Colombia’s Coca Production Is Growing, Despite Efforts

Cocoa Plant Leaves

A coca bush in Colombia.

Greentellect Studio on Shutterstock

The crop is larger than it’s ever been, and that’s bad news.

The UN’s Office on Drugs and Crime issued a report last week, revealing the figures for coca production in Colombia, the world’s largest producer. Those figures are up across the board: 171,000 hectares in 2017, which is up 17 percent from 2016, and also the largest ever recorded crop.

Colombia is now and has been for decades under intense pressure, primarily from the United States, to curb its coca production and trade. (The US has given more than $10.5 billion in aid to Colombia as part of the War on Drugs since 2000, according to the New York Times.) This has taken various forms, most notably a mass spraying of glyphosate on coca crops. The tactic has met with resistance from farmers and humanitarians; glyphosate, which is commonly sold under the brand name Roundup, has been linked to cancer, and Monsanto, the chief producer of the herbicide, recently lost a court case with a victim.

More troublingly, aerial spraying of glyphosate is not an especially efficient or effective means of controlling the coca crops. Its effectiveness rate is below 5 percent, the procedure is expensive, and it can kill legal crops that farmers rely on for food and income.

There have been many wholesale changes in Colombia, including a 2016 peace deal between the government and FARC (a left-wing guerilla movement that controlled much of the drug trade) and the assassination of cartel kingpins like Pablo Escobar. But coca remains, by far, the easiest and most profitable crop to grow in much of the country. Yield is up, with plants producing 33 percent more leaves than in 2012. And farmers are often pressured by gangs to grow coca.

The method generally held to be the strongest long-term solution is crop substitution, but convincing coca growers to move to other crops is difficult. Converting fields is expensive, incomes are much higher for coca than other crops, and much of the coca growing occurs in remote, mountainous parts of the country with little oversight or development.

Colombia’s president, Iván Duque, suggested a return to glyphosate spraying and a greater use of force in eradicating fields during his campaign. The spraying was curbed under the previous administration, with the previous president, Juan Manuel Santos, favoring policies to reduce demand.

Colombia’s Coca Production Is Growing, Despite Efforts