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Coca in the Amazon – The anti-development crop

Coca leaf is cultivated to produce a variety of consumer products as well as illicit cocaine. Credit: © Greentelect /

  • Mongabay has begun publishing a new edition of the book, “A Perfect Storm in the Amazon,” in short installments and in three languages: Spanish, English and Portuguese.
  • Author Timothy J. Killeen is an academic and expert who, since the 1980s, has studied the rainforests of Brazil and Bolivia, where he lived for more than 35 years.
  • Chronicling the efforts of nine Amazonian countries to curb deforestation, this edition provides an overview of the topics most relevant to the conservation of the region’s biodiversity, ecosystem services and Indigenous cultures, as well as a description of the conventional and sustainable development models that are vying for space within the regional economy.
  • Click the “A Perfect Storm in the Amazon” link atop this page to see chapters 1-13 as they are published during 2023 and 2024.

The most lucrative agricultural system in the Amazon is neither soy nor palm oil, but coca leaf, which is cultivated for both legal and illegal markets. There are two species, Erythroxylum coca, which is grown at higher elevations and is preferred for the legal market, and Erythroxylum novogratenensis, which is cultivated at lower elevations and is the primary feedstock for the manufacture of illicit cocaine.

Historically, coca was cultivated in the montane forests of the Eastern Andes in Bolivia and Peru, where the leaf is consumed as a mild stimulant via infusions or mastication. The consumption of legal coca leaf has grown steadily over the past several decades, as it has become a habit adopted by consumers inside and outside of the Andes.

The consumption of illegal cocaine has boomed since the 1970s when it became a popular drug among the urban elite in North America and Europe, a habit which become democratized and globalized as cocaine consumption spread to populations in other economic strata and social groups across the world.

In the Bolivian municipality of Coroico, coca leaf is grown legally. Here it is dried in the sun. Image by Matyas Rehak/

Coca farmers are the smallest of the commercial small farmers in the Amazon; a legal coca plantation in Bolivia is a 40 x 40 meter plot of land referred to as a cato de coca. Individual plantings can produce for years, if not decades but, since the overwhelming majority of plantations are illegal and subject to eradication efforts, most coca plantations are probably younger than five years old.

A well-managed coca plantation can produce up to two tonnes of dried coca leaf per year; as with any crop, harvesting a significant amount of biomass will deplete the nutrient content of the soils, which is another incentive to constantly move and renew coca plantations.

Starting in the mid 1990s, Colombia surpassed Peru and Bolivia as the primary source of coca leaf, a transition that coincided with an increase in the civil unrest in Colombia and the initiation of interdiction efforts in Peru and Bolivia that were financed by the United States and the European Community. Subsequently, Colombia increased its efforts to combat cocaine trafficking; according to recent reports, the sum total of coca was reduced to about 50,000 hectares by 2014, of which about 25,000 hectares were located in the four departments located with the Amazon.

Coca cultivation between 1990 and 2019. There was a large displacement of coca cultivation in the 1990s, following the defeat of the Marxist guerillas in Peru and the decision by Colombia’s armed militias to embrace illicit drugs as a source of revenue. The spike in coca cultivation after the beginning of the peace process in 2015 was more pronounced in the extra-Amazonian provinces of Colombia than within the Colombian Amazon. Data source: United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).

Cultivating coca is legal in both Bolivia and Peru due to the traditional market for coca leaf; however, its conversion to cocaine or its precursors is widespread. Efforts to promote alternative production schemes have met with only limited success, mainly because of the economic advantages of cultivating coca. One hectare of coca leaf will produce about $US 5,000 to $US 7,000 of income based on the mean yield and market value of the leaf as paid to the farmer; a similar area of any of the other cash crops generates revenues of about $US 1,000 to $US 1,500.

The economics of coca production reflect market demand, which ensures that somewhere, somebody will grow coca leaf for conversion to illicit cocaine.

If the reported area under cultivation is accurate, this translates into between $US 300 to $US 500 million in Peru, with slightly lower values in Bolivia and slightly higher values in Amazonian Colombia. However, these are only the farm-gate proceeds that flow directly to the farmer, and the total value to the national economy is many times greater when the post-harvest processing and commerce are considered.

Deforestation pattern typical of coca-producing landscapes: (a) Guaviare, Colombia, where rivers are the primary source of transit; and (b) the Chapare region of Bolivia where successive governments have supported or tolerated coca cultivation. Source: Google Earth.

According to the UNODC, the full coca-cocaine supply chain contributes about 0.9% to Bolivia’s GDP, which would place the total value of the supply chain in Bolivia at about $US 4 billion in 2019, with estimates for Colombia and Peru at around $US 8 billion each.

Presumably, this does not include the proceeds from ‘money laundering’, which acts as a subsidy to other sectors of the economy. For example, in Bolivia the construction sector is used to turn illicit proceeds into real estate assets, because buildings can be constructed with cash and sold through banks via mortgages. In Bolivia and Colombia, unusually large investments in cattle ranches and industrial farms are commonly assumed to be financed in part by financial resources of dubious provenance.

Comparing the deforestation data with the coca monitoring data compiled by the United Nations reveals multiple patterns of coca production. In some, coca plantations are located in areas with a centuries-long tradition of coca cultivation; these include the La Paz Yungas (Human Modified Landscape or HML #33) of Bolivia and the La Convención-Lares region near Cuzco, Peru (HML #35).

Coca farming in these regions seems to be stable and practiced openly on landscapes that have been settled for decades or centuries. They are essentially legal because they are assumed to be producing coca leaf for domestic consumption; nonetheless, the vast majority of coca leaf is channeled into the illegal production of cocaine. In other areas, such as the Chapare of Bolivia (HML #32), the VRAEM (HML #35b) and all the regions in Colombia (HML #51 and #54), the cultivation of coca is a more recent phenomenon and is entirely illegal. In all localities, however, new deforestation patches can be observed in the remote areas and, typically, are less than one hectare in size and are isolated from villages and roads.

Recent press reports indicate that coca cultivation in Colombia has skyrocketed since 2016 from a historic low of about 48,000 hectares to more than 170,000 hectares because of the peace process and the policy of tolerance that was implemented during the negotiations. In the Caquetá- Putumayo region (HML #51) the coca cultivation area increased by an average of forty per cent per year between 2014 and 2017. Ironically, this would make the peace process a driver of deforestation.

“A Perfect Storm in the Amazon” is a book by Timothy Killeen and contains the author’s viewpoints and analysis. The second edition was published by The White Horse in 2021, under the terms of a Creative Commons license (CC BY 4.0 license).

Read the other excerpted portions of chapter 3 below and jump to chapter 4 here:

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