- Between 2001 and 2022, the municipality of Tibú in northern Colombia lost 150,000 soccer fields’ worth of tree cover, with coca cultivation one of the key drivers of the deforestation.
- While minor compared to the deforestation caused by clearing for pasture, coca cultivation still affects local communities through contamination of soil and water, violence and crime — yet remains a vital source of livelihood for more than 230,000 families.
- Over the past year, the rural economy in Tibú and other coca-producing regions of Colombia has collapsed due to an overproduction of the crop; coca paste, often used as a substitute for cash here, has seen its value drop by 40%, leaving locals struggling to make ends meet.
- Amid the crisis, there are calls for seizing the opportunity to transition farmers away from coca and toward more sustainable economies — though the reality is that many farmers are also turning to far more destructive activities, like illegal gold mining.
BOGOTÁ — In the world’s major cities, partygoers do lines of cocaine, far removed from the environmental and human costs of consuming this white powder. Most are likely unaware that in Colombia’s tropical forests, farmers have cleared large swaths of land to grow coca, the plant from which cocaine is produced.
Tibú municipality, located in the Catatumbo region in northeastern Colombia, on the border with Venezuela, is the country’s top coca producer by area, with 22,000 hectares (54,400 acres) of land dedicated to cultivating the crop. Between 2001 and 2022, Tibú lost 111,000 hectares (274,000 acres) of tree cover, or the equivalent of about 150,000 soccer fields, due to a variety of factors. “We’re most of all a coca region,” says Edecio José Ramírez Pabón, a 70-year-old farmer from Tibú.
Coca farming is the world’s largest illicit agribusiness, requiring vast amount of land. Colombia leads the world in coca production, accounting for about 60% percent of global supply. To keep up with demand, growers have continuously expanded their cultivated area, which in 2022 amounted to 230,000 hectares (568,000 acres), a 13% increase from the previous year.
But in Tibú, coca production — and with it, most of the local rural economy — largely ground to a halt since early last year, Ramírez Pabon tells Mongabay. That’s in response to coca prices dropping by more than 40% in 2022, leaving coca farmers struggling to find buyers. Over the past year, farmers have abandoned fields, shops have closed, and people have gone hungry. Ramírez Pabon, a community leader in the Caño Victoria Sur and Esmeralda Dos communities in Catatumbo and member of a local farmers’ association, says other locals come to him in desperation. “They are in need and cannot even afford food.”
But it’s not all bad news, with the crisis presenting a silver lining for those willing to transition to a more sustainable form of livelihood, according to several experts and local farmers who spoke to Mongabay.
“This [crisis] presents an opportunity to switch away from illicit crops,” says Nidia Quintero, national delegate of the National Coordinator of Coca, Poppy and Marijuana Growers (Coccam).
The flip side, though, is that this could also mean that coca farmers move into other destructive industries, such as illegal gold mining, which is now about 50 times more profitable than coca.
A crisis years in the making
Colombian coca production has grown dramatically over the decades, with coca farms now covering about five times more land than during the heyday of kingpin Pablo Escobar and his Medellín cartel in the 1980s and ’90s.
“This is really about overproduction,” says Ana Maria Rueda, a senior investigator at the Ideas for Peace Foundation, a Colombian think tank focused on peace and security. Large Mexican drug cartels buy shipments of cocaine in Colombia, which they traffic globally, mostly to Europe and the United States. “Overproduction means that Mexican cartels can now choose where to buy and where not to buy,” Rueda says.
Public policies are partly to blame for Colombia’s coca overproduction. Following the 2016 peace agreement signed between the government and the country’s then-largest guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), then-president Juan Manuel Santos drew up a program that would incentivize growers to give up their coca crops. Coca production had been a key source of funding for the FARC and other guerrilla groups, and Santos’s program, known as the PNIS, sought to ensure this didn’t happen again, by offering various state benefits to growers who opted to eradicate their coca crops.
But while the Santos administration enrolled nearly 100,000 farming families into the program, it failed to offer them the technical assistance promised to help them transition to substitute crops. Things deteriorated even further under Santos’s successor, Iván Duque, who froze the enrollment entirely; to date, nearly half the families who volunteered for the coca substitution program haven’t been enrolled in it. Under the current president, Gustavo Petro, who took office in mid-2022, the coca eradication program slowed. The Petro administration has targeted razing about 20,000 hectares (nearly 50,000 acres) of coca crops annually, or 60% less than under the Duque administration.
All this means more coca farms have been left untouched, which in turn has led to increased productivity from the existing crops. When coca crops aren’t regularly wiped out, the plants are more likely to reach their optimal growing age, and farmers have bigger incentives to invest in productivity improvements such as crop resilience or careful selection of high-yielding varieties
For the environment, the increased coca production can mean a reprieve from deforestation, as less land is needed to produce the same yield. But at the same time, farmers use even more toxic chemicals to optimize production, contaminating soil and water and affecting biodiversity.
More than 230,000 families in Colombia depend on coca growing as their primary source of income. In Tibú, coca paste often replaces cash as a means of payment. But with the glut in supply, the value of coca paste has gone down to about 2.75 million pesos per kilogram ($690 per kilo, or $315 per pound), leaving locals struggling to pay for basic goods. “It has become really difficult here,” Ramírez Pabon says.
Yahaira Sáenz, 44, a leader in the Campesino Association of Catatumbo (Ascamcat), remembers a time when money was abundant in the community. “But the crisis hit all of us hard,” she says, citing shops that have closed or are empty, and people leaving the village. “The coca economy was what sustained the community.”
A sense of desperation has crept into the communities here. Over the past year, many people have migrated out, and young people in particular are increasingly joining armed groups, says Estefanía Ciro, founder of A la Orilla del Río, a think tank focused on the Colombian Amazon. Some locals have moved into other extractive industries such as illegal gold mining, which has also become more attractive due to rising gold prices induced by the COVID-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine, making for a boom in the industry — which has also had a detrimental effect on the forests.
From plant to powder: A trail of environmental harm
According to Liliana Dávalos, an evolutionary and conservation biologist at Stony Brook University in New York, who specializes in tropical deforestation, the total area cleared for coca cultivation in Colombia is a tiny fraction of the land cleared for livestock pasture. Pasture is by far the biggest direct driver of deforestation in the country, accounting for more than a third of Colombia’s total land area, and about half of its deforestation. But according to Dávalos, coca production is a much bigger driver of indirect deforestation in Colombia than in any other country. She calls this a “pioneering effect,” where coca growing attracts other destructive activities.
Deforestation leads to threatened species losing their habitats, as 4-8% of coca crops are grown in protected areas. Deforestation also means higher CO2 emissions, since tropical forests store vast amounts of carbon, which are released back into the atmosphere when they’re cut down. Global cocaine production is estimated to contribute nearly 9 million metric tons of CO2 per year — more than the emissions of 1.9 million gasoline-powered cars.
The processing of coca into cocaine also damages the environment. The light green leaves, traditionally used by Indigenous people like the Inca who chew them to alleviate hunger and thirst and relieve pain and altitude sickness, are taken to makeshift laboratories where they’re mixed with cement, lime, gasoline, ammonia and other chemical compounds, turning them into a dark-green liquid that becomes toxic for both humans and the surrounding environment. It takes 284 liters of gasoline to produce 1 kg of cocaine, or about 34 gallons per pound. Along the way, millions of liters of chemicals are dumped into rivers.
Once consumed, cocaine flows through sewage systems and into waterways where it can impact eels and other fish, modifying their physiology — or in some cases even making them addicted. A European multicity study looking at the presence of illicit drugs in wastewater showed that cocaine use increased between 2016 and 2022 in more than half of the studied cities.
U.S. ends monitoring despite soaring production
Earlier this year, the U.S. State Department stopped its more than 35-year effort to monitor coca cultivation in Colombia.
It remains unclear why the program was ended even as production rose. Ciro says it may have to do with a shift in U.S. authorities’ focus toward the domestic fentanyl crisis, responsible for more than two-thirds of drug overdose deaths in the U.S. last year. But while President Petro says U.S. drug users consume more fentanyl than cocaine, the data suggest otherwise. “Fentanyl doesn’t compete with cocaine,” Ciro says. “There is no reason to believe this has to do with consumption patterns.”
The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime has monitored coca crops continuously since 1999. Dávalos says there have been big discrepancies between the U.S. and U.N. monitoring results. Rueda of the Ideas for Peace Foundation says there’s a general shortage of data on coca cultivation.
Amid all these questions over monitoring, the problem on the ground persists.
Catatumbo has had a systemic deforestation problem for more than 20 years, Dávalos says. “Catatumbo is one of the regions that is the hardest hit by the environmental consequences of coca,” she says. It was also the first part of Colombia hit by the current coca crisis.
A new drug policy
The U.S. government’s decision to end its monitoring efforts aligns with the Colombian government’s new drug policy, presented in September, which aims to target traffickers rather than growers.
The policy promises to support farmers in their move away from growing coca, including by offering them free land to grow substitute crops, or supporting legal uses of coca in fumigants, food and textiles. At the same time, the policy calls for “suffocating” strategic drug traffickers by targeting production infrastructure and illegal financing.
“One of the challenges is that half of the coca is located in environmentally important areas like national parks and collective ethnic territories,” says María Alejandra Vélez, director of the Center for Security and Drug Studies at the University of the Andes in Bogotá. “These are the most important forests in the country.”
Vélez says the drug policy should involve not only the Ministry of Justice, which is leading the new initiative, but also the ministries of environment, agriculture, and defense, and the management of national parks.
For the coca farmers of Tibú, however, time is running out. They’re struggling to make ends meet amid the current crisis, and say they haven’t received help from the government. For many, their forests seem to be lost for good, yet there are no reforestation or restoration plans on the horizon.
Local farmers say they have little faith the government will jump in to help. But they add they haven’t given up on finding alternative ways forward. Sáenz, the campesino leader, says some farmers have started growing yuca, sugarcane or cacao. She acknowledges that the community can’t build up a new economy based on these crops, but at least they can grow them for their own consumption.
“I feel optimistic, because we’re always trying to reinvent ourselves. Maybe the crisis can help us do that,” she says.
Vélez is more skeptical. “This [crisis] is a temporary situation. Eventually, the [cocaine] market will stabilize,” she says. Some farmers may move into alternative industries, but as long as there’s demand, there’ll be production, she says.
Meanwhile, Ramírez Pabon is trying to convince more locals to plant cacao instead of coca, supporting them with necessary production tools and training.
“Catatumbo needs everything,” he says, “except for coca.”
Rincón-Ruiz, A., & Kallis, G. (2013). Caught in the middle, Colombia’s war on drugs and its effects on forest and people. Geoforum, 46, 60-78. doi:10.1016/j.geoforum.2012.12.009
Bernal, J., Sudarsky, J., & Riveros, C. (2021). Illicit crop cultivation in Colombia’s national natural parks: Dynamics, drivers, and policy responses. Journal of Illicit Economies and Development, 3(1), 22-35. doi:10.31389/jied.81
Banner image: Deforestation in the Colombian Amazon. Image by Rhett A. Butler for Mongabay.
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