Will peace halt Colombia’s coca boom?

A Colombian farmer describes the art of harvesting coca

A farmer near La Gabarra, Colombia, shows us how to strip a coca plant.
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A farmer near La Gabarra, Colombia, shows us how to strip a coca plant.

Daniel Duarte has thick, rough hands and the burned scalp of someone who has spent more than two decades under the Andean sky tending coca crops.

Toiling over a few acres in a remote northeastern part of Colombia, Duarte says the bright green shrub is the only plant that has allowed him to feed his family, even as he’s seen neighbors go broke trying to get their bulky yucca and plantain crops to market.

As the Colombian government and the nation’s largest guerrilla group inch toward a deal to end the country’s half-century civil conflict, coca farmers are in the crosshairs.

Negotiators have agreed to create an “integral” crop substitution program to wean farmers off the leaf — one of the raw ingredients of cocaine. If that fails, however, the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) have said they will join forces to eradicate the plant.

What would you do if someone tried to take your plate of food away? You’d probably grab your fork and stick it in their eye.

Daniel Duarte, coca farmer

Of all the threats to a lasting peace deal, the drug trade might be one of the most menacing. Experts fear the lucrative business might tempt some FARC factions to break ranks and join criminal gangs for control of the trade. And then there are the farmers themselves. More than 156,000 families are thought to make their living by growing and processing coca, according to United Nations data.

On a recent weekend, more than 630 coca farmers — men, women, old and young — gathered in the Africa Bar, a nightclub in this riverside village, complete with laser lights and ceramic lion heads on the wall, to discuss the peace plan and their future in it.

Almost everyone said they’d give up the coca trade that has made them targets of criminal gangs, guerrilla groups and military eradicators — as long as they’re provided a viable alternative. What they won’t allow is for the government or anyone else to destroy the crops without their consent.

“The position of us farmers is that we’re going to defend the only way we have to feed ourselves,” Duarte explained, saying his community of La India had already stopped a few military eradication efforts. “What would you do if someone tried to take your plate of food away? You’d probably grab your fork and stick it in their eye.”

Slow Peace

The peace talks have been grinding along in Havana, Cuba, for more than three years, and negotiators had set Wednesday as a deadline for a final deal. Even as that date came and went without a breakthrough, there were hopes that something might be announced while the eyes of the world were focused on Cuba during President Barack Obama’s historic visit to the island.

But it appears that differences remain about how the FARC’s estimated 9,000 to 17,000 troops and urban militias might be demobilized into “concentration zones,” and how a peace pact might be verified.

Even so, the two sides have already made progress on sticky issues, including land reform and agricultural development, guerrilla participation in politics and transitional justice.

Colombia’s coca production had spiked from 112,000 hectares in 2014 to 159,000 hectares last year.

But President Juan Manuel Santos has said the agreement on drugs — turning the FARC, which relies on the trade to finance its war, into an ally in the fight — is a game changer.

It’s clear the country needs its game changed. Despite countless deaths and billions of dollars in eradication efforts, much of the money coming from the United States, coca crops are thriving here.

The White House Office on National Drug Control Policy reported last week that Colombia’s coca production had spiked “significantly” from 112,000 hectares in 2014 to 159,000 hectares last year (or about 393,000 acres). That’s the highest level since 2007.

And much of that growth has been concentrated in border areas like this one, called Catatumbo, along the frontier with Venezuela.

Weary Growers

Juan Carlos Quintero, the vice president of the Farmers Association of Catatumbo, said that for the first time in many years the consensus among coca growers is that they want out of the business.

The region has been particularly hard hit by the conflict. The mountainous area has long been the haunt of the FARC, as well as the smaller National Liberation Army (ELN) and the Popular Liberation Army (EPL). In addition, it has been targeted by right-wing paramilitary groups and swarms of criminal gangs.

Quintero said the region has been unfairly stigmatized as a guerrilla hotbed and its coca farmers as providing the “fuel” of the conflict. But he said for most farmers coca is a necessity due to the lack of good land and, primarily, farm-to-market roads. People growing traditional food crops often find that the transportation costs alone make them not viable.


“We’re farmers, not drug traffickers,” Quintero said. “But we’re forced to grow coca leaves — we’re stuck in this social problem — because of the historic abandonment by the state.”

The Catatumbo region has suffered an inordinate amount of violence, including 10,000 dead and 110,000 displaced during the conflict, Quintero said. So a peace deal provides hope.

The war in Colombia isn’t over the drug trade, that’s just not true. … The fundamental problem is access to land.

Juan Carlos Quintero, organizer

In the draft version of the substitution program, the parties agree to build roads and marketplaces and create an economic ecosystem where legitimate crops can thrive. Another part of the deal would provide access to land and titles. The United States has pledged more than $450 million to support the peace process.

“The war in Colombia isn’t over the drug trade, that’s just not true. … The fundamental problem is access to land; coca arrived long after the conflict started,” Quintero said. “If everything in the deal comes to fruition, there’s no reason anyone should have coca crops.”

The Catatumbo region is proof that brute force doesn’t work. In 2013, when the government tried to eradicate crops in the region, farming communities rose up and blocked roads. The two-month-long paro campesino paralyzed the region, and the clashes with police left at least four dead and more than 200 wounded.

By the end, the government stopped the eradication, instead launching test substitution programs. Locals said those pilot projects were promising. Critics, however, blame the détente for allowing coca crops to thrive in the region again.

Deep Roots

César Jerez, with the National Association of Peasant Farmer Reserve Zones, said the only secret to eradicating coca is providing feasible alternatives. If the government could guarantee minimum prices on key crops and provide a network of markets to sell them in, it would go a long way to solving the problem.

“The government wants coca to disappear like a magic trick,” he said. “But coca has historical roots in Colombia; it’s the culmination of all sorts of unsolved problems in the agricultural sector, including access to land. As long as those structural problems are not resolved, farmers will continue to grow coca, poppy and marijuana.”

Duarte, who lives about seven hours from the nearest marketplace, says coca is about survival for him, but he acknowledges that it’s a crop with global repercussions.

“I know that as I benefit from this product, I am hurting who-knows-how-many people in Europe or the United States,” he said. “That’s worrisome, and that’s why we’re saying we no longer want to make our living growing coca.”