The number of hectares used for illicit coca production in Colombia jumped more than 40 percent between 2014 and 2015, according to U.S. Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) data released earlier this month.
That increase was the largest in more than a decade and an even larger than the dramatic rise in coca-related land use between 2013 and 2014. And at 159,000 hectares, the total is close to the highest number since 2001.
Recently released United Nations figures also showed an increase, albeit a slightly smaller one.
In light of that news, the Colombian government announced changes in its anti-coca strategy on Tuesday.
“Over the past three years, the production of coca in Colombia has increased,” said Rafael Pardo, advising minister for the Post-Conflict, Human Rights and Security during the General Assembly of the Colombo-American Chamber of Commerce. “It increased because two years ago, glyphosate fumigation started to have problems.”
Pardo explained that guerrillas started firing at fumigation planes and court decisions and government policy changes prohibited aerial spraying of glyphosate in 2015. Last year, the World Health Organization stated that glyphosate, the main ingredient in the Roundup herbicide, “probably” causes cancer.
There may also be economic reasons for the increase in coca cultivation as well, particularly related to the increasing strength of the dollar against the Colombian peso.
“A dollar that is worth more pesos, will have an impact on both legal and illegal exports,” said Pardo. “But the government knows that cultivation is increasing and will not sit with its arms crossed.”
He explained that a new strategy would focus on eradicating coca production in 16 national parks around the country as well as focusing on the municipalities that account for the greatest amount of coca cultivation.
Also on Tuesday, Justice Minister Yesid Reyes Alvarado told the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs that the government should take a cautious approach to penalizing small producers of coca. According to Reyes, 77 percent of small cultivators say they would prefer to grow a different crop.
But other public figures charged the government with not doing enough to stem coca production.
“160,000 hectares of coca, we’ve gone back 15 years. Who will react!” wrote former President Alvaro Uribe and critic of the peace process with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrilla group on Twitter. “Indulging the FARC has cost 100,000 hectares of coca.”
“The attorney general’s office warned that we would be swimming in coca, and we are swimming in coca,” said Attorney General Alejandro Ordóñez in a press conference Tuesday. “This has caused delinquency to skyrocket, increased insecurity and strengthened microtrafficking.”
Ordóñez also criticized a recent court decision that could expand Colombia’s policy allowing a “personal dose” of marijuana to include much larger quantities for people who qualify as addicts.
But Minister Pardo assured that the FARC peace process would help reduce coca production.
“FARC have been an obstacle for policies of eradication, intervention and crop substitution, and now they will have to cooperate to reduce cultivation,” he told the Associated Press last week.
Despite being briefly overtaken by Peru between 2010 and 2014, Colombia maintains the world’s top cocaine production potential, and supplies more than 90 percent of the cocaine consumed in the United States, according to the ONDCP.