“I formally request… explicit consideration of the advisability of re-starting aerial spraying,” reads a September 2 letter to Colombia’s justice minister from the country’s recently inaugurated prosecutor-general, Nestor Humberto Martínez.
For more than twenty years, this U.S.-backed “fumigation” program sprayed the herbicide glyphosate from aircraft over areas—usually neglected, remote rural zones—where farmers grow coca, the plant used to make cocaine. The spray program was controversial because of health complaints and environmental damage, because it left poor, unserved populations with no viable income sources, and because—especially after 2003 or so—it started to show diminishing returns as growers adjusted.
The May 2014 accord between the government and FARC guerrillas did not end fumigation. It relegated it to “last resort” status: to be used if communities fail to honor commitments to eradicate coca in exchange for development assistance, and if manual eradication (pulling the plants out of the ground) is judged too dangerous. The end of the spray program came later, after a March 2015 World Health Organization literature review determined that glyphosate is “probably carcinogenic to humans.” The Colombian government, led by its Health Ministry, decided to stop fumigation in May 2015, and the program came to an end in October 2015.
Just over ten months have passed, and calls to re-start the spray program are growing in volume. The timing owes to reports—from the U.S. government in March and the UN Office on Drugs and Crime in July—showing that Colombian coca-growing leapt upward by about 40 percent last year. The U.S. government measured 159,000 hectares of coca in Colombia last year, its third-highest estimate since the late 1980s. The UNODC measured 96,000 hectares, its sixth-highest since 1999.
Prosecutor-General Martínez repeated his call for renewed aerial spraying on September 5 during a visit to Washington, but not with glyphosate: “There is another molecule [chemical] that the National Police are working with, an option that doesn’t do human damage,” Martínez said. (While he didn’t specify the herbicide, press reports point to glufosinate-ammonium). On September 7, U.S. Ambassador Kevin Whitaker insisted to reporters that “glyphosate is effective and safe,” adding, “The Prosecutor-General has proposed the possibility of restarting the program. If Colombia decides that it is important and wants to talk with us, we’re open.”
On September 5, President Juan Manuel Santos shot down the Prosecutor-General’s proposal: “The fumigations were like applying wet rags, because we came, we fumigated or eradicated with soldiers and police, and as soon as we left, they started to plant again, including with more productive varieties.”
The debate will continue as coca cultivation, by all accounts, appears to be increasing further in 2016. Central to resolving it is the question: did the drop in fumigation cause the increase in coca-growing?
The answer is only partially “yes,” and it’s probably not the main cause. Moreover, its short-term impact was not sustainable in the medium-to-long term as long as growers were not provided with economic alternatives. Fumigation’s end is one of several factors that changed in the past few years.
The UNODC’s July annual report on illicit crops in Colombia, an essential document for understanding trends, cites four causes in this order:
- “A strong increase in the prices that they [coca-growers] receive for coca leaf (from COP$2,150 per kilogram that were paid in 2014 to COP$3,000 per kilogram in 2015).” The rise in coca-leaf prices is a big incentive for more coca-growing. To some extent, it is a result of the Colombian peso’s weakening: the price barely budged in U.S. dollar terms (from US$1.07 to US$1.09 per kilogram of leaves). The increase could also be a result of the peace process with the FARC: as guerrillas have begun to withdraw from the coca trade, in many areas they are no longer fixing the prices that growers receive. With more buyers and more competition, growers are being offered more. “The illegal armed groups that control coca markets in these territories have given growers freedom to sell their production to other actors,” the UN study notes.
- “A reduction in the risk associated with illicit activity due to the suspension of aerial spraying and the possibility of avoiding manual eradication by blockading the security forces.” Spraying has stopped, and forced manual eradication is also reduced and often halted by coca-growing campesinos, whose response to it has become more organized. Usually, growers—and often others in the community—block eradicators’ access to fields, demanding that the government first provide basic services like roads or food security assistance. UNODC cites “140 demonstrations with blockades” of manual eradicators in 2015, and Colombian authorities say the number has risen to 400 this year as of August.
- “A possible increase in expectations of receiving benefits in exchange for elimination of coca crops.” The peace accord commits the government to agree with coca-growing communities on packages of development assistance in exchange for eradication. As we await the accord’s implementation, this may be creating a perverse incentive: in order to get this assistance, communities must have coca crops. “[W]idespread reporting indicates that FARC elements have been urging coca growers to plant more coca, purportedly motivated by the belief that Colombian government post-peace accord investment and subsidies will focus on regions with the greatest quantities of coca,” reads the State Department’s March International Narcotics Control Strategy Report.
- “Temporary elements that affected licit activities and favored illicit activities in the regions: for example, the oil crisis [price collapse] in Catatumbo, drought in Antioquia and southern Bolívar, and a general reduction in alternative development in the entire country.”
In order to address the increase in coca-growing, Colombia’s government has four options. They’re not all good ones.
1. It can renew aerial spraying. The disadvantages of this program, however, are strong: among others, its devastating impact on small-scale farmers and their families. And the correlation between spraying and reduced coca-growing is weak or nonexistent.
Is this being done? There has been no fumigation since the practice was halted in October 2015.
2. It can increase forced manual eradication, sending teams of eradicators, police, or even soldiers into coca fields to rip the plants out of the ground. Colombia began forced eradication in 2003, ramped it up between 2005 and 2008, and has gradually reduced it since. Data may show a weak correlation between massive manual eradication and reduced coca-growing. But when manual eradication is not combined with assistance for communities in stateless, abandoned areas, the result is a combination of worsened poverty, anger at the government, social protest, and eventual replanting. As with aerial spraying, manual eradication’s short-term crop reductions are very difficult, if not impossible, to sustain without effective alternative development.
Is this being done? Yes, but the 20,000 hectares to be manually eradicated this year are just over one-fifth of the highest year on record, 2008 (95,700 hectares). Manual eradication has dropped because it is expensive at a time of falling government revenues. It is also dangerous because armed groups and narcotraffickers employ landmines, booby traps, and ambushes to attack eradicators. And it is socially disruptive as coca-growing communities, objecting to eradication without economic assistance, have organized to oppose it.
3. It can pursue more “transactional” alternative development. This usually involves cutting a deal in which coca growers abandon the illegal crop in exchange for help earning income from other sources (either other agriculture products or off-farm employment). These programs often fail in the absence of security, land titles, credit, and lack of farm-to-market roads and other basic infrastructure, while their timeframes are often unsustainably short. Insufficient or inadequate community participation in the design, implementation and monitoring of such programs can also contribute to poor results.
Is this being done? Less than before: as noted, the UNODC reports “a general reduction in alternative development in the entire country.” To some extent, the reduction is a result of a sharp drop in the government’s revenues, due to oil prices. It is also on hold while the government plans a more comprehensive approach as outlined in the peace accords.
4. Governing territory and serving citizens. Coca is not cultivated in parts of Colombia where there is even a minimal functioning government presence. Most coca-growing zones are areas where the lack of a government is nearly total: no roads, no police outside of a few town centers, no access to post-primary education, health care, or potable water, no land titling. The correlation between statelessness, lack of economic opportunity, and illicit crop cultivation is quite high. Reversing statelessness, though, is a costly and long-term effort that may not yield immediate results.
Is this being done? Not enough. Perhaps due to the government’s fiscal crisis, anecdotal reports from around the country indicate some pullback of state presence from marginal areas. The peace accords with the FARC—especially the 2013 accord on rural development and the 2014 accord on illicit crops—constitute a blueprint for establishing a functioning state presence in abandoned zones. But implementation of those accords will not even start until 2017, other than a handful of small “quick-impact” projects.
Of these four options, then, right now Colombia is effectively doing “none of the above.”
Does all of this mean that Colombia needs to start fumigating, despite the lessons of the past? Of course not. But Colombia needs to start doing something.
A promising step in the direction of that “something” is laid out in the text of the peace accords: a large-scale effort to invest in the rural economy and to help coca-growing communities to reduce and end their dependence on the crop. This is a model worth pursuing—and really, it’s a list of services that any government should be providing to its citizens.
Real progress in implementing this model must move quickly, though, if it is to outpace pressure to resume fumigating. As soon as possible, it must leave the drawing board and become a real-world, well-funded, vigorously implemented strategy. Even then, expectations must be realistic: demonstrable and sustainable impacts on coca cultivation levels will take time. All the more reason to begin now. The jump in coca cultivation has increased the sense of urgency, in both Bogotá and Washington.