Colombian Drop in Coca Cultivation Offset by Shift to Other Illegal Crops

By Dialogo
July 01, 2013

BOGOTÁ — In 2012, Colombian farmers grew 118,000 acres of coca, the green bushes whose leaves provide the raw material for cocaine. That figure represents a huge reduction from the 402,000 acres of coca cultivated in 2000, when drug trafficking guerrillas and paramilitaries held sway in much of the Colombian countryside.
Yet few people in Bogotá are celebrating over the latest estimate on coca acreage, which was compiled by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). According to analysts, that’s because coca farmers in Peru and Bolivia have made up much of the slack — while many Colombian growers, instead of planting legal crops, have shifted to marijuana or have gotten involved in illegal gold mining.
“We are in the same place that we were 15 or 20 years ago. It’s just that the massive coca plantations are no longer in Colombia,” said Daniel Mejia, director of the Research Center on Drugs and Security at Bogotá’s Universidad de los Andes.
Measuring drug crops has always been an imperfect science. For one thing, different methodologies exist for estimating acreage, while factors like cloud cover can impair satellite imagery and obscure the results. In addition, it’s difficult to estimate how much cocaine an acre of coca can yield, because farmers have switched to plant strains with higher alkaloid contents and higher yields, while some drug fields are denser than others.
UNODC statistics show steep drop in coca production
Still, the overall numbers have demonstrated a downward trend since 2000, the peak year in Colombia’s coca production. Back then, Colombia’s annual cocaine production was estimated at more than 700 metric tons — a figure that amid the drop in coca cultivation has since dropped by more than half.
Those who study the region’s drug trade point to a variety of reasons for the reduction.
Last year, Colombia’s anti-narcotics police used cropdusters to fumigate about 250,000 acres of coca from the air, while teams of manual eradicators ripped up another 75,000 acres. These anti-drug sweeps — which have been going on for years — may have finally convinced some farmers to get out of the business.
In addition, overproduction may be a factor. Coca plantations likely expanded too much in the early 2000s and what Colombia may be witnessing now is a market correction, said Alvaro Balcazar, a Colombian consultant on land and drug issues.
Mejia said that rather than a single-minded focus on eradication, Colombia’s anti-drug policies since 2008 have focused more on dismantling downstream targets such as cocaine laboratories and trafficking organizations.
“That takes away a lot of money from criminal groups that have caused a lot of damage to the country,” Mejia said. According to his calculations from a few years ago, about $7.7 billion in illegal drug profits has entered Colombia, with about $1.5 billion of that going to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).
Lower demand also a factor
Another consequence, Mejia said, is less demand for coca leaves.
In some areas of Colombia “lots of farmers are throwing in the towel,” said Sanho Tree, a drug expert at the Washington-based Institute for Policy Studies. “But in other regions they still think they can game the system.”
Coca production in the more populated areas of rural Colombia has dropped sharply, but along Colombia’s border with Ecuador and Peru and near the Pacific coast — where the government’s presence is minimal — coca production continues unabated, Balcazar said.
And even though coca acreage is down, marijuana plantations are springing up — creating what’s been called Colombia’s second marijuana bonanza following the drug’s boom years in the 1970s known as “la marimbera.”
In addition, many former drug farmers, encouraged by the high price of gold, are switching to illegal mining which is controlled by the FARC and criminal gangs. Gold has become such a vital source of income that FARC fronts now have separate financial managers keeping tabs on profits from both drugs and gold. For peasants, gold mining is easier and more profitable, said Daniel
Rico, a Colombian expert on the illegal drug trade. They don’t have to invest in pesticides or hire coca pickers at harvest time or worry about government eradicators. What’s more, people involved in illegal gold mining – unlike drug traffickers – do not face the threat of extradition to the United States, Rico said.
A recent drop in coca acreage in Antioquia department – from 11,700 acres to 7,500 acres between 2010 and 2011 – is largely attributed to a switchover to illegal gold mining, and Rico said the same thing is going on elsewhere in the country.
‘Balloon effect’ squeezing coca production to Peru, Bolivia
Furthermore, Colombian government counts on the army, anti-drug police and other institutions to combat drugs, but no special unit focuses on illegal mining, Rico said.
Then there’s the so-called balloon effect — the phenomenon in which drug production, when squeezed hard in one country, moves across borders where law enforcement pressure is less intense, just as when a balloon is squeezed on one side, the air bulges out on another.
That’s been the history of coca production in the Andes. Peru and Bolivia were the top coca producers in the early 1990s and would send unrefined coca paste to Colombian labs to be transformed into cocaine. Amid a crackdown on aircraft ferrying coca paste to those labs, coca production relocated to Colombia.
Now, plantations are shifting back to Peru and Bolivia. Although 2012 figures haven’t yet been released, Peru emerged in 2011 as the top coca producer in the region, topping Colombia for the first time in more than 15 years.
Not only is the law enforcement crackdown in Colombia squeezing local coca growers, Balcazar said, but in Peru many parts of the countryside remain beyond the government’s control with remnants of the Shining Path terrorist group staging a comeback.
coke is important for humanity, well that's my opinion as a Peruvian woman, but Peruvians export the drug and I'm outraged by this.