As a 53-year civil war winds down, coca growers face growing pressure to shelve their lucrative crop.

Mauricio Quiróz has always had a plan.

The 38-year-old farmer and entrepreneur lives with his wife and three kids on a small ranch on the lush, steep mountainside that surrounds the municipality of Briceño, in the department of Antioquia in northwestern Colombia.

Orphaned at a very young age, he was always forced to figure things out for himself about how to move forward in life. And despite growing coca there for over 15 years on his 10-hectare parcel of land (about 25 acres) in the heart of Antioquia’s coca-growing region, Quiróz had been anticipating that the time would come when the lucrative crop would no longer be a sustainable way to maintain his household. Farms like his are the entry point of the supply chain to the international cocaine trade, which has been the target of U.S. and Colombian officials for generations.

So several years ago, he began to cultivate coffee, cocoa, bananas, avocados and other licit products. Today, he plans on farming and marketing tilapia in a small pond he’s converting from the enclosed area where he once maintained his processing lab for coca paste.

“It’s going to be tough, because we’re used to getting every two to three months anywhere between three to four million Colombian pesos (about $1,500-$1,600) for our coca paste, whereas with the other products we grow, like coffee, that’s our take for the entire year,” he says, smiling broadly as we make our way through the remaining coca fields on his sloping property. “But I knew this day would come and now it’s a matter of working with all the people in the community to make the difficult transition as painless as possible.”

That transition is the radical overhaul of the local economy that is occurring as a result of the peace deal signed last year between the government of President Juan Manuel Santos and the leftist rebels of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).

Ripping out the Roots

The coca-crop substitution program is one of the most complex aspects of the peace agreement that is trying to put an end to the country’s 53-year armed conflict. The FARC had maintained considerable territorial control for many years in several regions of the country and had taxed coca farmers in return for protecting them. This history is at the crux of the first and fourth points of the six-point agenda that the FARC and the government signed and have been in the process of implementing since January.

Point one relates to comprehensive land reform and investment in and development of the countryside, which the FARC emphasized in its decades-long insurgency. Point four relates to the issue of illicit crops, specifically how to wean the countryside from its dependency on coca. The rush is on in the government’s attempt to eradicate coca through the National Comprehensive Program for the Substitution of Illicit Crops, known by its Spanish acronym, PNIS.

The challenge is trying to reconcile the two points — comprehensive land reform and rural development on the one hand, and crop eradication and substitution on the other — in a way that is economically and socially sustainable, and will not be too disruptive for the vast majority of the poor peasant farmers in just about every region of Colombia.

Given the history of government neglect, lack of infrastructure, a total absence of any level of technical support for the communities and ongoing threats from paramilitary groups operating in the area, the prospects do not look so good. The process is laced with profound contradictions in its implementation, as the government’s policy involves both voluntary and forced eradication. That has already created tensions with the communities most affected by the program.

“Officials focus on the number of hectares eradicated to show success. But there is very little preoccupation with the people, the families, the agricultural workers that are producing coca,” said Pedro Arenas, director of the Observatory for the Cultivators and Cultivations Declared Illicit (OCCDI).  

The Observatory, as it is more commonly known, has worked for the last few years to support and defend the rights of the thousands of peasant farmers and their families who have been involved in coca cultivation. The organization rejects the forced eradication of the coca fields and the U.S.-backed aerial fumigations that have gone on for years throughout the countryside, which now are on hold. It denounces the criminalization of the peasant farmers, arguing that they are honest, hard-working people with families who have had no other choice, given the economic conditions facing the Colombian countryside for decades.

“This is a complex network we are talking about — not only the coca farmers and the coca collectors, but the women who work on the farms, the small merchants in the area, the small-scale transporters that move products and services into and out of the veredas, or small villages,” Arenas said during one of our many long and difficult walks through the rugged mountains of Briceño.

In the first six months of the PNIS coca-substitution program launched earlier this year, more than 90,000 families agreed to eradicate more than 79,000 hectares (1 hectare = 2.47 acres) of coca crops manually. Up to 40 coca-growing communities in 13 departments have signed collective agreements for voluntary coca eradication. The government hopes to increase the total number of families participating in the program to over 130,000, responsible for roughly 115,000 hectares of coca. That’s an ambitious number by any stretch of the imagination.

In some regions, like Briceño, the government has already made the first payments to families that have signed on. They will receive subsidies to compensate for their initial loss of income, and are expected to receive further payments to help them set up substitution projects, such as Quiróz’s fish farm. Each family can expect to receive a total of about $12,000 in direct payments and technical assistance over the course of two years.

The problem is that once the farmers begin receiving those subsidies, they have to eradicate their crops completely — pulling them out by hand — within 60 days, or they will be put out of the program and be held criminally liable. This ultimatum has put intense pressure on the farmers and the communities they live in, without addressing many of the other issues that affect their economic condition.

In its report for June-July released in mid-August, the Observatory pointed to direct confrontations between the state forces in charge of overseeing the eradication efforts and the rural populations in places including the municipalities of El Retorno, in Guaviare department, San José del Fragua in Caquetá, Tibú in Norte de Santander, Piamonte in Cauca, Puerto Rico in Meta and Policarpa in Nariño.

“The government first has to focus on changing its attitude towards us,” warns Quiróz, who has committed himself to the program. “They need to provide us training and infrastructure in order to make the people aware of the options regarding the substitution of crops. We need support and assistance from the government for this to happen.”

Given right-wing Colombians’ vocal resistance to almost every aspect of the peace process, it’s unlikely that the government will even appear to backpedal on the eradication program. President Santos and his allies, many of whom are now actively campaigning for the 2018 presidential elections, do not want to appear weak in the face of non-stop attacks by members of the right-wing opposition, which are readily echoed in Colombia’s mainstream corporate media.

Things got complicated in July, when the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime reported that coca cultivation in Colombia had increased by 52 percent, from 96,000 hectares in 2015 to 146,000 hectares in 2016. The UN publicly urged the Colombian government to take more effective measures to curtail cultivation, while critics of Santos pointed to the UN report as evidence that the peace agreement with the FARC was a failure.

This has been exacerbated by ongoing pressure from the Trump administration, which is taking a hard line against any tolerance of gradual eradication by Bogotá. In response, the Observatory argues that Colombia’s history shows that violent, forced eradication works in the short term by reducing coca acreage, but that it is not sustainable in the long term, as it does not provide concrete solutions to the economic and social conditions that led these farmers to grow coca.

For Wilmar Moreno, a longtime community organizer, the problem is the government’s single-minded focus on total acreage eradicated. He says the vast majority of people in the area are committed to the substitution program, as long as the government fulfills its commitments — which up to now, it has not.

“Despite the many problems [coca] brings with it, it is an economy that has given us food to eat, for our families, for our kids. And it’s not simply about replacing a coca plant with a banana plant, as President Santos did recently when visiting the area,” he says. “The government has to create the conditions for us to be able to make this transition into a new economy.”

Filling the Vacuum

Security is another problem. In Briceño and other parts of the country, the recent incursion of new armed groups is filling in the vacuum where FARC fighters have demobilized. In April, INDEPAZ (Instituto de Estudios para el Desarrollo y la Paz, the Institute of Studies for Development and Peace, based in Bogota) reported that 14 “narco-paramilitary” structures had a visible presence in 149 municipalities, occupying territories that had been controlled by the FARC for decades and intimidating community leaders, social-movement activists and peasant farmers. One of these is the new paramilitary group “Clan del Golfo,” which has been operating in northern Antioquia for the past several months, according to several interviews. This is part of an alarming national trend that has been growing since the peace accords were signed last year.

Since January, over 50 social-movement leaders have been murdered, including people involved in land-recuperation efforts, environmental-defense campaigns against extractive industries such as mining and indigenous and peasant activists. While the victims have been mostly civilians, demobilized FARC members and their families now also appear to be at risk. Former FARC combatants are getting killed regularly in a variety of departments. This echoes the “dirty war” of the 1980s when thousands of militants of the Patriotic Union, the political party affiliated with the FARC, were assassinated in what some have called political genocide.

It is still too early to tell how all of this will play out, but the situation is indeed precarious. Quiróz recalled the darkest days of the conflict in Briceño and the surrounding municipalities, when all the local farmers would bunker into their homes with their families by 6 p.m. to avoid getting caught in any outbreak of combat. Today, things are noticeably different, he said, with local residents walking freely throughout the territory, even after sunset.

“We hope this peace is going to be long-lasting, because tranquility does not have a price,” he says, sipping a cup of sugar water on his porch. “But if the government doesn’t provide us with guarantees, doesn’t fulfill its side of the deal and continues treating us as criminals, this tranquility won’t last long.”  

Mario A. Murillo is a professor of communication and Latin American studies at Hofstra University on Long Island, and is the author of Colombia and the United States: War, Unrest and Destabilization.


Photo (top): Wilmar Moreno, a longtime community organizer, says the Colombian government’s single-minded focus on total acreage eradicated comes at the expense of providing farmers the support they need to transition from growing coca to other legal crops. Credit: Mario A. Murillo.

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