MS Risk Blog

Increase in coca cultivation in Colombia signals changing trends in post-conflict political economy

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When it comes to Colombia and the US’ bilateral relationship, coca cultivation remains a hot – and controversial –  topic. Indeed, one of the main objectives of Plan Colombia was to reduce coca cultivation, often with methods that were opposed by local communities. Washington continues to closely monitor the crops cultivated in Colombia and if there are any noticeable changes, the US tends to be pretty vocal on the topic. Therefore, it is little surprise that the recent attention gained in national and international media around the increasing number of hectares dedicated to coca cultivation was sparked by a statement made by the US Ambassador in March. However, it is necessary to analyse what the recent uptick in production tells us about the changing patterns of illicit economic activity in Colombia, particularly in the context of the move towards a post-conflict environment, following the ongoing peace process between the government and guerrilla groups (FARC and the ELN).

According to the US Embassy’s report, the figures produced by the Whitehouse’s National Office on the Control of Drugs showed that between 2013-2015 the number of hectares of coca cultivated increased by 42%. This means that despite the ongoing well-funded fight against drugs, Colombia has once again become again the number one cocaine producer in the world.

While these numbers could point to failing policies in the fight against drug cultivation, closer analysis underlines that the rise has more to do with changing patterns in the areas being cultivated. Since May 2015 the Colombian government has prohibited the use of spraying glyphosate to eradicate crops, and has instead favoured other methods – likely less effective, if less harmful – such as manual eradication. The reason behind the reforms are primarily driven by the noted effects of glyphosate on the health of those living in such areas, and the government’s changing strategy to tackle illicit cultivation in the country by encouraging investment, rather than further alienating local populations. What the figures do tell us are that the areas where cultivation has increased are likely to present some of the most pressing challenges in the coming years, because beyond coca they are breeding grounds for other illicit economic activities.

Since October 2015 the new anti-drugs policy has reformed the previous strategy on crop eradication. One of the six key points includes substitution cultivation and voluntary eradication to incentivise planting other types of crops and productive initiatives. As our analysis on the passing of the Law on zones of rural, economic and social development (Zidres) outlined, part of the post-conflict strategy is to develop agricultural and agroindustrial initiatives in the country. Many in rural areas such as North Santander region or Orinoquía -where anti-drug policies are being implemented- are, at the same time, places of interest for economic agroindustrial projects. The potential connection between these new projects and drug eradication methods is likely to be a big concern for future investors and the government.

According to the figures released by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime in 2015, during the year 2014 most of the coca cultivation areas were in the south of the country, in particular in Caquetá, Cauca, Nariño, Putumayo and Catatumbo. The report also underlines that coca cultivation remains dominant in the regions it has traditionally thrived, rather than spreading to other areas. However, these areas are now also home to other illicit economic activities – most notably, and of likely concern to international companies in the extractives sector, illegal mining. Moreover, the growing number of hectares used for coca cultivation are primarily concentrated in areas of increased activities of BACRIM (organised crime groups), guerrillas and other organised crime groups.

Coca cultivation has directly aided guerrilla groups, paramilitaries and other armed groups in financing their activities in Colombia in recent decades. The continued prevalence of coca underlines that despite the ongoing peace process taking place between the government and guerrilla groups, narco-trafficking and other illicit activities are likely to remain a key challenge in many regions.

In particular, it should be noted that:


The Colombian government’s push to develop agroindustrial projects, alongside substituting coca for other productive crops, is aimed at tackling the social and local economic development issues in regions where armed groups have historically been their most prolific. However, the model could proffer explosive political and social consequences, when combining the development projects, alongside anti-drug policies, and the continued presence of demobilised guerrillas and other organised criminal groups in the same region.

Rafael Pardo, the Minister for post-conflict has outlined that substitution cultivation plans will be inherent with the peace policies that are being implemented in the country. However, the increase in coca cultivation outlines the continued threat that organised criminal activity will have for future investors in these regions, even if the country is no longer in a state of armed conflict. Importantly, it should be noted that where coca cultivation takes place, so too does arms trafficking, labs for processing the coca to cocaine, and other illicit trades that armed groups have traditionally derived their income from. In particular investors looking at agricultural and mining projects are likely to face hostility from the unregulated illegal sectors operating at a local level. The rise in illegal mining in regions of coca production also poses severe social and environmental impacts, which have negative implications in terms of trust and reputation for extractive companies potentially interested in working in these areas.

These regions have historically had a limited state presence and many local industries are often in some way associated with organised criminal or guerrilla groups operating there. Foreign companies looking to make the most of investing in Colombia’s post-conflict economic opportunities, must be sure to carry out detailed local due diligence. However, the substitution cultivation plans do offer companies the possibility to also support local farmers, and cooperatives, to increase productivity and offer rural regions access to larger economic markets. Understanding the local dynamics and supporting local communities will be key for building successful operations in Colombia ahead.

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