What Can Bolivia Teach Post-Conflict Colombia about Coca Reduction?

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A new report by an advocacy group based in Bolivia details how the Andean nation’s failed experiences with forced coca eradication can be used as a lesson for Colombia, which is witnessing a surge in cocaine production amid the implementation of a peace deal with the FARC rebel group.  

The report by the Andean Information Network, titled “Lessons from Bolivia,” says the peace agreement signed in November 2016 between the Colombian government and rebel group the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC) “presents an important opportunity” for Colombia to redesign its coca control strategy. The FARC, which was believed to have controlled much of Colombia’s coca production, is now concentrated in temporary camps as part of the terms of the peace deal. 

The report argues Colombia should take this opportunity to study alternative models for coca reduction such as the one developed in Bolivia starting in 2005, when former coca farmer Evo Morales was first elected president. 

Under Morales, Bolivia established a system in which registered farmers are allowed to grow a plot of coca consisting of 1,600 square meters, known as a “cato.” The amount of coca under cultivation in Bolivia has steadily gone down in recent years, from 30,500 hectares in 2008 to 20,200 hectares in 2015, according to the report.

Previously, the Bolivian government had implemented forced eradication campaigns alongside alternative development programs for coca farmers. But the report notes that these programs, many of which were backed by the US government, did not provide farmers with viable economic alternatives to the coca crops targeted for destruction. This policy ultimately led to violent confrontations between community leaders and the security forces, and did not result in a sustained reduction in coca crops, the report states.

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The Bolivian model does indeed provide some important lessons for Colombia, such as the importance of respecting human rights and protecting the livelihood of coca farmers.

But there are key differences between the coca dynamics in Bolivia and Colombia that would likely prevent Colombian authorities from adopting a strategy resembling Bolivia’s “cato” policy. Unlike in Bolivia, illegal armed groups in Colombia are fighting for control of coca crops, making it much more difficult — and dangerous — for state actors to intervene. And there is not a substantial internal market for traditional uses of coca in Colombia as there is in Bolivia, so it would be hard to determine the legal rationale for government regulation of coca. 

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Coca

There is little doubt, however, that Colombia is in need of either a new strategy or better implementation of its existing approach for containing coca. Cultivation of the crop has soared in recent years and is estimated to have reached 188,000 hectares in 2016, an unprecedented figure. Coca farmers say the government is relying too heavily on forced eradication at the expense of crop substitution programs, leading farmers to carry out numerous demonstrations in an effort to impede the work of eradication teams. Meanwhile, some officials contend organized crime groups are paying the farmers to protest. 

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