Coca farmer in Nariño, Colombia

The Colombian government has announced a new strategy of offering land titles to coca growers in return for abandoning their illicit crops, a bold move, but one that fails to address what farmers can grow and sell instead.

Presently around 60 percent of coca farmers do not have deeds to the land where they farm, according to the director of a government anti-illicit crops program, Javier Florez. 

The government now plans to offer the farmers land titles if they agree not to replant coca after crops have been eradicated, which currently happens in 42 percent of cases, as El Tiempo reports. According to Florez, the strategy aims to incentivize farmers to give up coca cultivation and to ensure that they then only grow legal crops, as if they are found with coca they will have to forfeit their land titles.

The program is already underway in the department of Vichada and the government will next turn to Meta, Nariño, and Putumayo.

InSight Crime Analysis

The government's proposal is an interesting strategy that not only combines the carrot and stick approach to coca farmers without resorting to judicial punishments, but also recognizes the land rights issue that goes to the very heart of why so many small scale farmers resort to coca cultivation.

However, what it fails to take into account is the economic side of this issue. As has been demonstrated by the consistent failure of crop substitution programs, finding legal crops to replace coca is extremely difficult.

Farmers not only require a crop that produces sufficient and reliable yields, they also require access to markets, which in the isolated rural areas where coca is usually grown often proves to be very hard. Farmers growing legal crops are also subject to the whims of the global commodities markets and can be left financially destroyed by price crashes.

In contrast, coca is a hardy, high yield plant, there is always a steady market and price, and the buyer will happily come to the grower. If the government fails to help the farmers find a viable legal crop to grow on their newly titled land that can compete with this, then the plan is unlikely to see long term success.