Coca, one of the mainstays of rural economies in certain parts of Colombia, is on the brink of collapse. Few saw it coming. And there are still questions to explain the phenomenon well. But the partial result varies between collective impoverishment and an acute social crisis for a large part of the 400,000 coca-growing families or those who are connected to the operation, including in border departments such as Nariño, Putumayo or Norte de Santander. Forced displacement in search of happiness and food insecurity due to price inflation have gradually pushed memories of the most prosperous years into the background.
The coca market is no friend of clear statistics. However, it is estimated that the average price for an arroba (12.5 kilos) of coca leaf fell by more than 32% between 2021 and 2023, according to figures collected by the newspaper El Espectador in the Cauca department on the Pacific coast. In the neighboring and southern department of Nariño, meanwhile, a kilo of base paste, a later stage in converting the leaf into cocaine, cost $975, up from $240 today, according to estimates by the Colombian section of the International Crisis Group think tank and research center.
Colombian President Gustavo Petro said Thursday during the inauguration of a new term in Congress that cocaine exports to the United States have declined in tandem with rising addiction to fentanyl, a powerful opioid that has caused more deaths so far this century than the Vietnam War in the northern country. This change in framework, Petro reminded, is an opportunity to once and for all accelerate the transition of traditionally marginalized coca-growing areas to legality and integrate them into the cycles of progress that other areas have been experiencing.
International Crisis Group analyst Elizabeth Dickinson recalls that the coca-growing economy was briefly deserted after the demobilization of the FARC’s Marxist guerrillas. The role played by the insurgents who laid down their arms in 2017 exercised crushing control over the peasantry and their crops. Many planted their entire land with a leaf that, while not making them rich, provided better benefits than other products: “That explains the seriousness of the problem.” In southern Bolívar (on the Caribbean coast), business operations have been paralyzed for six months. The peasants are coming down from the mountains in an internal displacement towards the swamps to make a living from fishing.”
An unexpected situation for thousands of farmers whose resources are so depleted that they have to uproot their crops and replace them with fields of poppies, the small red narcotic plants used by drug companies to make fentanyl or morphine (and by drug dealers heroin). The illegal market continues to be more profitable. The sociologist Sandra Bermúdez, adviser to the Inter-American Development Bank, makes it clear that the crisis has not yet really reached some points on the map. It refers to the south of Guaviare and some areas of Caquetá, two departments south and center of the country. Likewise, he assures that in the south of the aforementioned Cauca or in the north of Antioquia (central), direct marketing is gaining momentum again.
General explanations do not count for this problem. However, to get any closer to a solid pillar of this story, one would have to look at the increase in acres under cultivation that the country saw between 2018 and 2021. This is the only hypothesis that causes unanimity among experts. The oversupply from that time caused the prices to fall. In return, crops spread to other countries such as Paraguay, Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico. And other synthetic drugs gained prominence. A fusion of facts that echoed among scientists a phenomenon that has sadly prevailed in Colombia for decades.
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Ana María Rueda, a researcher at the Fundación Ideas para la Paz, tells it, who attested over the months that the business was, in fact, dying. The precarious situation in Argelia (Cauca) or Tumaco (Nariño) was added to that of other enclaves such as Tibú or Catatumbo (Norte de Santander). Indeed, in his speech to Congress, President Petro assured that many secret laboratories in the jungle departments of Putumayo and Amazonas in the far south of the country have been abandoned.
An internal United Nations Food Program report, quoted by Portal, warns of the risks the situation poses to food security in certain regions. Farmers have had to face several adversities against a background of high inflation (12.3%), driven in particular by food prices. However, Ana María Rueda is both cautious and critical of the general ignorance of various official and multilateral bodies: “The only action and reaction of the government was a decision in May to grant a subsidy of 2 million pesos to families under the substitution program to help them with the alleged food crisis.”
Equally, Elizabeth Dickinson emphasizes that the economic impact is disrupting all life in the regions. The Cocaleros do not hire any transportation services; nor the work of the day laborers responsible for tearing up the leaves, the so-called raspachines; Restaurants do not sell lunch and shops do not serve drinks. “It’s a business that pays daily for the lives of these places,” adds the analyst. And the reports from organizations agree on a major paradox. As the situation worsens due to the decline of a market coupled with drug war violence, farmers’ ability to carry the family basket or school supplies will be further restricted. Uncertainty spreads to the weakest link in the structure.
However, sociologist Sandra Bermúdez reiterates that it is a temporary matter. Remember that the mechanisms of a shadow economy “fluctuate”, it works in cycles and that as long as its price remains higher than that of other agricultural products, “the market will continue to dictate its production”. Many of the company’s members, he adds, have decided to switch to the illegal mining business: coal or “precious minerals like gold,” which are also abundant in some of these areas. “You can see that in areas of the Nariño Mountains, in southern Bolívar or in the lower Cauca Antioqueño, capital has migrated from coca paste to mining,” he says.
What happens to the accumulated coca surplus? Ana María Rueda says peasant families “save almost everything”. He recalls that communities in Tumaco and Tibú have even managed to exchange pasta-based packages for food markets. Others, pushed by the drug dealer’s demands, no longer confine themselves to planting. Now they use chemical additives to turn the leaf into a base paste. “All of this has to do with the logic of the market between listings for about five years,” he says. Two measures to defuse the situation while the storm passes and the old buyers who have disappeared in recent years reappear in the not too distant future.
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