Colombia’s cultivation of coca, the primary ingredient used to make cocaine, reached a record high in 2017, according to the United Nations.
The global organization estimates that the crop spanned 171,000 hectares in the nation last year, a jump of 17%, or 25,000 hectares, from the level measured in 2016 by the United Nation’s Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC). This is the largest area measured since the United Nations began tracking cultivation levels.
Photo: A drug lab in Caqueta, Colombia, that was producing coca paste before being busted by Colombian military. (Photo credit: Comando General de las Fuerzas Militares)
Even more troubling, the area under cultivation has been surging by an average annual rate of 45% since 2013, when the nation had just 48,000 hectares of coca crops.
The current crop levels are enough to potentially produce $2.7 billion worth of cocaine in the local market, says the agency. “There are concerns that this capital, derived from the drug economy, could undermine peace-building efforts, weaken the culture of lawfulness, strengthen armed groups, and delegitimize democratic institutions through corruption and illicit financial flows,” said the UNODC in a statement.
The overall volume may not even tell the whole tale about the growing potential for cocaine production given that higher yields are now possible from the same crop volume. Compared to even 2012, today’s coca plants produce 33% more leaves, although the prices of these leaves has fallen considerably from 2,900 Colombian pesos (nearly $1 USD) per kilogram in 2016 to just 2,100 pesos (about $0.70 USD).
This growing coca production in the Andean nation, in addition to President Donald Trump taking office, has strained relations between Colombia and the United States.
White House officials have consistently stressed that the government in Bogotá must do more to curb cultivation and cocaine production, with Trump threatening last year to decertify Colombia as a partner in the United States’ so-called “War on Drugs.”
The U.S. head of state decided not to take that drastic step, however, citing Colombian law enforcement’s improving ability to intercept more cocaine. According to the UNODC, 435,431 kilograms of cocaine were seized in 2017, up 20% from the 365,415 seized the year before.
Manual efforts to eradicate coca crops also reached 52,571 hectares in 2017, a major increase from just 18,227 hectares eradicated in 2016.
This came as the Colombian government began to prioritize crop substitution over eradication under former President Juan Manual Santos.
In concert with the peace accord formalized in late 2016 to end a half-century of conflict with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrilla group, the nation began its National Substitution Program (Programa Nacional Integral de Sustitución de Cultivos de Uso Ilícito – PNIS) to get rural farmers to voluntarily stop growing coca in favor of other crops, such as cocoa.
Though this effort continues to face pressure due to other armed groups active in the drug trade influencing “campesino” growers, the government enrolled 54,027 families in the program during 2017, according to the UNODC. Though not included in the timeline of the study’s scope, more than 23,600 additional families were also enrolled in the first six months of 2018.
Furthermore, the real impact of this program has not yet made its way into the data. “The results of this effort are not yet fully detectable in this monitoring report, because when the 2017 coca survey was implemented, many families enrolled in the program were still within the agreed period to comply with the voluntary eradication process,” said the UNODC in its report.
Current President Iván Duque, who won the presidential election in June and took office on August 7, has pledged to take a more aggressive approach to eradication. During the campaign, he said he planned to resume aerial fumigation efforts, which Santos halted years ago citing health concerns that may be caused by the herbicide used. Duque has said he attempt to use drones rather than planes to drop glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup brand weedkiller and the preferred chemical to destroy coca plants.
The 2017 crop figures were reported in the “Coca Cultivation Survey Report for Colombia,” an annual study conducted by UNODC that was released on September 19.
Among its other findings is that the vast majority of the national crop — some 106,949 hectares, or 62.5% — is produced in two regions, categorized by the agency as the “Pacific region” and the “Putumayo/Caquetá” region (which is comprised of two Colombian departments of the same name).
The “Central region” makes up the bulk of the rest with 41,382 hectares, while the “Meta/Guaviare region” accounts for another 10,500 hectares.
Additionally, the report notes that a significant proportion (16%) of Colombian coca is grown within 10 kilometers of the nation’s borders with Venezuela and Ecuador. Some 5% is also grown within national parks with another 27% of the crops located within 20 kilometers of a national park.
While various efforts — forced eradication and crop substitution — can be effective, according to the UNODC, the way forward for Colombia should include a cohesive, coordinated strategy that includes clear communication with all stakeholders.
“A fundamental step to reverse the increasing trend in coca crops and other unintended consequence is clear messaging and communication about the objectives and strategy to follow,” states the report. “In order to improve communication and mutual understanding, suitable interlocutors should be identified and a monitoring system which tracks implementation of the agreements must be put in place so as to transmit evidence-based and trustable messages to the concerned people.”
Beyond this, the United Nations stresses that this is not solely a Colombian problem.
One key statistic cited by the agency highlights why the most-affected areas struggle to curtail the growth of a crop that all actors in the supply chain have an overwhelming incentive to produce. In the 10 municipalities with the highest yields, the value of the coca leaves alone — not even accounting for the cocaine they will be turned into — was worth around $302 million USD last year. The combined annual government budgets of those same 10 municipalities is just $196 million USD.
While better coordination and support for rural areas from the national government is needed, the United Nations says that Colombia will need ongoing assistance from the international community to reverse what is an increasingly worrisome trend.
“The challenges are manifold, not only for Colombia and its undeniable commitment to fight drug production, but also for the global community,” states the report. “The consolidation of peace must be accompanied by institutional presence capable of providing conditions for security and the rule of law. The main objective will be to facilitate and reinforce the role of the state and promote integrated rural development activities, reduce vulnerabilities and transform the territories of Colombia.”