Colombian security officials are emphasizing the substitution of illegal crops with legal alternatives as part of the country's fight against drug trafficking, in concert with the Armed Forces' continuing campaign to eradicate coca, the main ingredient used to make cocaine.
“We are in the midst of the largest ever crop substitution, which is due to economic competitiveness because there are sectors such as cocoa beans that are having a bonanza and generating more income for farmers,” Defense Minister Luis Carlos Villegas explained during the forum "New Challenges for Drug Policy in Colombia".
During the January forum in Bogotá, Villegas discussed the benefits of eradication and substitution programs for farmers that switch from cultivating illegal coca to growing legal export products like coffee beans, yucca, papaya, and cocoa. For example, farmers make about $700 for a ton of coca leaves but can earn more than $3,000 for a ton of cocoa or $3,400 for a ton of coffee beans.
Colombia’s Ministry of Justice recently announced that it will support six new projects to replace illegal crops, benefiting 554 families in regions including Putumayo, Santander, Antioquia, Magdalena and Nariño. The government will support the initiative by investing around $270 million and will focus on the municipalities of Necoclí, Santa Marta, Sucre, Andes, Linares, and Valle del Guamuez.
The United States, a key partner nation, is supporting the effort by providing $5 million to support the “Cocoa for Peace” program, which will be implemented by the U.S. Agency for International Development and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. “Cocoa for Peace will support Colombia’s efforts to advance the legal rural economic growth through cocoa, particularly in areas affected by conflict,” U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Heather Higginbottom said during her visit to Colombia on February 19th.
Higginbottom met with former coca farmers who have transitioned to producing cocoa, and she and Colombian Minister of Agriculture Aurelio Iragorri signed a joint declaration of intent on technical assistance and education.
The Colombian government's program to support the cultivation of legal crops is bolstered by security forces’ efforts to eradicate coca harvests. The Armed Forces have deployed 7,000 Troops to 21 departments throughout the country to strengthen eradication efforts, Villegas stated.
The Military has tripled the number of Troops in the Mobile Eradication Groups who will carry out their eradication mission in four phases. “The Armed Forces will be responsible for 22 Mobile Eradication Groups per phase, with more than 1,500 Soldiers to ensure the safety of the groups and some 2,560 uniformed personnel who will conduct eradication activities [...] the Police will have 28 Mobile Eradication Groups with approximately 2,800 personnel handling security,” Villegas said.
Meanwhile, Colombia’s National Police (PNC) is conducting manual eradication operations based on the density of illicit crops in the departments of Chocó, Nariño, and Guaviare, said Lieutenant Colonel José Roa Castañeda, the PNC’s Chief of Illicit Crop Eradication.
Between January 1st and February 10th, the PNC eradicated 300 hectares of illegal crops after destroying 4,966 hectares in 2015, Lt. Col. Roa Castañeda said. Aerial spraying operations, in which security forces used glyphosate, have helped authorities achieve a 57 percent decrease in coca crops in a span of 14 years. In 2014, there were 69,132 hectares of coca crops nationwide, well below the 162,510 hectares in 2000.
The spraying strategy has been an effective tool but authorities are now emphasizing crop replacement. In 2015, Colombia suspended glyphosate spraying because the product was classified by the World Health Organization as a possible carcinogen.
“We have designed a new strategy in which more Security Companies for Eradication [Troops who will provide security] have been mobilized and a greater number of Mobile Eradication Groups were sent to areas of greater influence,” Lt. Col. Roa Castañeda told Diálogo . “This year, public forces plan to eradicate 16,279 hectares in various departments nationwide.”
Colombia’s new drug policy incorporates all of its successful crop substitution experiences in the fight against drug trafficking. For example, the Tarazá Cocoa Growers Association, under the framework of a Crop Substitution Program led by the United Nations, has converted the region of Bajo Cauca Antioqueño from a coca-growing area to one that produces tons of cocoa for export.
In 2015, the Misión Chocolate organization marketed cocoa beans for export to European markets for the first time. International freight agent QL Solutions of Spain bought 25 tons of cocoa for export to Europe after verifying the product’s quality from the alternative development associations that are part of the crop substitution programs.
Another successful example involves the Kogi, Arhuaco, Kankuamo, and Wiwa indigenous communities that inhabit the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, where farmers have replaced coca crops with pepper, rubber, sugarcane, and coffee. With the support of the Office of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), more than 134,000 families have benefited since 2006 by replacing their illicit crops with these products and activities such as fishing, beekeeping, crafts, and tourism.
Despite the successes, Colombia is still one of the world’s main coca producers, reaching 69,000 hectares in 2014, which represents a 44 percent increase over 2013, according to the latest Monitoring Report on Coca Cultivation in Colombia, released by the UNODC in November 2015.