Coca leaf, the substance used to make cocaine, should be legalized in Colombia in order to aid the peace process and help grow the country’s economy, a new report argues.
The report, titled “Coca Industrialization: A Path To Innovation, Development and Peace In Colombia” and published by the US-based Open Society Foundation, is groundbreaking in its suggestions to the Colombian government, which include guaranteeing small coca farmers with protection from prosecution, supporting research into coca’s nutritional properties and promoting the use of coca among indigenous communities.
Over the years, Colombia has taken varying approaches in its attitude towards coca, from taking its lead from the US and implementing forced eradication through spraying coca fields, to paying farmers to switch to other crops such as cocoa and bananas — which actually increased coca production.
Dora Lucila Troyano Sánchez, one of the report’s co-authors, was the first person to obtain a permit to legally purchase, transport and stock raw coca leaves for their transformation into licit goods — such as fertilizer and coca flour — to be used in scientific research.
Organic coca fertilizers and pest control products were found by the researchers to be a “promising” low-cost, high-nutrient technology that can contribute to local food production in areas with poor soil conditions and high food costs.
“We had to study the feasibility of the markets for selling coca. We had to look at how opportunities could be created for this new economy, how alternative sources of income could be made to supplement the money coca farmers would have earned from selling their crops to armed groups for the illicit trade.”
The South American country has long been losing the battle against cocaine.
According to the World Bank, Colombia is among 10 of the world’s countries with the highest levels of income inequality. Rural communities in Colombia, such as the coca farming community, especially suffer from scant employment opportunities, training and infrastructure.
A cultural tradition and agricultural product
In viewing coca as an agricultural product with ample opportunities to transform coca into natural medicine, agro-industry uses and as a nutritional agreement, coca farmers, who often live below the poverty line, will be granted legal means of earning a living, the report argues.
“It’s important that the world understands in the South Andean regions of Latin America such as Bolivia, Colombia and Peru, indigenous and campesino communities have used and traded coca historically for various uses,” says Herney Ruíz, a coca farmer from Cauca
It’s not about legalization
David Restrepo, Troyano Sánchez’s fellow co-author of the report, is keen to emphasize that the coca reform process is not about legalization; instead, it is led by rural communities’ own definition of their needs.
“A territory-focused, consensus-based, led-locally process would help strengthen these communities and result in lower conflict and violence. This approach would provide communities the opportunity to bolster their local organization and governance structures.
“By strengthening farmers as farmers, this kind of policy process helps separate coca growers from the rest of the cocaine supply chain. Let’s remember both armed groups and traffickers make their profits primarily from cocaine manufacturing and shipment — not coca cultivation.”
Restrepo is keen to highlight the researchers are not as naive as to think coca reform could provide the answer to ending the war on drugs.
“This coca reform is a key part of building peace in Colombia. However, there are other issues — such as land concentration, poverty and political exclusion that triggered Colombia’s war and were aggravated from the profits of cocaine trafficking, which will remain as long as cocaine is illegal.
“These issues exceed the scope of coca reform, which is why we must not be naive. That said, Colombia’s many-layered, complicated conflicts need to be handled piecemeal — and addressing coca via a community-centered approach is a necessary and urgent matter.”
Colombia’s “war on drugs” was technically and financially supported by the US government, which spent around $10 billion over 15 years to fight narcotics in its “Plan Colombia.” As part of the battle, the Colombian government began a systemic “forced eradication,” whereby coca crops were sprayed from the air with pesticides. But in 2016, the amount of cocaine produced in Colombia went up: 866 tons versus 649 in 2015, which is the same level of production as 2001, when Plan Colombia was just getting underway.
The Colombian government has pledged to eradicate 65,000 hectares of coca in 2018 alone, but efforts have already resulted in violence, with coca farmers saying the renewed forced eradication breaks previous agreements that stated eradication would be through voluntary crop substitution.