The coca business’s collapse has crushed rural Colombia

Falling prices and high inflation have resulted in forced displacement and food insecurity for thousands of peasants whose economic mainstay was growing the plant exclusively and selling coca paste

proceso de las hojas de coca
Workers in a coca field in northern Santander, Colombia, in October 2022.Santiago Mesa
Camilo Sánchez

Coca, a mainstay of the rural economy in certain parts of Colombia, is on the verge of collapse. Few saw it coming. And some questions about this phenomenon remain. But the effects include collective impoverishment and an acute social crisis for a good number of the 400,000 coca-growing families and people connected to the business in border departments such as Nariño, Putumayo and Norte de Santander, among others. Forced displacements of people in search of better luck, and food insecurity stemming from price inflation, have gradually faded the memory of the more prosperous years.

It is difficult to get clear statistics for the coca market, but the newspaper El Espectador estimated that between 2021 and 2023, the average price of an arroba (12.5 kilos or about 28 pounds) of coca leaf has fallen by over 32% in the department of Cauca, on Colombia’s Pacific coast. Meanwhile, in the neighboring southern department of Nariño, a kilo of coca paste — a later stage in the transformation of the leaf into cocaine — once cost $975, but today it sells for $240, according to estimates by the Colombian branch of the International Crisis Group think tank.

Last Thursday, at the start of the new congress, President of Colombia Gustavo Petro explained that cocaine exports to the United States have decreased with the increase in fentanyl addiction, a potent opioid that has caused more deaths in the United States so far this century than the Vietnam War. Petro said that this shift is an opportunity to accelerate the transition of the traditionally marginalized coca-growing regions toward legality and integrate them once and for all into the circuits of progress that other territories have experienced.

Elizabeth Dickinson, an analyst at the International Crisis Group, notes that the 2017 demobilization of the Marxist FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) guerrillas briefly left the coca economy orphaned. Prior to laying down their arms, the insurgents had exerted suffocating control over the peasantry and their crops. Many sowed their entire land with a leaf that did not make them rich but did yield better profits than other products. “That explains the seriousness of the problem. In the south of Bolivar (on Colombia’s Caribbean coast), the business has been paralyzed for six months. There’s internal displacement toward the marshes, with peasants coming down from the mountains to make their living by fishing.”

This is an unexpected situation for thousands of farmers whose resources have been drained to the point of having to root out their crops and replace them with poppies, the small red plants with narcotic substances that pharmaceutical companies use to produce fentanyl and morphine (and that drug traffickers use to make heroin). The illegal market remains more profitable. Sociologist Sandra Bermudez, the director of the NGO Viso Mutop, says that the crisis has not reached some areas of the country. She is referring to the south of Guaviare and some areas of Caqueta, two departments in the south and center of the country. Likewise, she notes that in the south of the aforementioned Cauca and the north of Antioquia (center), direct sales have already begun to take off again.

General explanations do not account for this problem. But to better understand this story, one must dig into the increase in cultivation hectares that the country experienced between 2018 and 2021. That is the only hypothesis on which the experts agree unanimously. The oversupply inherited from that period sank prices. At the same time, cultivation in other countries — such as Paraguay, Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico — spread, and other synthetic drugs gained ground. Scholars have pointed out that, sadly, this state of affairs has reigned in Colombia for decades.

Ana Maria Rueda, a researcher at the Ideas for Peace Foundation, explains that as months went by, she realized that the business was indeed withering away. The precarious situations in Argelia (Cauca) and Tumaco (Nariño) joined the ones in other enclaves like Tibú and Catatumbo (Norte de Santander). In fact, in his speech to the Colombian Congress, President Petro noted that many clandestine laboratories in the jungle departments of Putumayo and Amazonas, in the far south of the country, have been abandoned.

An internal United Nations Food Program report, quoted by Reuters, warns of the risks that the situation poses to food security in certain regions. Farmers have faced numerous hardships in the context of high inflation (12.3%) spurred by food prices, in particular. But Ana María Rueda is critical of the general ignorance of various official and multilateral agencies and approaches their data with caution: “The government’s only action and reaction was [to pass] a resolution in May providing a subsidy of 2 million pesos [$502.96] to families in the substitution program to help them with what is believed to be a food crisis.”

Similarly, Elizabeth Dickinson emphasizes that the economic impact disrupts these regions’ entire way of life. Coca growers do not hire transportation services or the day laborers who pick coca leaves (known as raspachines); the restaurants do not sell lunches and the stores do not sell drinks. The analyst adds that the coca business “pays [for] daily [life]” in these places. And reports coincide in highlighting a great paradox. As the situation worsens as a result of the decline of a market linked to the violence caused by the war on drugs, the farmers’ ability to afford their families’ food and school supplies are further reduced. That precariousness spills over into the structure’s weakest link.

However, sociologist Sandra Bermúdez explains that this is an economic issue. She observes that the mechanisms of a submerged economy like this one are “fluctuating,” operating in cycles, and that as long as coca’s price remains higher than that of other agricultural products, “the market will continue to determine its production.” Many of those in the business, she adds, have decided to escape the problem through the illegal mining of coal or “precious minerals such as gold,” which is also abundant in some of these areas. “There has been capital flight from coca paste to mining in areas of the Nariño mountain range, southern Bolivar and Bajo Cauca Antioquia,” she says.

So, what is happening with the accumulated coca surplus? Ana María Rueda says that peasant families “are saving almost everything.” In Tumaco and Tibú, communities have even managed to barter packets of coca paste for food at markets. Others, pushed by the drug traffickers’ demands, no longer limit themselves to planting. Now, they use chemical inputs to turn the leaves into coca paste. “All this has to do with the quote-unquote logic of the market over the last five years,” she says. The measures serve to alleviate the situation until the storm passes and the old buyers — who have been disappearing in recent years — reappear in the not-too-distant future.

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