In an attempt to stimulate Colombia’s coca farmers to abandon illicit crops, the United Nations has set up a system to buy and sell products from farmers taking part in crop substitution programs.
In spite of years-long efforts, Colombia remains one of the world’s top producers of cocaine. In its bid to change that, the UN has gone to the source: the coca farmers.
In recent years the UN has focused on alternative development, setting up initiatives to encourage farmers to make the switch from illicit crops to legal ones.
To support that initiative, the UN will start making the products of alternative development available for purchase from vending machines in its office in Bogota.
A post-coca farmers’ market will also be held there once a month.
The products will include organic coffee and chocolate drinks, as well as chocolate bars, sweets, honey and spices, all produced by farmers who used to grow coca.
For decades Colombia has been at the heart of the international drug trade, in part because FARC rebels had to turn to narco-trafficking to sustain their military campaigns. However, with a peace treaty seemingly on the horizon, there is a unique opportunity to implement and sustain alternative development.
Bo Mathiasen, of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, said “we are therefore confident that with concrete actions such as making products available in vending machines, we support the work of thousands of farmers who have abandoned illicit crops and thus, in a way, contribute to peace building.”
However, without consumer support, the change is unlikely to last.
This is a small first step from the UN, but it may set a precedent for an effective marketing strategy. If Colombians are made aware that products are the result of alternative development, their support could make all the difference.
Fairtrade products are a case and point: they belong to a label which has seen huge success by appealing to the consumer on ethical grounds. In the space of ten years the brand has gone from being relatively unknown to making €3.4 billion of yearly sales.
However, the UN will need a new name and some brand savviness to make this happen. ‘Alternative development’ does not exactly get the blood up.
Plans are underway to expand the initiative into other UN offices in Colombia, as well as into Colombian state agencies. But they need to think bigger: with the right branding, this may be able to transcend government agencies and enter the private sector.
If the pull of consumer demand can be combined with the push of UN initiatives, there is a chance that alternative development could be a Colombian success story. However, as a strategy it requires strong and long-term political will at both central and local government levels. So the UN will be hoping for lasting peace between the government and FARC rebels if it is to truly loosen the grip of narco-trafficking on rural Colombia.