Four years after Colombia suspended the controversial policy of aerial fumigation to kill coca plants, President Iván Duque is hoping to restart it. His government is making the case (with the not-so-subtle support of the U.S. government) against a backdrop of historically high levels of coca production and the hobbled 2016 peace plan, negotiated by his predecessor, Juan Manuel Santos, to end a 52-year civil war. And although on Thursday, the Constitutional Court decided to uphold its decision—dictated through sentence T-236, prohibiting the government of resuming aerial fumigation unless six specific protocols are met—the interpretation of the ruling leaves an open door for Duque to resume spraying.
Santos’s peace deal was intended to provide a legal route for farmers and former combatants to leave behind a life of narcotics production to engage in the legal economy, but so far it has failed. Without the resources and attention promised by the plan’s Comprehensive Rural Reform, even aerial fumigation won’t be enough to bring coca levels back down to the pre-Santos levels.
Providing legal options for Colombian farmers who cultivate coca — the base ingredient for cocaine — is essential. As of 2017, an estimated 200,000 families received a direct income from growing coca, according to Daniel Mauricio Rico Valencia, a former anti-narcotics policy adviser at Colombia’s ministry of defense. For these subsistence farmers, killing those crops from the air by spraying glyphosate, a concentrated form of the weedkiller Roundup used in the United States by weekend lawn warriors, will wipe out their main cash crop and often other legal crops due to the chemical’s dispersion through the winds.
According to the United Nations’ Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) 2018 report, coca cultivation reached its highest ever-recorded figure of 171,000 hectares (423,000 acres) in 2017 — an increase of 25,000 hectares or 17 percent from the previous year. Most of the increase — 64 percent — has occurred in four states (departments): Antioquia, Putumayo, Norte de Santander and Cauca. But the change away from aerial crop spraying to manually pulling up crops — complicated both by the remoteness of the cultivation and rural conflict — is not the only reason explaining the increase.
In addition to the Constitutional Court’s decision to halt fumigation, Santos pulled back on his government’s anti-coca struggle in his headstrong negotiations to secure peace with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), many of whom had been engaged in protection rackets to defend coca-growing farmers and produced and shipped the final product, cocaine. In an effort to keep his peace talks on track, Santos also went practically mum on criticizing leftist President Nicolás Maduro as he crushed Venezuela’s institutions, repressed his people and drove the country’s economy to chaos. The reason: Maduro and his predecessor, Hugo Chávez, were allies of the FARC and provided safe haven for the guerrilla group, even allowing Venezuela to become a major transshipment point for cocaine to other markets.
To Santos these were short-term concessions to gain the long-term goal (and Nobel Peace Prize) of securing peace, which he believed would ultimately create the conditions for reducing narcotics. But that plan fell short in two key areas. For one, the 2016 peace deal failed to fully demobilize former guerrilla combatants and integrate them into the legal economy. According to a recently published report by Global Americans and Florida International University’s Steven J. Green School of International and Public Affairs on the future of U.S.-Colombian relations, an estimated 3,000 militants — some of them new recruits — have returned to illicit activities and violence, rather than becoming the hoped-for bakers, barbers or small farmers.
At the same time, the programs necessary to wean farmers from coca are woefully underfunded. Colombia’s ministry of finance has estimated that the country would need $40 million (129.5 billion Colombian pesos) for the next 15 years to develop Colombia’s isolated, poor rural economy to create a legal production and markets to replace coca. But by late 2018, the Office of Colombia’s Comptroller General warned that approximately $24 million was lacking to comply with all the agreed commitments in the plan. Among the programs most affected was the peace plan’s ambitious Comprehensive Rural Reform program of crop substitution and land redistribution. The Land Fund, which was created in the peace accords to increase small farmer land ownership, has officially received only 200,000 hectares, less than 7 percent, of the 3 million hectares it is supposed to receive by 2028.
The final decision on whether to resume fumigation rests with the National Narcotics Council if it can determine that the program meets the six protocols mandated by the Constitutional Court in 2017. One of those requires demonstrating that spraying causes no harm to health or the environment. But the court’s recent move to open to interpretation this protocol might provide the government with green light needed to restart the program.
The risks of glyphosate have been the subject of study, debate and regulations for years. The World Health Organization has called glyphosate a “probable human carcinogen,” and in 2017, the state of California added it to its list of cancer-causing chemicals. The Environmental Protection Agency, however, decided in late 2017 that glyphosate was “not likely” to cause cancer in humans. A review led by University of Washington scientists published this February found that agricultural workers who used large amounts of glyphosate had a 41 percent higher risk of contracting non-Hodgkin lymphoma over their lifetimes than people who used it infrequently or not at all.
Lost in this debate, though, are the health and environmental effects of cocaine production itself. One of the key ingredients in converting coca to cocaine is gasoline; an estimated 75 gallons of the fuel are needed for each kilogram of coca paste. That gasoline and other chemicals used in cocaine’s production are dumped into the nearest body of water and end up fouling local water and food sources. This is not to mention the other illicit, destructive and often inhumane activities associated with cocaine production and sale, including human trafficking, illegal mining and violence.
Duque, whose popularity hovers just above 20 percent, will need to make a decision soon given the ongoing rise in coca growth. In deciding whether to do so, it will be essential to recognize not only the risks of spraying but also the risks of cocaine production and trafficking to Colombia’s security and politics. Simply killing coca plants by spraying without any alternative sources of income or access to licit markets to sell goods will only increase poverty in Colombia’s already poor rural areas — explaining why a number of state governors oppose resumed spraying. The FARC and narco-traffickers made it easy for farmers, picking up the crop, paying cash and transporting it. It will take a lot more investment to match that access for legal crops even if coca plants wilt under glyphosate. In the meantime, ironically, the concessions made by Santos to secure his peace might end up undermining its achievement if coca production, criminal groups and the Venezuelan crisis are not addressed quickly.
Christopher Sabatini is a lecturer at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, executive director of Global Americans and senior fellow for Latin America at Chatham House in London. Victoria Gaytan is program manager at Global Americans.