The war on drugs, especially against coca, has been used in Bolivia, Colombia, and Peru as a tool to stigmatize, isolate, and criminalize populations that cultivate coca, either for cultural or economic reasons. It is not an exaggeration to say that prohibition has exacerbated the poverty and marginalization that these peripheral communities where coca is produced already suffered.
This incoherence between development public policies and drug policies in Andean-Amazonian countries has created a vicious cycle in which the conditions that lead to coca cultivation are perpetuated, and in which the coca economy has not led to a better quality of life in these territories.
So-called producer countries were called to carry out actions to reduce the offer of coca paste and cocaine in the global market. However, the results of these actions have not been the best, as currently there are still more than 130,0000 hectares of coca leaf plantations in Bolivia, Colombia, and Peru, making the region the epicenter of global cocaine production. In these countries there are regions in which the cultivation and collection of coca leaf is the principal economic activity, as it is the only profitable, easily marketable product to which communities have access in areas with high levels of rural poverty.
Bolivia, together with Peru, is one of the countries where coca leaf production, rather than coca paste or cocaine, are legal activities that are widely practiced in society. The Yungas de la Paz region in Bolivia has produced coca since pre-colonial times, which is where 70% of the country’s coca crops are found, and coca planting communities do not only cultivate this plant for the money they obtain to purchase food, clothes, transportation or education, but also because they believe in their right to grow the plant as a tradition inherited from their ancestors.
By contrast, in the Trópico de Cochabamba, in the Chapare region of Bolivia, coca cultivation developed beginning in the 1970s, which is why the government has implemented much more repressive policies, associating coca planters with subversive groups and drug traffickers. With Law 1008, the government permitted the cultivation of 12,000 hectares in Yungas, while simultaneously proposing monetary compensation for coca growers in Chapare, and even forced eradication. This region was considered a zone of excess production in transition, meaning an area where the ancestral value of coca was not recognized, but rather was considered a plant that must be eradicated.
In Peru, the Valle de los ríos Apurímac, Ene and Mantaro Region (VRAEM) is the region with the greatest presence of illicit crops, as there 44% of the 42,900 hectares cultivated in the country are found. According to the journalist Abraham Cutipa, in 2014, this region was home to 70% of the country’s population in poverty or extreme poverty, a situation that was exacerbated due to the struggle between the Shining Path and the State in this region. Currently, powerful drug trafficking groups use families in the region not only to produce coca, but also to turn the leaf into paste, or as mochileros to transport the coca to other processing centers.
By contrast, Colombia has not historically had a large concentration of coca crops, but beginning in the mid-1990s, the country became the world’s largest producer of coca leaf, coca paste, and cocaine, when the air bridge that permitted Colombian drug traffickers to bring coca leaf from Peru and Bolivia to transform it into cocaine. Although there are indigenous communities that have traditional uses for coca leaf, this type of consumption is not comparable to that present in other producing countries.
It is a reality that in spite of the existence of the reevaluation of the plant and its medicinal properties, poverty, regional violence, and the lack of other, profitable agricultural products, lead to a production that feeds the illegal economy, in which criminal organization are empowered to control regions and export cocaine. This is the consequence of an incoherent policy that has attempted to resolve the problems of rural communities in a simplistic manner, establishing the ties that they develop with drug trafficking networks.
These Andean-Amazonian countries concentrate on attacking the visible symptoms, rather than the causes. At the same time Colombia has fumigated more than 1,800,000 hectares with an herbicide that likely causes cancer, in other producing countries, governments have carried out forced eradication plans, which cause rifts between communities and the State, harming the trust of rural citizens in institutions, without diminishing the participation of coca producing regions in the international cocaine business. An expression of this rift has been the coca producer’s marches in the VRAEM and in diverse Colombian regions, where communities demand State presence beyond military or police forces.
States have created a vicious cycle in which an economic activity is prohibited, but at the same time, State institutions were incapable of overcoming the difficulties of fulfilling the rights of the rural population, and access to domestic and international markets. In other words, they made a mistake with coca producing communities, and not only incentivized an illegal market that made them part of a criminal network, but also never addressed the causes of the increase in drug trafficking in these regions, so their responses were overly simplistic: bullets or eradication.
Andean-Amazonian States should change not only their attitude toward coca-producing communities, but also the basis of their policies. This means abandoning the objective of zero coca, and adopting strategies that consult with communities about the best way to substitute their dependence on income from producing coca leaf, without the existence of the plant being considering a failure, as the coca-producing constituency in Colombia demanded.
*Luis Felipe is a researcher at the Center for the Study of Law, Justice, and Society (Dejusticia).