Colombia’s coca farmers revolt over crop substitution


The palafitic huts of Tumaco’s ramshackle slums, hunch over mudflats that extend deep into the Pacific Ocean. In this impoverished corner of southwestern Colombia, home to some 200,000 Afro-Colombians, heavily armed police and a telecommunications tower symbolize the state’s presence.

An hour up river from the decay of Tumaco’s port, the community of Alto Mira is even more isolated, finding itself at the center of a major political crisis for the government President Juan Manuel Santos, after security forces opened fire on a group of protestors, resulting in the death of seven coca farmers. The October 5 incident unleashed a series of violent clashes between farmers and police, worst witnessed since the signing of the peace agreement last November between the Colombian Government and Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrilla.

The surge in cocaine production, continued presence of criminal groups in rural areas, and economic uncertainty over the crop-substitution program are the explosive ingredients causing a ‘coca revolt’ in the country at a time in which 7,000 ex-combatants from the oldest Marxist guerrilla are still re-entering civilian life.

After the fanfare with the peace accord with FARC and President Santos awarded the 2016 Nobel Peace Prize, Colombia is hardly making a peaceful transition to a post-conflict. Extra-judicial killings have claimed the lives of 81 community leaders this year, blamed on Bacrim, an umbrella term for criminal groups financed by drug trafficking. The appearance of FARC dissidents groups in coca growing regions also throws into question if former FARC, now branded as the Fuerza Alternativa Revolucionaria del Común party really had control over the demobilization of their rank-and-file, and if, 7,000 weapons handed-over to the United Nations represents the total of their arsenal.

The tragic events of October 5th in which 50 were injured and seven killed has forced the government to boost its security presence in department of Nariño by 9,000 police and military as part of the on-going Operation Atlas to dismantle 15 drug trafficking organizations operating in and around Tumaco. During an October 21 address to the nation, Santos said security forces would attack all “drug trafficking links” in Tumaco with “total force.”

While the exact details of how the massacre was executed and why state’s security forces used long–range bullets on civilians remains unclear, Santos has ordered a full investigation. Within hours of the massacre, the Attorney General blamed FARC dissidents for initiating the violence, but Vice-President Oscar Naranjo, the former Chief of Colombia’s National Police, appeared to take a different line. “The immense majority of the testimony signals the police are responsible,” said Naranjo.

The peace with FARC has ended one of the world’s longest-running conflicts, but the implementation of the accords is marked by political uncertainty for an organization that recently announced its former senior commander Rodrigo Londoño – better known by his wartime alias “Timochenko” – as a presidential candidate in next year’s elections. This decision has sparked outrage among right-wing candidates who claim the nomination is an offense to the victims of the half- century long conflict, and at a moment, in which a majority of Colombians who voted “No” to the peace process with FARC, in a nationwide plebiscite October 2, 2016, still feel justice has not been served for crimes committed.

FARC is still listed as a Terrorist Organization by the U.S Government and accused of having contributed to the massive coca surge by pressuring the Colombian government to scrap aerial fumigation with glyphosate while talking peace during four years in Havana. But the accord commits both sides to help farming communities manually eradicate the coca harvest. FARC, however, appears to have turned a blind eye to thorny issue of crop substitution.

As the government tries to quell an uprising by thousands of farmers who refuse to eradicate their illegal crops, a leaked letter between the White House and U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in which President Trump “strongly urged” decertifying Colombia in its efforts to curb coca production, also raised the ire of the Santos government.

Trump’s latest threat comes as the nation deals with an unprecedented coca harvest, with 146,000 hectares planted, according to the United Nations. The U.S government claims the numbers are twice as much. In a Senate Caucus on International Narcotics Control, Senators Chuck Grassley (Rep) and Dianne Feinstein (Dem) displayed bipartisan discontent with Colombia’s lack of effort in eradicating coca. In a move to help Colombia’s farmers, the UN’s Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) signed a USD$315 million deal last month to boost legal crop alternatives, such as coffee and cacao.

The Tumaco incident attracted an international outcry against human rights abuses committed in drug-growing areas. “Nothing will change in Colombia until everyone in the country can protest peacefully without fear of losing their lives,” said Erika Guevara-Rosas, Americas Director of Amnesty International. She also urged the Colombian authorities to investigate the killing as thoroughly and quickly as possible, mentioning that failure to do so “will send a signal that the lives of campesinos are of no value.”

Less than two weeks after the massacre, Jhon Jair Cortés, a social leader of Afro-Colombian Community Council of Alto Mira and Frontera, was murdered in Tumaco. The council was among the first organizations to disclose threats against community leaders. Nariño’s shared border with Ecuador has facilitated the international trafficking of cocaine and contributing to high production.

FARC’s demobilization has also caused a power vacuum in the region, attracting criminal groups from the northern regions of the country, such as the Clán del Golfo, a violent syndicate that operates in northern Antioquia and Chocó. According to the UN, some 1,500 people have been forcibly displaced since the October 5 incident.

For farmers who rely on cultivating coca to make a living, the issue is relatively simple: growing coffee or cacao is simply not lucrative. Therefore, to make the transition, the government must provide better incentives.

The lack of infrastructure in rural areas also makes the living situation harder for those willing to substitute their crops. Roads that can connect rural areas with markets need to be built. But progress on this remains slow. “Frankly, I don’t think the Colombian government is doing a proper job building infrastructure to make sure farmers in departments like Chocó, Nariño can make a living out of the new crops,” said Christian Visnes, the Colombia Country Director of Norwegian Refugee Council.

No matter how the politics plays-out, without a well-thought-out plan to properly implement the peace agreement, the coca protests may spread to other municipalities, resulting in disruptions to the flow of goods on roads – especially the Pan-American highway that unites Ecuador with Colombia’s interior. “The government’s strategy has failed by putting pressure on farmers instead of offering a negotiation,” said León Valencia, director of the Peace and Reconciliation Foundation. “Rural communities and coca farmers are amongst those most willing to negotiate.”


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