Susana Vesga explains how a campaign, led by Christian Aid Colombia and its partner COCCAM, aimed to change perceptions of coca growers in the country.
On October 27 2021, around 600 small-scale coca farmers in the rural area of Tibú, Catatumbo in northeast Colombia, began to protest against the actions of nearly 180 Colombian soldiers, who had entered the area and begun to forcibly eradicate their coca crops.
Small-scale farmers, called campesinos, demonstrated peacefully to stop them, corralling and holding the soldiers together until the situation was resolved through negotiation by two of Christian Aid’s local partners who represent and lead the campensinos - Asociación Campesina del Catatumbo (ASCAMCAT) and Coordinadora Nacional de Cultivadores de Coca, Amapola y Marihuana (COCCAM).
Initially, the Colombian Defence Minister and the commander of the army's second division said the campesinos had kidnapped the soldiers, and the army commander even accused both local partners of being associations dedicated to drug trafficking. Following a successful negotiation, the farmers agreed to withdraw and not impede the work of the security forces, on the basis that dialogue would continue and eradication of illicit crops only continued in conjunction with the national crop substitution programme. This scenario encapsulates an ongoing conflict that has existed between Colombian coca growers and state military forces bent on eradicating crops. The 2016 Peace Agreement between FARC, the largest armed group, and the Colombian government ended the government’s aggressive counter-narcotics strategy, which had previously led to the forced eradication of coca crops by aerial spraying, using chemicals that damaged people’s health and their environment. A crop substitution programme designed to provide an alternative legal livelihood for small-scale coca growers was put in place as part of the peace processes.
ASCAMCAT has been working for more than 16 years to defend the rights of the people of Catatumbo, one of the poorest regions of Colombia, which has been deeply affected by drug trafficking and violence at the hands of the army, guerrilla and paramilitary groups. Its residents have experienced massacres, including the killings of human rights defenders, forced displacement and have been dispossessed of their land.
COCCAM, the national coordinator of coca, poppy and marijuana growers, was created as part of the Peace Agreement. Far from being criminals, the organisation aims to contribute to peace, guarantee human rights and ensure delivery of the Peace Agreement. They represent peasant farmers, who turned to coca leaf cultivation as a lifeline in the absence of basic rights, employment, income or protection by the state.
The willingness of farmers to comply with the crop substitution programme shows they would willingly stop if other viable options were available, as well as their commitment to the Peace Agreement. It also undermines sentiments that these farmers are profit-driven criminals.
From war economies to peace economies
Today these organisations are working to transform their territories from ‘war economies to peace economies’, by working to change the focus of Colombia’s punitive drug policy to one that focuses on supporting development in the region and creating alternative livelihoods for farmers. However, the government and the Colombian army continue to portray these associations and coca farmers as criminals, despite commitments to the contrary during negotiation of the Peace Agreement and continue to focus their policies on eradicating land used for coca leaf cultivation without addressing the root causes of violence which led to the ‘war economy’ in the first place.
The 2016 Peace Agreement makes a clear differentiation between the different links of cocaine production; between the coca leaf growers and coca paste producers, the cocaine producers and marketers, and the consumers. The agreement states each link should be treated differently, focusing on development and public health in the case of coca leaf growers instead of following a punitive approach.
To use the common idiom ‘more carrot, less stick’, the Peace Agreement seeks to provide incentives for coca leaf growers, one of the poorest and most vulnerable links in the chain. This ‘carrot’ is subject to coca substituting illicit coca crops for legal economic activities, while the ‘stick’ is instead aimed at traffickers who take the lion's share of the profits, while less than one percent of the final retail price goes to farmers.
However, five years on from the Peace Agreement, the crop substitution programme has not lived up to expectations and President Duque, sworn in as President in 2018, has declared his intent to resume aerial spraying of coca crops, despite the risk this poses to human health, the environment and legal crops.
In response, Christian Aid Colombia, together with its partner COCCAM, developed a public awareness campaign called "Faces that Sow" in 2020 to change perceptions of coca growers. The campaign showed how coca leaf growers are often marginalised, branded as criminals and subjected to violence. The campaign explained that people become coca farmers because it’s the only job they can find and showed that coca growers need the Peace Agreement to be implemented fully in order to transform their regions so they have other livelihoods and opportunities. It also showed that coca was often grown by families from additionally marginalised groups, including Black and indigenous families. The campaign also explained the benefits coca leaf cultivation can bring, such as greater economic independence for women and how it can fill gaps left by an absent state.
In this way, our local partners COCCAM and ASCAMCAT have played a leading role as peace builders. They’ve amplified the voices of coca growers against the stigmatization they have experienced for so long and showed their support for the structural changes needed to improve their lives, consistent with the Peace Agreement.
Recent conflict between the growers and the army in Tibú highlights the need for change in the focus of the country’s drug policy to address the root causes of violence and marginalisation. Measures of success for drug policies and programmes must change to see how they contribute to a reduction in violence, support peace, development and human rights.
Susana Vesga is a project officer with Christian Aid Colombia, which is part of the Drugs & (dis)order project, a consortium project led by the School of Oriental and African Studies University of London, looking at how war economies can be transformed into peace economies in drugs-affected borderlands experiencing or recovering from armed conflict.