This translated fragment of a January 31 column in the Colombian daily El Espectador, from María Alejandra Vélez of the University of the Andes’ Center for Security and Drugs Studies (CESED), is a succinct, accurate 2-minute overview of where coca eradication policy stands in Colombia right now, six months into Gustavo Petro’s administration.
Consistent with his campaign discourse, his first announcements, which lack details, aim at not persecuting growers, which includes lowering the tempo of forced eradication and considering a territorial transformation program, which includes gradual substitution once other economies generate income that allows a dignified life for coca growers. He reserved eradication for 20,000 hectares of “industrial” growers, who, as in any market, have already vertically integrated into the market: they cultivate in large tracts, process and market. It remains to be seen if we can identify who they are and where they are.
To stop persecuting small coca growers, 52.7% of whose households live in multidimensional poverty, according to the baseline of households that enrolled in the PNIS, seems obvious to me. Waiting for voluntary eradication to happen when they are already producing and generating income in other economies, too.
Now, the devil is in the details and these are what we should be concerned to know. For example, is there enough funding to attend to the territorial transformation of 200,000 or more families? Will there be a census and registration of small growers according to the size and number of plots? What happens with growers who have several plots? Where will the interventions be focused? For what period of time will the households that stop growing coca be accompanied? How will they be protected from the violence to which armed groups and criminal organizations subject them? How are they going to regain the trust of leaders and their communities to become involved in the policy after decades of non-compliance? What are the plans to prevent the expansion of crops and, in particular, their expansion in environmentally important areas? What types of economies other than coca are viable in ethnic and environmentally strategic territories? How does this whole narrative tie in with Total Peace? Do we have the international leadership necessary to stop chasing coca and talk about a regulatory path for cocaine? How will we measure the success of the new drug policy? Will we be able to convince the Biden administration and other U.S. institutions of the need to focus on solving rural development problems instead of eradication?
That last question is critical for our work here in Washington. Will the Biden administration go along with a counter-drug strategy that relies far less on forced eradication of small farmers’ coca plants?
My sense is that yes, they might. But only if they can be reassured that the Petro government is following a detailed, funded, well-thought-out plan. One that can answer many of the questions in Vélez’s final paragraph here.
Unfortunately, as she notes, the Petro government’s plans so far “lack details.” And that could start complicating the bilateral relationship.