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