War on coca farmers continues

Inside the deeply-rooted economy of cocaine production and trafficking in Colombia, and how it might undermine Colombia’s peace. Bram Ebus reports

US-fuelled conflict between coca-growing farmers and the state is threatening to undermine Colombia’s recent peace settlement with Marxist guerrillas FARC.

The accord between President Juan Manuel Santos and FARC leaders, which ended over 50 years of civil war, committed the state to invest in long-neglected rural communities.

In particular, the deal included the provision of economic alternatives to coca-growing farmers through ‘a development framework’, which is backed by the United Nations.

But voluntary crop-substitution programmes are being sabotaged by an impatient Trump administration, which has urged Colombia to crack down – or face ‘bilateral political problems’.

The government has now intensified forced eradication of crops – with deadly results. In October, security forces opened fire on subsistence coca farmers in southwest Nariño province as they protested, killing at least seven people and injuring 30.

In the remote green hills of Danubio, in Colombia’s central Meta province, rural communities are already deeply mistrustful of the state. Arnulfo Perdomo, 63, set up a small farm after being displaced by the war. He barely makes ends meet by growing coca – which brings in less than $56 per month – but high production costs rule out growing food.

When hundreds of police entered Danubio last June to destroy coca fields, they met fierce resistance. The locals drove them away with bats and machetes and temporarily took one officer hostage. ‘If they pull out our coca, what are we going to live off?’ asks Perdomo.

The economy of cocaine production and trafficking is deeply rooted. Voluntary crop substitution and alternative development, which are supported by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, need to be given time if they are to work, says Pedro Arenas, director of the Observatory of Crops Declared Illicit.

He warns of the consequences of ‘shameless’ interventions by the US that will lead to more crop destruction in rural communities primed to expect development projects. ‘As people lose faith in substitution agreements, the peace agreements are delegitimized,’ he says.

As long as farmers see no options for leaving coca behind, a stable peace for the people of Colombia will remain elusive.