The United Nations' latest estimate of coca cultivation in Colombia is again substantially lower than US government estimates, but both lead to the same conclusion: coca cultivation has surged over the past two years as growers are offered greater incentives at lower risk.
The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime's (UNODC) yearly publication on illicit crops in Colombia (pdf) estimates that cultivations shot up 39 percent from 69,132 hectares (ha) in 2014 to 96,084 ha in 2015. That follows an increase of about 43 percent in 2014.
Bo Mathiasen, the UNODC representative in Colombia, said the country is now cultivating more coca than Peru and Bolivia combined. The UNODC report put Colombia's 2015 cocaine production potential at 646 metric tons, up 46 percent from the 442 it estimated in 2014.
By comparison, US government figures obtained by InSight Crime in May 2016 estimated Colombia's 2015 coca cultivation at 159,377 ha. While the UN figure is 40 percent lower, the US and UN estimates produced similar year to year increases in the area under cultivation, at 42 percent and 39 percent, respectively. The difference between US and UN estimates is due to different methodologies used by each.
The UNODC said four factors made significant contributions to the coca cultivation increase. Coca leaf reached its highest price in 10 years, shooting up 39.5 percent to $1.02 per kilogram (3,000 Colombian pesos). The report said 64 percent of Colombia's coca farmers sell their crop in leaf form, while the rest partially process the leaves into coca paste and 1 percent of producers make more refined coca base. The greater incentive was reflected by an 11 percent rise in the number of households involved in coca farming, to 74,500. Bigger than average production increases were noted in indigenous reservations (52 percent) and Afro-Colombian communities (51 percent).
Coca farmers also faced lower risk of crop loss due to the government's decision to halt aerial spraying and because growers themselves mobilized protests that effectively blocked security forces from carrying out manual eradication in some areas. The UNODC also cited increased expectations that coca producers might benefit from more heavily funded crop substitutions programs as a result of the government's peace process with rebels of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia - FARC).
Finally, the report cited local factors affecting other cash crops, like fuel shortages, localized drought, and the general lack of alternative development activities.
SEE ALSO: Coverage of Cocaine Production
Colombia's eradication and interdiction efforts provided mixed results in 2015. The UNODC reports the number of coca or cocaine processing laboratories destroyed increased 64 percent to 3,827, and cocaine seizures rose 71 percent to over 252 metric tons.
Aerial fumigation, however, fell 33 percent to 37,199 ha in 2015, and UNODC-verified manual eradication dipped 8 percent to 4,905 ha. Total eradication statistics -- including forced eradication that was carried out in coordination with grower communities, and aerial fumigation -- have fallen 52 percent compared to the past five-year average.
Departmental figures show that the department of Nariño, in southwest Colombia, led the nation in coca cultivation with 31 percent of the total, or 29,755 ha -- up 72 percent from 2014. Putumayo, in the southwest, came in second with 21 percent, or 20,068 ha, followed by Norte de Santander in the north, which accounted for 12 percent of total cultivation.
InSight Crime Analysis
InSight Crime has reported on several factors cited by the UNODC as contributing to the current coca boom. For instance, coca farmers have been organizing to protest government efforts to suppress the activity for several years, and as the UNODC report notes, the government has not had much success in addressing their concerns through development alternatives. Citing police reports, the UNODC says there were 140 incidents in 2015 of farmers blocking law enforcement activities.
SEE ALSO: Coverage of Coca
Field research by InSight Crime supports government assertions that the FARC has been telling communities in their areas of operation that coca crops will result in greater benefits from the peace process, now in its final stages of negotiation. The FARC is estimated to control up to 70 percent of the country's coca fields, providing protection and market access to the farmers.
In addition to prospects for peace affecting coca cultivation trends, dynamics of the drug trade are sure to affect guerrilla compliance with the expected final agreement to end the civil conflict. The cocaine trade is believed to generate hundreds of millions of dollars for the rebels, and these profits heighten the likelihood of some guerrilla fighters refusing to leave the field. In at least one FARC unit -- the Eastern Bloc's 1st Front -- rebels have already announced that they will not disarm, and FARC commanders themselves attributed this resistance to economic interests linked to the drug trade.
The current administration has made it clear that coca crop substitution will be a top priority for Colombia's "postconflict" plans. On July 10, the government launched a pioneer campaign to replace coca with alternative crops in Briceño municipality, Antioquia, with the collaboration of FARC members.
The effectiveness of such development initiatives -- which so far have only benefitted 32 percent of coca-growing areas, according to the UNODC -- will be key to suppressing drug production in the near future.