In the Heart of Colombia’s Coca Country: Pilot Coca Crop-Substitution Program in Briceño

By Carl Vosloh Zea

Latin America’s longest-running and bloodstained civil conflict between the Colombian government and Colombia’s left-wing rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces (FARC) of Colombia, has persisted for over five decades since it’s early beginnings in 1964. The illegal narcotics industry, in particular the cocaine trade has heavily financed the FARC’s war against the government. Former Defense Minister Juan Carlos Pinzón, indicated in 2012 at a conference in Miami University that Colombia’s annual illegal drug market worth was approximately of $6-$7 billion dollars, attributing $2.4 billion-$3.5 billion dollars to the FARC

Drug eradication, alternative-development projects, and crop-substitution programs have been implemented in the past to hinder the economic and political agendas of guerrillas and organized criminals. However, almost 70 percent of communities directly affected by the trade have never had access to alternative-development projects, until now.

Under the newly signed peace accord, for the first time the Colombian government and the FARC agreed to a joint coca crop-substitution program aimed at eradicating coca cultivation. The program was launched on July 10, 2016 and it is being led by the Colombian government, the FARC, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), International Organization for Migration (IOM), Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), and community leaders. 

The pilot project is taking place in the municipality of Briceño in the northern subregion of the department of Antioquia, considered the hub of Colombia’s coca country, where for over 5,000 farmers, coca or also referred to as the “green gold”, has been the sole source of income within the last 15 years.

The armed conflict has razed the social fabric and economy of Briceño, where the unlawful imposition of the FARC and of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) have divided and defined the livelihoods of coca growers and residents alike. Coca growers in the outskirts of towns sold exclusively to the FARC and those in the center of towns to the AUC, it is the only law that has governed these lands in northern Antioquia.

The Minister of Labour Rafael Pardo, stated that the project shall roughly include 2,000 families and 727 farming groups in the towns of Pueblo Nuevo, El Orejón, La Calera, La América, El Pescado, La Mina, Buena Vista, Altos de Chiri, Roblal and Palmichal. The guerrilla and government officials aim to gradually substitute and eradicate coca crops, while simultaneously responding to the needs of farmers and their communities with support measures and development strategies. Much of this includes economic assistance during the transition period and most importantly serious investment in infrastructure, that will facilitate commerce and let it be the grain that will determine Briceño’s economy in the near future.

Hence the significance of the peace accord that emits certain level of optimism, there still resides skepticism among local leaders and residents in Briceño that question the legitimacy, implications, and if the government and FARC will deliver it’s promises under the peace accord. Coca has been the staple economy that has sustained families in this part of the country for years, where a family could receive up to $900 dollars per kilogram of coca base paste. In other words, coca has provided a way of life for these families, in absence of government presence or assistance.

It is key for this pilot coca crop-substitution program to guarantee and allow these communities to reach economic security and sustain an improved quality of life, free from violence and reemerging economic conditions that would force farmers to return to coca cultivation and once again continue seeding the chief source of funding for Colombia’s armed conflict.

Carl Vosloh Zea is the Editor in Chief of Latin American Affairs for Latino Giant (Washington, DC).