WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas
28 Apr 2017 | Commentary

Coca Cultivation in Colombia from a Gender Perspective

By Raquel Gómez Fernández*

“The voice of women is fundamental, and should be taken into account in crop-substitution plans in order to monitor compliance and understand their necessities.”  ~Estefanía Ciro

The economic vulnerabilities faced by women involved in growing coca in Colombia are rarely taken into account in the design of drug policies or programs intended to reduce the quantity of coca cultivated for the production of cocaine. Coca cultivation in remote, rural areas of Colombia often involves the entire family. Women tend to be involved in planting, harvesting, and transferring seeds and inputs for production. For the most part, women engage in these activities to obtain a subsistence-level income; it is a means of putting food on the table for their children. These women “suffer the worst consequences of the lack of access to property rights, low incomes from rural activities, or unpaid work.” They live in areas with little if any educational opportunities, lack access to health care and other basic services, and are poorly situated to be economically competitive. As Colombia moves forward with implementing the drug policy component of the peace accord agreed to between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), incorporating a gender perspective will be fundamental for securing peace and improving the economic well-being of rural families.

Despite the importance of understanding coca cultivation from a gender perspective, very little research has been done on this topic. During the months of December 2016 and January 2017, the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) conducted a series of interviews with experts in Colombia about women and their role in coca growing. We found that in general terms, lack of economic opportunities, destruction of family unity, and displacement are the main reasons that lead rural women to engage in coca production. In these cases, women rely on coca as a steady source of income to survive violence and poverty. The interviews further underscored that regardless of the region, there are no specific studies about rural women and their role in coca cultivation or the effects that changes in drug policy in Colombia have had or are likely to have on women.

Ana María Rueda, who works on drug policy issues at the Colombian Ministry of Justice and the Law, highlighted that there is a lack of information about the role of women in the production of illicit crops, mainly because the areas where coca is cultivated are difficult to access and the focus on gender has not been a priority. One person conducting research to identify gender roles in coca cultivation is Estefanía Ciro, a researcher who focuses on the Caquetá region, and who has interviewed women for her thesis, Cultivando coca en el Caquetá: Vidas y legitimidades en la actividad cocalera, which focuses on women and coca cultivation in the Caquetá region. She has found that women tend to participate in each phase of coca production, including cultivation, transportation, and sale. In this process, women are discriminated against when seeking access and rights to land, vulnerable to sexual violence, and disadvantaged when looking for other economic opportunities. They are also often displaced from their territories due to forced coca eradication and violence.

Isabel Pereira and Luis Felipe Cruz, researchers at Dejusticia (a Colombian NGO), pointed out that most of the research on women and the drug trade has been focused on cocaine consumption and drug trafficking, where it has been easier to measure in urban centers through women’s incarceration rates. Anthony Dest, a researcher focused on the Cauca region, has pointed out how Afro-Colombian, indigenous, and rural women have different relationships with the production of coca, as well as cannabis and poppy. This is highly dependent on who controls the region, the demand for a certain crop, and the conditions of the family unit. Unwritten agreements on the production and distribution of coca crops have both benefited and harmed women in the process. “While some cocalera women [in Caquetá] are treated the same as the men and complete similar tasks,” Estefanía Ciro writes, “others face unequal pay and a work environment that is hostile towards women. The hostility towards female cocaleras is even more prevalent during the coca boom, as prostitution and liquor become the common denominator of the daily lives for these communities.” Gender dynamics in the production of such crops in rural Colombia might also vary depending on national and international demand. As coca production in Colombia is again on the rise, the question of women’s role and hardships they experience in the field remain unanswered.

Moreover, the issue of women in coca cultivation is important in the context of the implementation of the Drug Policy Accord established between the Colombian government and the FARC. The PNIS (Programa Nacional Integral de Sustitución de Cultivos de Uso Ilícito), created as the national program for promoting “crop substitution” and alternative development, recognizes the need for the active participation of men and women in the construction of solutions for their respective communities. Nancy Sánchez, who works with a women’s organization in Putumayo, Alianza de Mujeres Tejedoras de Vida de Putumayo, emphasized that the government must provide better economic and educational opportunities for women, and should socialize the accords throughout rural communities. At this vital moment in Colombia, many people are scared due to the government’s track record in failing to comply with past development and institution building efforts.

The experts agreed on the importance of women actively participating in conversations pertaining to drug policy, in order to understand their role and perspective in the construction and implementation of policies. An important step to raise women’s voices in the debate was taken on March 18, 2017, when 75 cocalera women from Caquetá, Cauca, Meta, Nariño and Putumayo, gathered in Puerto Asís, Putumayo, and composed a declaration that reiterated their commitment to the drug policy component of the Peace Accords, and their specific needs and demands as campesinas, indigenous, and Afro-Colombian women. The demands of these women include that security forces stop targeting them as drug traffickers; that they are able to participate in the implementation of the Peace Accords and in crop substitution programs; to guarantee their right to land and economic resources; and to support the social entrepreneurship and education of youth to prevent drug consumption. In addition, WOLA, Dejusticia, TNI, and Indepaz have stated their continuous support and advocacy for the implementation of the Peace Agreement, taking into account the socioeconomic conditions of producer communities, and discouraging fumigation, forced eradication, and the militarization of areas where coca is cultivated.

*Raquel Gómez Fernández is a former WOLA Research Intern.

Caroline Buhse, Gimena Sánchez-Garzoli and Coletta Youngers assisted in the production of this analysis.