Colombia’s government and protesting coca farmers have reached an initial agreement that could provide a starting point for crop substitution measures being discussed in peace talks with the FARC, but which is unlikely to succeed unless followed by long term solutions.
The agreement, announced on August 28, promises assistance to coca farmers and their families in the Catatumbo region of northern Colombia, including six months of food provisions, temporary paid employment, grants for families to establish subsistence crops, and a one-off grant to families whose coca crops were destroyed under government eradication schemes, reported Caracol Radio.
The agreement also includes the implementation of a government scheme to bring technology and internet to communities, reported El Colombiano.
Catatumbo is a key coca growing region that has been wracked by unrest in recent months as farmers have protested coca eradication measures, with the government claiming the protests were incited by guerrillas. Clashes between protesters and police resulted in several deaths and numerous injuries.
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While the government agreement with farmers in Catatumbo is an encouraging start to a socially-oriented effort to reduce coca production, it can only be seen as a short-term measure. What happens after the six months the farmers will be provided for is as yet unresolved.
Previous attempts to replace coca with legal crops have failed for various reasons, including difficulties transporting food crops to market and the fluctuation of commodity prices — recently, falling prices for crops including coffee and rice have also led to widespread protests in Colombia. Coca, on the other hand, generally maintains a more stable price and has a guaranteed market in the drug trade.
Another obstacle to the success of this scheme is the control exerted by Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas over coca growing areas. They bring in profit by levying taxes on coca growers and selling coca base to BACRIM groups, meaning that any lasting coca substitution scheme would have to be accompanied by a substantial increase in state security and social services, or draw the guerrillas into the deal, to prevent reprisals.
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In February, the FARC proposed the legalization of drug cultivation and consumption as part of ongoing peace talks. As the Colombian government is unlikely to unilaterally implement such an idea, an agreement on income substitutes for coca will likely have to be reached. The Catatumbo agreement could form the basis of coca substitution programs on the agenda at peace negotiations, though if measures fail to develop beyond a short-term stopgap, it could also hamper those talks.