en English

The Numbers Game: Coca Cultivation in Colombia

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

The State Department released findings February 28th showing that the cultivation of coca in Colombia decreased in 2002 from 169,800 hectares to 144,450, for a 15% decline after steadily rising rates for several years (including a 25% increase from 2000-2001). While a decline is positive, these figures are somewhat misleading. They mask shifts in production within Colombia and among Andean nations, do not take into account the humanitarian costs of the controversial aerial fumigation policy, and do not answer the question of long-term sustainability. Moreover, they mean relatively little next to one unbudging statistic: the availability of cocaine in the United States has remained stable despite billions of dollars appropriated for supply-side eradication.

In an important note, the most sustainable successes in eradication may be stemming from manual eradication with development aid. In Putumayo province, the center of the aerial fumigation program and the province with greatest reduction in coca, nearly one-half of the drop in coca production in 2002 was actually accomplished by manual eradication with alternative development. Coca was reduced from 47,170 to 13,725 hectares in 2002, and 14,296 hectares have been eradicated manually with US aid, and 11,520 hectares planted with legal crops (Office of the Governor of Putumayo, “For a Legal Putumayo with Social Justice and Zero Coca,” national coca crop census (SIMSI) figures). The farmers who manually eradicate and receive alternative development aid are obviously less likely to move to other areas to replant. The local government of Putumayo continues to press for community-based manual eradication with alternative development as the most sustainable and effective, as well as most humane, method of eradication.

This should be considered as the Congress reviews the 04 budget request for Colombia. In the request, social aid to Colombia, which includes alternative development assistance, has been cut from $164 million in 2003 to $150 million in 2004.

Problems with the coca cultivation figures:

  • The policy impact must be measured regionally or globally, not country by country. The State Department=s figures show coca cultivation moving back into Peru and Bolivia, to the tune of some 2,000-3,000 hectares apiece—indicating an 8% drop in coca production regionally, not 15% as in Colombia.
  • The policy impact must be measured over a longer time period. Coca cultivation in the Andes fluctuates from year to year, but has hovered around 200,000 hectares since 1988, according to the State Department figures. Since 1996, when large-scale US-supported fumigation began in Colombia, only four departments had more than 1,000 hectares of coca. Today, at least thirteen have that much coca—despite one million acres being sprayed since.
  • Availability of cocaine in the United States, the rationale for the policy, remained steady. According to the Office of National Drug Policy’s “Pulse Check: Trends in Drug Abuse,” November 2002, the availability of crack cocaine and powder cocaine “remained stable” from fall 2001 – spring 2002, the latest period covered by Pulse Check.
  • Moreover, while cocaine and crack use may be leveling off after a period of expansion, use of methamphetamine, a synthetic drug manufactured in the United States and Mexico, is increasing, according to Pulse Check (November 2002). Methamphetamine, which competes for the same users as cocaine, is especially problematic in western states and is on the increase in rural areas.
  • The figures may not measure the replanting of coca in all areas outside of the target areas that were fumigated. According to the GAO, they are a representative sample of the target country’s known or suspected drug-growing areas (“Drug Control: Coca Cultivation and Eradication Estimates in Colombia,” January 8, 2003). Historically, coca has been moved from one area of Colombia to another as eradication efforts forced farmers to pull up stakes. UN Drug Control Programme director for Colombia, Klaus Nyholm, notes that coca-growing is rising in regions bordering Putumayo province (Ibon Villelabeita, “Colombia’s New Coca Assault Hits Crops, Peasants,” Reuters, 2/26/03). Moreover, the satellite pictures upon which the estimate is based were taken directly after the largest spraying campaign ever seen in Colombia, before there was time for replanting. Cultivation may unfortunately bounce back somewhat in a short period.
  • Measuring success in terms of hectares planted/eradicated does not take into account the increase in coca yield per hectare as higher-yield coca varieties are employed.Social, political & environmental costs:One of the factors behind the movement of coca is the lack of alternatives for coca farmers. US and Colombian-government sponsored alternative development programs lag far behind the spraying program; only a fraction of the areas sprayed are offered alternative development programs. Without alternatives, farmers replant, suffer hunger or pack up and leave, often to replant illicit crops elsewhere. Marc Grossman, Under Secretary for Political Affairs, referred in a March 5, 2003 speech in Bogota to 12,000 hectares of licit crops supported by USAID (not clear over what time period). The hectares sprayed in 2002 alone total 122,695, or ten times the figure given for USAID-supported alternative development projects.

Social, political & environmental costs:

One of the factors behind the movement of coca is the lack of alternatives for coca farmers. US and Colombian-government sponsored alternative development programs lag far behind the spraying program; only a fraction of the areas sprayed are offered alternative development programs. Without alternatives, farmers replant, suffer hunger or pack up and leave, often to replant illicit crops elsewhere. Marc Grossman, Under Secretary for Political Affairs, referred in a March 5, 2003 speech in Bogota to 12,000 hectares of licit crops supported by USAID (not clear over what time period). The hectares sprayed in 2002 alone total 122,695, or ten times the figure given for USAID-supported alternative development projects.

  • Many of the areas targeted are farmed not mainly by traffickers, but by family farmers and indigenous communities. They have turned to this illicit living largely out of desperation. They are often migrants from other areas who moved due to economic hardship or political violence. The one source offering them rural credit, unfortunately, are the traffickers.
  • Among the indicators of the social impact of fumigation is the dropout rate for children in Putumayo province (site of the most intensive spraying), which according to local officials, rose 40% since 2001 as parents could not afford to send their children to school or pulled their children out of school to follow them and grow coca elsewhere. Ibon Villelabeita, “Colombia’s New Coca Assault Hits Crops, Peasants,” Reuters, 2/26/03.
  • Aerial fumigation with a broad-spectrum herbicide affects all plants, not just coca and poppy. Therefore, it kills the food crops that farmers intersperse with illicit crops. Most people in areas sprayed not only do not receive long-term development assistance, they also do not receive short-term food aid.
  • Aerial fumigation campaigns have affected farmers who plant only food crops, including a number of alternative development projects, according to the Colombian government’s ombudsman’s office. While there is supposed to be compensation for farmers whose solely legal crops are destroyed, this mechanism does not exist in practice.
  • Fumigation adds to the problem of displacement. According to the Washington Post, some 9,000 people fled Putumayo between January and November 2002 due to fumigation and a lack of alternative sources of income (Scott Wilson, “Colombia’s Air Assault on Coca Leaves Crop, Farmers in Its Dust,” Washington Post, 11/13/02). In a country where 350,000 people were displaced in 2002 primarily due to political violence, a policy intentionally increases displacement should be controversial.
  • While the State Department for years brushed aside complaints of impact to human health, the EPA found in September 2002 that the spray mixture being used could cause eye damage, a finding that found echo in the numbers of complaints of eye irritation that had been lodged with local Colombian government personnel. The spray mixture was changed to address this, but there are still many unknowns.
  • As to environmental impact, according to Anna Cederstav, staff scientist with Earthjustice, “The widespread spraying and drift of a potent herbicide that kills most plants is devastating thousands of acres of important habitat in Colombia. The potential impacts to native flora and wildlife are unknown because the herbicide hasn’t been studied in these tropical ecosystems. Further, most coca and poppy farmers just replant or clear new plots in the forest. Because the State Department only reports on current crop acreage, there is no way to assess how the eradication program is accelerating the loss of Amazonian forests.” (“Coca Cultivation in Colombia: The Story Behind the Numbers,” press statement, 2/27/03)  
  • Eradication without alternatives is pushing farmers into the ranks of the armed groups, which feed on the desperation of rural communities by actively recruiting and offering food and a salary. This development runs counter to the goals of the policy, which included a strengthening of the state in rural areas. To consolidate support in the countryside, the Colombian government needs to make progress in delivering the most basic social services—health, education, roads, agricultural extension services—to extend a positive government presence in marginal areas.

The eradication program in Colombia has two major goals: reducing the flow of cocaine and heroin to the United States, and helping the Colombian government reestablish control over the countryside. Yet despite the 2002 drop in coca production, to date the aerial fumigation policy does not appear to have made much progress towards those two major goals. On the first, cocaine use remains stable, while use of a similar drug, methamphetamine, appears to be on the increase. On the second goal, the policy will cut into the armed groups’ profits on the drug trade, but so far this does not appear to have a substantial impact. Moreover, fumigation without sufficient alternatives undercuts the Colombian government’s legitimacy in the countryside and is likely adding to the armed groups’ supply of recruits.

While the larger aim of limiting drug abuse is laudable, the tactics must be examined. This controversial and costly policy—Colombia is the only country in the world where large-scale aerial fumigation is applied—merits scrutiny. Is this the most effective policy with the least negative side effects? Could another eradication strategy, with greater attention to a sustainable demand reduction strategy through treatment and prevention, be more effective with less damage to people and the environment?