Colombia’s security forces have had at least twenty-one major clashes with coca farmers in the past year amid claims the government is breaking agreements made with farmers through a new crop substitution program.
The clashes threaten the credibility of the United Nations-supported counter-narcotics strategy that seeks to drastically reduce coca cultivation through the voluntary substitution of coca plants, the base ingredient of cocaine, for legal plants such as cocoa, coffee, or banana.
This program was enshrined in a peace agreement with the country’s formerly largest rebel group, the FARC, in an attempt to end more than half a century of armed conflict.
At least four people have been killed in violence in the past year that has upset locals in all Colombia’s main coca growing regions.
In the majority of documented clashes between farmers and police, locals claimed they had already signed up with the crop substitution program when police or soldiers arrived to forcibly eradicate their crops.
We are deeply troubled by the reports of forced eradication and violent confrontations between eradicators and the local population, especially in areas where communities have already signed crop substitution agreements. These actions not only perpetuate violence and generate new conflicts, but also undermine the very spirit of the voluntary crop substitution agreements and confidence-building efforts with local communities that have long been neglected – potentially threatening the effective implementation of the Peace Accord.
Following a 2016 peace agreement with the FARC, the former guerrilla group that controlled most of the coca-growing territories, the government vowed to remove 100,000 hectares of coca of the 146,000 registered by the United Nations in 2016.
Half of the hectares would be eradicated forcibly while the other half would be voluntarily removed by communities signing up with a voluntary crop substitution program organized with the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).
According to the national substitution program, which launched in May with over 87,000 participating families, farmers are supposed to have 60 days to remove their coca plants if they sign a substitution agreement. Once they do, they’re eligible to receive ongoing monetary compensation and technical assistance for two years to help them plant alternative crops.
But in many places, anti-narcotics police seem to be eradicating coca without regard for agreements previously arranged between farmers and other government entities.
In Taraza, Antioquia, hundreds of families signed contracts in June agreeing to voluntarily remove their coca. Other families in the area said they wanted an extension until September 5, which the government granted.
But on August 22, anti-narcotics police arrived unannounced and began tearing up the coca plants of all families involved.
Over a thousand farmers gathered in the town to protest, during which two police officers were injured.
The protests only ended once community representatives negotiated an agreement with the police, on top of the one they already had with the national crop substitution program.
During a similar protest in Puerto Rico, Meta in July, hundreds of farmers gathered to protest forced eradication by police, which they claimed violated agreements already made with the crop substitution program. Five police officers were injured and one farmer was shot and injured by police during the protests.
Back in January, under mounting pressure from the United States, Colombia promised to forcibly remove 50,000 hectares of coca by the end of the year.
They also agreed that an additional 50,000 hectares would be removed by farmers through the new crop substitution program.
At the time, the national Coca, Marijuana and Poppy Growers Coordinator (COCCAM), which has organized many of the coca-related protests over the past year, predicted that forced eradication policies would generate social tension and protest among farmers.
“We are not going to block the imminent substitution efforts, nor are we saying that we want to perpetuate the illicit crops,” said Luz Perly Cordoba, a member of COCCAM, in January.
We don’t defend coca, marijuana, or poppies. We’re simply saying that these farmers plant those illicit crops because they have no other means to survive.
Luz Perly Cordoba
Now, nine months later, 105,000 families are technically enrolled in the ambitious crop substitution program, but only about 7,500 are actively substituting their coca. This amounts to 6,500 hectares of the 50,000 goal.
With continuing clashes between police and participants in the substitution program, it is becoming increasingly difficult for the government to encourage farmers to sign in for voluntary crop substitution.
In a clash between police and farmers in July in El Retorno, Guaviare, a group of coca farmers managed to capture a police officer and hold him hostage.
Abraham Bobadilla, a campesino leader in El Retorno, told the Alternative News Network at the time, “We have captured a police officer who we caught pulling up coca. We’re not going to let them pull up a single bush of coca until the government follows through with its promise and implements the substitution program.”
That conflict was only resolved once community members negotiated an agreement with the police, once again, on top of the agreements they already had with the crop substitution program.
One month later, in Tumaco, Nariño, police officers shot and injured a man while he was leaving his farm to tell other community members that police had arrived to pull up his coca.
Before he was shot, the man reportedly told the police he wished to participate in the crop substitution program. He also asked them not to destroy the coca as it was the only way his family could make enough money to survive.
No officials in Colombia seem to be publicly discussing the clashes between farmers and police as a widespread issue.
In the United States, the only public mention of the clashes was by Assistant Secretary of State William Brownfield, who in a August Senate hearing, stressed the importance of “overcoming the persistent social protests” because they “disrupt forced eradication operations.”