Colombians earn more from the drug trade than any other nationality in the western hemisphere. Since 2000, the United States has devoted part of its $11.6 billion in Colombian aid to eradication programs in an attempt to reduce the amount of processed cocaine reaching US shores. Despite this, cocaine has been getting cheaper in the United States, coca fields keep expanding, violence continues to worsen, and the Colombian state still has no real presence in the countries’ coca-hubs. 

In recent years a number of initiatives have been set in motion by the US executive branch to battle the spread of narcotics by eradicating coca cultivation. The most notable of these is the National Illicit Crop Substitution Programme (PNIS), introduced in late 2016. The programme declared that in exchange for uprooting their own plants, coca farmers were to be given a monthly subsidy of one million pesos ($300) as well as technical aid to explore alternative means of trade. However, of the 100,000 families who enrolled in this programme, 90,000 didn’t receive full payment. The Colombian Government’s lack of cooperation with the programme put the livelihoods of almost 100,000 families in jeopardy and  created a major setback in the country’s drug policy through a fallout of trust. 

The Colombian Government has taken a second, more forceful stance to eradicate the drug supply, using two procedures to reduce the cultivation of the coca plant: the first entails flying over fields containing the crop and blanketing the whole area with the chemical Glyphosate (a systemic herbicide). Per contrary, the other strategy involves sending out troops to manually destroy the crops. However, these methods have done little to solve the coca crisis and have provoked yet more violence and displacement. 

2018 saw the highest amount of coca cultivation ever, showing the futility of the Government’s approach to coca eradication. With the coca industry booming, it may come as a surprise that Colombian farmers don’t like operating in the coca industry – In 2020, the defence ministry reported 16 dead and more than 100 wounded during 1,862 confrontations between coca farmers and soldiers. Farmers may be permanently evicted from their lands, and anyone perceived as mere bystanders by an armed group may face forcible expulsion due to their alleged ambivalence. Tensions among farmers can also escalate, particularly in areas with mixed coca and non-coca cultivation. 

Despite knowing the risks, Colombian farmers persist in the coca industry on the ground that it is the only economically viable crop. Bananas, corn, sugarcane and coffee don’t fetch prices anywhere near those that coca does. To put this in perspective, while farmers can sell one kilo of coca paste for approximately 2.7 million pesos (£550), the price of one kilo of cacao can be sold for just 8,000 pesos (£1.63). The Government’s eradication programs are ineffective because coca is too profitable a good and without it, coca farmers can’t enjoy a sufficient standard of living. Furthermore, with the wholesale price of cocaine being so high, buyers can easily afford to pay coca growers higher prices without profits being affected too much.

The underlying question is what alternative solutions the Colombian Government and US administration have to the drug crisis. One response we can expect to see in the long term is infrastructural improvements to the Colombian countryside, including improvements to rural roads, which will bring forth further opportunities for farmers to trade legal crops. Alongside this, a de-emphasis on forced eradication methods and a restoration of trust between farmers and the Government will be vital if we are to see a resolution to the cocaine crisis. In short, Washington and Bogota must put aside their long history of advocating tough (and counterproductive) measures to destroy drug supply and should instead back comprehensive efforts to boost Colombia’s rural economies. 

Much can be learnt from Bolivia’s coca control methods and their alternatives to forced eradication. In 2008, Bolivia initiated a policy allowing households to grow 1,600 square metres of coca. Under this scheme, farmers are subjected to monitoring by their peers, and where excess coca production is identified, it is voluntarily eradicated, taking forced eradication out of the equation. This program has since proven to be more effective and cost-efficient than forced eradication in controlling coca production. A 24% drop in coca production in Bolivia since 2008 shows the model’s effectiveness. Moreover, since the implementation of this new policy, violent confrontations between police and farmers have almost disappeared. 

Bolivia’s community control model offers many insights into limiting coca production that can be adapted to the Colombian context. This approach, alongside infrastructural development in rural areas could prove to be crucial in decreasing the Colombian drug supply while reducing agricultural violence, by making human interests the focal point of a robust supply-side drug strategy.