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Colombia Pushes Coca Farmers Into Legal Crops — But It's No Clean Fix

Convincing coca farmers to plant legal crops is better than spraying poisonous pesticides to wipe out the plants. And yet it turns out these crop substitution programs are problematic, disrupting livelihoods and unintentionally causing violence and deforestation.

Photo of a man laying out coca leaves to dry

A man lays out coca leaves to dry in the community of Cruz Loma, Los Yungas

Lucas Marín Llanes


BOGOTÁ — Since cocaine was made illegal, various strategies have been implemented to control its supply. One such strategy involves the development of substitute crops for farmers and rural territories that cultivate the coca plant, who essentially rely on an illegal economy. This approach represents a significant improvement over established drug eradication policies.

Firstly, the policy understands that coca growers often choose the crop because of financial pressures and a lack of opportunities in the legal market. The policy also emphasizes protecting the human rights of people in areas with coca farming. While the development of substitute crops is far from perfect, it is a more efficient and cost-effective way to reduce coca cultivation, compared to trying to eradicate it entirely.

Academics María Alejandra Vélez and Estefanía Ciro, among others, point to a major problem: the policy is still based on the idea of eliminating coca cultivation. While seeking in theory to resolve the structural factors that push people into the coca economy, it has yet to be proved as an effective method of curbing cultivation.

In fact, on the contrary, the simple announcement of Colombia's Integral National Program for the Substitution of Illicit Crops was enough to boost cultivation. Even if we consider hectares where farmers willingly changed their crops, the policy still resulted in an increase in coca production, not a decrease.

The only case of successful substitution programs is in Thailand, where the state allowed a gradual substitution of illegal crops in a plan designed to be implemented over 20 years. This happened under a political regime that was only partially democratic.

Side effects of state action 

One recurring argument for substitution is that forced eradication policies affect the revenues of households that depend on the coca economy. But crop substitution does the same. Families get involved with the coca economy because of the potential to earn more money. Previous studies have established that coca farmers tend to have higher living standards compared to other cultivators.

Embracing substitution thus inevitably entails taking a profit hit. UN advisor David Mansfield has found that even the gradualist approach will negatively affect household revenues for those living off coca.

Crop substitution is not cost-free and does not tackle structural issues.

A point to consider in public and narcotics policies is the unexpected side-effects of state action. For example, the argument used to the aerial spraying of glyphosate pesticides has been based on its environmental harm and dangers to health. With crop substitution programs, evidence gathered under the Colombian substitution program shows that delays in implementing the program, combined with a lack of protective measures for communities, led to an increase in deforestation, violence against community leaders and even inter-ethnic land conflict in some regions.

Overall then, substitution is only partially effective, and has its own social, economic and environmental costs.

These are partly due to the design of substitution policies and to their limited implementation. In Colombia, after six years of implementation, just 6% of households had gone through the full program. But does other evidence suggest that better designed substitution programs would yield better results? Research at the CESED (the Center for Studies on Security and Drugs), part of the economics faculty of Bogotá's Los Andes University, has found there is no ideal design for substitution programs, though conversely, some design elements can be linked to worse results.

Photo of anti-drug police destroying cocaine processing labs

Anti-drug police destroy cocaine processing labs in Guaviare state in Colombia

Cü©Sar Mariü±O Garcü­A/Pacific Press/Zuma

Instrument of development 

These arguments are not intended to justify forcible eradication instead, but to move away from any discourse presenting substitution as the solution in reforming drug-control policies, when it is just another hidden method of interdiction. As crop substitution is not cost-free and does not tackle structural issues, we must keep looking for more effective options and better resource allocation, within the prohibition framework.

For now, the government must continue to curb coca supplies and cultivation in sensitive environmental zones, which can be done through agreements on gradual substitution.

Substitution programs should become a pretext for acting in marginalized territories, with a focused and progressive approach (and not just for 400,000 households), to improve the living conditions and security of communities. They should be an instrument of development rather than a tool of anti-drug policies, going beyond the goal of curbing cocaine supplies. Substitution can become part of the country's necessary rural reforms, and a way to revive neglected communities.

*Marín is an economist and Pre-Doctoral Fellow at the CESED

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How Brazil's Evangelical Surge Threatens Survival Of Native Afro-Brazilian Faith

Followers of the Afro-Brazilian Umbanda religion in four traditional communities in the country’s northeast are resisting pressure to convert to evangelical Christianity.

image of Abel José, an Umbanda priest

Abel José, an Umbanda priest

Agencia Publica
Géssica Amorim

Among a host of images of saints and Afro-Brazilian divinities known as orixás, Abel José, 42, an Umbanda priest, lights some candles, picks up his protective beads and adjusts the straw hat that sits atop his head. He is preparing to treat four people from neighboring villages who have come to his house in search of spiritual help and treatment for health ailments.

The meeting takes place discreetly, in a small room that has been built in the back of the garage of his house. Abel lives in the quilombo of Sítio Bredos, home to 135 families. The community, located in the municipality of Betânia of Brazil’s northeastern state of Pernambuco, is one of the municipality’s four remaining communities that have been certified as quilombos, the word used to refer to communities formed in the colonial era by enslaved Africans and/or their descendents.

In these villages there are almost no residents who still follow traditional Afro-Brazilian religions. Abel, Seu Joaquim Firmo and Dona Maura Maria da Silva are the sole remaining followers of Umbanda in the communities in which they live. A wave of evangelical missionary activity has taken hold of Betânia’s quilombos ever since the first evangelical church belonging to the Assembleia de Deus group was built in the quilombo of Bredos around 20 years ago. Since then, other evangelical, pentecostal, and neo-pentecostal churches and congregations have established themselves in the area. Today there are now nine temples spread among the four communities, home to roughly 900 families.

The temples belong to the Assembleia de Deus, the Seventh-day Adventist Church, and the World Church of God's Power, the latter of which has over 6,000 temples spread across Brazil and was founded by the apostle and televangelist Valdemiro Santiago, who became infamous during the pandemic for trying to sell beans that he had blessed as a Covid-19 cure. Assembleia de Deus alone, who are the largest pentecostal denomination in the world, have built five churches in Betânia’s quilombos.

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