Colombia’s Struggling Anti-Coca Strategy Needs US Backing: Report

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A new report quantifies the progress of Colombia’s coca crop substitution program under the peace agreement, and calls for US leniency and support despite a rocky start and a closing window of opportunity.

More than 115,000 families have been included in agreements signed between communities and Colombia’s National Integrated Program for the Substitution of Illegal Crops (Programa Nacional Integral de Sustitución de Cultivos de Uso Ilícito – PNIS), according to a report presented by the Ideas for Peace Foundation (Fundación Ideas Para la Paz – FIP) on October 19.

Launched in January 2017, this program aims to help farmers voluntarily eradicate their coca crops in exchange for subsidies and government support for switching to legal crops. The measure, a pillar of Colombia’s peace agreement with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC) and the country’s anti-drug strategy, aims for the voluntary eradication of 50,000 hectares of coca this year.

Of the 115,000 families included in the collective agreements, nearly 25,000 families have already taken the next step of signing individual agreements with PNIS to receive subsidies in exchange for destroying their crops. More than 6,000 have been certified by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) that verifies the number of hectareage per family, and whether the crops were planted before the agreement. Another 5,000 families are undergoing verification, says FIP’s report.

The rate of successful voluntary eradication is just under 95 percent, and 2,350 hectares have already been destroyed since PNIS first started paying families in May. The FIP estimates that the program should allow for a total of more than 10,000 hectares to be destroyed by the end of the year — around 20% of the official goal set at 50,000 hectares.

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The report underlines how complex the program’s implementation is due to PNIS’ limited resources; the difficult access to rural areas where security is lacking; the historic lack of state presence in these abandoned areas that fuels mistrust from local communities; and the absence of an efficient integral strategy for rural development.

The document also provides some strong recommendations for the Colombian and US governments. Stressing the “window of opportunity” to act “opened by the disarmament of the FARC,” the report warns that: “This window is closing quickly. Organized armed groups including FARC dissidents, the ELN, criminal organizations such as the “Clan del Golfo” [Urabeños] … are rapidly progressing in the occupation of the regions.”

It also appeals for patience and a more comprehensive perspective on the part of the United States. Calling for more US support in institution-building and rural development domains, the report also underlines that excessive US pressure on Colombia could ultimately be counterproductive.

InSight Crime Analysis

The FIP’s assessment of Colombia’s voluntary crop substitution program comes as the United States has voiced dissatisfaction with its Andean partner’s anti-coca strategy.

President Donald Trump threatened last month to decertify Colombia as a country complying with its anti-narcotic obligations, while a recent congressional hearing in Washington, DC revealed the extent of certain top US official’s skepticism toward Colombia’s coca reduction strategy.

SEE ALSO: Colombia News and Profiles

At first glance, FIP’s estimate that Colombia will only reach 20 percent of its voluntary eradication goal speaks to US criticisms, but the eradication aim was deemed by many as unrealistic from the start.

In addition, a return to aerial fumigation of coca fields using a harmful insecticide, which allowed Colombia to eradicate huge amounts in past years, seems highly unlikely now. A potential total of 10,000 hectares voluntarily eradicated combined with forced eradication efforts aiming to wipe out 50,000  hectares this year, would actually be a very decent amount when compared to manual eradication figures over the past three years.

Rather than calling for a different strategy, the report’s estimate is an argument for increased efforts on the program. As the FIP stresses, even as the PNIS lacks the resources to exploit the voluntary crop substitution strategy to its fullest, the window of opportunity for the government to secure lasting ties with coca farming communities is closing, as criminal groups continue to move in on territories abandoned by the FARC.

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