the U.S. has refrained from working directly with coca growers or with the Colombian government’s voluntary coca-substitution program over fears that the program works with farmers’ associations that have close ties to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. Though the guerillas have demobilized and formed a political party, they remain on the U.S. Treasury Department’s list of terrorist organizations.

Pedro Arenas, the director of Colombia’s Observatory for Crops Declared Illicit think tank, believes that U.S. reluctance to work with the former guerrillas goes against the “spirit” of the peace accords signed last year by the Colombian government and the FARC with U.S. support.

But he said there are still many ways for the Trump administration to support eradication aside from military force.

“We have asked them to cooperate with broad rural-development schemes, like infrastructure projects,” Arenas said. “Coca growers need technical assistance, roads, and access to markets.”