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Imagine That: Humane Drug Control Efforts Work Better!

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On Friday, November 6th, the U.S. government finally released its estimate of how much coca was cultivated in Colombia in 2008. The result is the first reduction in coca-growing since 2002-2003, a significant drop from 167,000 hectares measured in 2007 to 119,000 hectares in 2008. (A hectare is equal to 2.47 acres.) This brings the U.S. government’s coca cultivation estimate to its lowest level since 2004. (The U.S. government has not yet released 2008 coca data for Peru and Bolivia.) This matches a downward 2007-2008 trend – though not the number of hectares – that the UN Office on Drugs and Crime announced (PDF) back in June.

A reduction in coca cultivation is good news. But what caused it?

Here is what Friday’s press release from the U.S. embassy to Colombia says:

       "According to analysts, the principal reasons for the decline were steadfast aerial and manual eradication pressure delivered against the primary Colombian growing areas, increased government presence and security forces in select growing regions and successful operation against drug trafficking organizations. Violence between trafficking groups and economic disruptions that affect farmers’ planting decisions were also a factor."

Certainly, eradication was a key variable. But eradication has changed since 2006, which was the peak year for the U.S.-funded aerial herbicide fumigation program. Fumigation was a centerpiece of Plan Colombia, but groups like ours have long maintained that it was counterproductive and ineffective. And the coca-cultivation statistics appeared to agree.

The fumigation program has declined since 2006. By 2008, the United States was supporting the spraying of 38,000 fewer hectares in Colombia.

Instead, the emphasis has gone to manual eradication. Teams of eradicators, protected by the security forces, pull farmers’ coca plants out of the ground. This is dangerous to the eradicators, but appears to be more effective than sending planes to spray overhead without bothering to establish any state presence on the ground. 53,000 more hectares were manually eradicated in 2008 than in 2006.

The statistics are showing manual eradication to be more effective than fumigation at reducing coca. However, forced manual eradication is hardly a panacea. Most Colombian coca growers are small farm families in some of the poorest parts of the country. If their crops are manually eradicated and they are left with no economic options – no government presence, no farm-to-market roads, no help making the transition to a legal economy, not even basic food security assistance – they are more likely to attempt coca growing again, and to view the Colombian state as an adversary. Manual eradication must be carefully calibrated with a strategy to bring coca farmers, some of Colombia’s poorest and most marginalized citizens, out of illegality.

There are strong reasons to worry that the gains measured in 2008 aren’t permanent. We will not know for sure, however, until at least June 2010, when the UNODC will likely release its 2009 coca estimates.

  • Manual eradication in 2009 has not kept pace with 2008. While 95,731 hectares were eradicated manually in 2008, by late September of this year Colombia’s police had eradicated 40,000: less than half as much, three-quarters of the way through the year. Conversations with U.S. officials over the course of 2009 indicate that fumigation has also dropped further this year.
  • Economic conditions may be inspiring more rural farmers to turn to coca. This is particularly the case in coca-growing zones, especially Putumayo and Nariño departments, that were hit hard by the collapse of several large pyramid schemes in November of last year – too late to be registered in the 2008 coca data. Anecdotal evidence from these zones indicates that of the tens of thousands of families who saw their savings wiped out with the demise of DMG and other schemes, a portion turned back to the coca economy in 2009.
  • Armed groups – both the FARC and “new” paramilitary groups – have been much more active in several coca-growing zones, most notably the Bajo Cauca region of Antioquia (several paramilitary groups), southern Córdoba (paramilitary), Putumayo (FARC), Meta (FARC and paramilitary) and Nariño and Cauca (virtually all armed groups). This reactivation could bring an uptick in 2009 coca cultivation in some of these areas.

The progress of 2008 is fragile. It owes much to a forced manual eradication model that, though more effective than fumigation, is not a substitute for governing and creating economic opportunity in rural zones. With some signs pointing to disappointment in 2009, there is no reason to believe that a solution has been found. The strategy has to keep changing.

This post was originally published on Adam Isacson's blog through the CIP Colombia Program.