Can Colombia Now Seize the Opportunity to Create a More Humane and Sustainable Approach to Reducing Coca Cultivation?
Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos made the right choice by announcing, on May 9th, the suspension of a 21-year-old, U.S.-backed aerial herbicide fumigation program. This program sought to eradicate coca bushes—the leaves of which are used to make cocaine—by using aircraft to spray herbicides containing the chemical glyphosate. Since 1994, at a cost likely approaching US$2 billion, planes have sprayed glyphosate over 4.35 million acres of Colombian territory, a zone about equal to Connecticut plus much of Rhode Island. Colombia is the only government that allows aerial herbicide spraying of coca.
In March, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), part of the World Health Organization (WHO), determined that glyphosate is “probably carcinogenic to humans.” Faced with the prospect that his government might be spraying carcinogens over its own citizens, President Santos took the ethically correct step of invoking the “precautionary principle,” which holds that fumigation cannot occur if a reasonable doubt exists that it might harm human health. The President’s decision will be made official at a May 14 meeting of Colombia’s National Narcotics Council; the government has already begun considering other crop control options. Colombia should seize this opportunity to adopt an alternative livelihoods approach—one based on improving the overall quality of life and income opportunities for small farmers—that has proved successful in securing sustained poppy and coca crop reductions in Thailand and Bolivia.
Ending fumigation is the right choice for more than health or ethical reasons. Spraying with glyphosate simply hasn’t worked. For every acre of coca reduced in Colombia, more than 16 have been sprayed. During 2004 to 2007, the period of most intense fumigation operations under “Plan Colombia,” U.S. estimates of Colombian coca cultivation actually increased. They did not begin to go down until Colombia began addressing the problem on the ground, through stepped-up manual eradication programs (which, though not an “alternative livelihoods” solution, do eradicate plants more thoroughly and require at least minimal government presence) and efforts to increase the government’s control over territory, and as other activities, such as illegal mining, became competitive with coca growing.
The past 20 years have shown that intense glyphosate fumigation can reduce coca-growing in specific areas for limited amounts of time. But populations, lacking other viable economic alternatives, eventually adapt to the spraying, and the crops return.
Fumigation’s frustrating record is no mystery. Since 1997, WOLA staff have regularly visited parts of Colombia where the spray program has operated and talked to communities on the receiving end. Most coca-growers, we found, are not wealthy drug lords. They are poor families, and the coca trade has not made them much richer. The average coca-farmer household subject to glyphosate fumigation nets about US$1,220 per person each year, according to UN estimates.
That is a better living than nearly any other crop offers in regions of Colombia where the government’s absence is so complete that it defies description. Many inhabitants of rural zones like Guaviare, Caquetá, Putumayo, or Catatumbo came from elsewhere, forced out by violence or drawn by the promise of land—but Colombia’s government didn’t follow them. Without security, farm-to-market roads, land titles, or credit, coca has normally been the only crop offering incomes above extreme-poverty levels.
Instead of basic services, the government has usually responded with airplanes spraying glyphosate. Since people often plant coca near their small, self-built houses, alongside their food crops, the fumigation chemicals penetrated their residences and left them with nothing to eat. Most of the time, there was no government effort to help those who had been sprayed, not even with basic food security. Numerous farmers have told WOLA researchers about putting their children to bed hungry in the months after the spray planes came.
Many of them have responded in a way that is predictable in the absence of government and viable economic alternatives: they found new ways to grow coca. They planted it in smaller, harder-to-detect plots, at times in shade or mixed in with other plants. They adopted higher-yielding varieties. They washed the leaves or cut back plants after spraying, in order to save the plants. Or they simply packed up and planted elsewhere. This is why coca cultivation has proved so resilient, rebounding from even the most intense onslaughts of fumigation.
Coca cultivation is a symptom of the Colombian government’s absence from a territory and failure to provide for its people. Like taking an aspirin to fight a serious illness, fumigation—regardless of the chemical used—has sought to alleviate a symptom while allowing the cause, poor governance and lack of economic opportunity, to fester.
While suspending fumigation is the right way forward, the outcome will be bitter if Colombia ends fumigation but fails to address these root causes. If there is no effort to establish and improve the presence of civilian state institutions in Colombia’s national territory, then coca cultivation can be expected to flourish.
One of the preliminary accords signed by the Colombian government and the FARC guerrillas offers a potential blueprint for ending statelessness in coca-growing zones. It calls for voluntary eradication agreements with coca-growing communities, bolstered by the threat of manual eradication if those agreements aren’t honored.
This is similar to Bolivia’s coca control policy over the past several years, which has yielded steady reductions in coca-growing since 2010. A key feature of the Bolivian policy, however, is that the government allows each farmer to grow a small amount of coca—recognizing that establishing the conditions to achieve sustainable reductions in coca growing will take time. The Colombian accord runs the risk of setting up unrealistic expectations, with recourse to forced eradication before alternative sources of income are effectively in place. An alternative livelihoods approach to reducing coca cultivation is based on working with local communities to implement gradual, cooperative coca reduction.
Colombia made a limited but noteworthy effort to bring government presence into a coca-growing region: though it relied too heavily on its military component, the “National Consolidation Plan” viewed coca-growing as a governance problem, not a drug policy problem. And it reduced coca cultivation by 75 percent in southern Colombia’s La Macarena region between 2007 and 2009.
That program wasn’t sustained, however, which raises concerns about whether Colombia’s government will actually be there for the citizens of coca-growing zones, even after it stops spraying their communities with herbicides. The suspension of fumigation, along with the possible signing of a peace accord, offers Colombia a unique opportunity to end this history o
f government neglect and the illicit crop cultivation that has accompanied it. We urge Colombia, with U.S. support, to employ the political will and resources to seize this opportunity.
To see an interview with Adam Isacson on the end of the policy, click here.
To read an analysis of why aerial spraying is a flawed policy, click here.