In the Face of Colombia’s Coca Boom, Coffee & Cocoa Farming Offer a Remedy

 Pablo Izquierdo Perez on his farm in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountains in Colombia.
Pablo Izquierdo Perez on his farm in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountains in Colombia.

Colombia, still in a delicate phase of its history as it struggles to revive from five decades of war, is seeing a dramatic rise in coca cultivation. According to an analysis by the Washington Office on Latin America, this coca boom could be the largest ever.

And bigger coca crops means higher cocaine production, much of it ultimately destined for the United States.

Cocaine production is increasing along with the coca bushes. In 2016, Colombian security forces, mostly the police and navy, seized 379 tons of the drug, shattering earlier records and more than doubling the annual haul between 2010 and 2014. And Colombia has already interdicted 51 more tons in the first two months of 2017.

A March 14 report released by the White House showed an 18% increase in coca production from 2015 to 1016, with approximately 465,000 acres under cultivation.

There are several reported reasons for the coca boom. In addition to higher prices being offered, there was a drought that affected some areas where coffee/cocoa have been grown (Antioquia, Cesar, and Cordoba). As a result, some farmers moved to coca, which is a more drought-resistant crop. Second, the settlement with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) rebels and the government included a crop substitution program. There is some indication that coca farmers have boosted production to put themselves in a better negotiating position in light of this new program; those with more coca believe they will receive more support for substitution/diversification.

The Washington Post reports that there are already indications that the increased supply is fueling a comeback in U.S. cocaine use, paralleling the nation’s heroin and opioid epidemic.

“There are troubling early signs that cocaine use and availability is on the rise in the United States for the first time in nearly a decade,” the State Department noted this week in its annual report on the global narcotics trade.
According to test samples of the drug seized on the streets, 90 percent of the cocaine for sale in the United States is of Colombian origin, according to the report.

A key part of Colombia’s post-war peace strategy is to foster sustainable rural development in the Colombian countryside that reduces poverty and promotes the inclusion of women and youth, as discussed in Lutheran World Relief's report, Voices from the New Countryside: the challenge and opportunity of peace in rural Colombia.

Now, there is another increasingly urgent need to support Colombia’s farmers, so they can grow cash crops that provide sufficient income to support their families without turning to coca cultivation. Coffee and cocoa are high-value crops that are ideally suited to provide farmers with an alternative to growing coca.

Through our Ground Up initiative, LWR is helping Colombian coffee and cocoa farmers to increase production of their crops, improve quality, and gain greater market access and bargaining power with buyers, and ultimately increase their profits. LWR works with cooperatives and producers’ groups to expand their scale and improve their financial and management capacity, and collective investment in infrastructure. Using LWR’s approach to climate-smart agriculture, farmers produce more while preserving the land’s fertility and biodiversity for future generations. For example, LWR, in partnership with the Starbucks Foundation, carried out the Pro-Café project to help Colombian coffee farmers to protect and preserve sensitive ecosystems while at the same time promoting sustainable coffee livelihoods.

Here is a video on one LWR project on the that helps farmers grow cocoa as an alternative to coca:

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