Colombia’s government plans to deploy an ambitious program to forcefully eradicate illicit crops, raising fears that a crop substitution program, which has been limping along since its creation following the country’s 2016 peace agreement, will be lost.
With over 100,000 families already signed up, the National Comprehensive Program for the Substitution of Illicit Crops (Programa Nacional Integral de Sustitución de Cultivos de Uso Ilícito – PNIS) was one of the key anti-narcotic strategies produced by the peace talks between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC).
Now facing a crisis about the implementation of the PNIS, the Colombian government under recently elected President Iván Duque has unveiled its new coca eradication plan. The plan bumps its annual goal of eradicated land up to 100,000 hectares, an increase of 43 percent. But most of that will be accomplished via forced eradication rather than substitution, worrying proponents of the PNIS and similar programs.
Data published in mid-2018 indicated that about 200,000 hectares of Colombian land was being used for coca farming. The figure reached its peak during the Santos administration following a marked downward trend since 2007.
The country’s illicit crop eradication process involves a combination of two strategies: forced eradication and voluntary substitution. Under the new policy, the government plans to eradicate 80,000 hectares of its 100,000-hectare goal via the army and antinarcotics police and the remaining 20,000 through substitution programs, mainly the PNIS.
In addition to providing financial assistance of just over $600 every two months to registered families, the PNIS provides programming that targets issues such as food security, social infrastructure development (health, electricity, internet connectivity) and protected land conservation.
According to a United Nations report, as of December 2018, more than 100,000 families had signed up for the substitution program. Ninety percent of them complied with removing their illicit crops, and at least 32,000 hectares of coca had been eradicated.
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Despite these successes, shortly after Duque took office in August 2018, payments to the families enrolled in the PNIS were suspended, in some cases for up to four months.
An important part of Duque’s campaign platform was to alter the peace agreement reached between the now-demobilized FARC and the Santos government. Colombian voters rejected the original agreement in a plebiscite, but Congress subsequently ratified a revised version, and Santos issued several presidential decrees in order to implement as much of it as possible.
The crop substitution process has been popular. In August 2018, a group of Colombian agricultural organizations issued a public letter to Duque, asking him to maintain the voluntary substitution programs that had been agreed upon and implemented. The group, led by the National Coordinator of Coca, Poppy and Marijuana Farmers (Coordinadora Nacional de Cultivadores de Coca, Amapola y Marihuana – COCCAM), released the letter in response to announcements from Duque’s new defense minister that eradication efforts would be compulsory and that the government might restore the use of glyphosate. The Santos administration suspended its use of the controversial herbicide due to its potential ineffectiveness and risk to human health.
Since he came into office, the Colombian government under Duque has almost doubled the daily number of hectares eradicated and -- when including substituted crops -- surpassed the previous administration’s goal of eradicating 65,000 hectares.
Del 1 de enero al 7 de agosto se habian erradicado 29.754 hectáreas con un promedio 136 hectáreas por día. En este gobierno se han erradicado 30.262 con un promedio de 211. Hemos superado la meta anual en un 20% llegando a 60 mil hectáreas, gracias a la nueva estrategia. pic.twitter.com/zJSUMEL3UH
— Guillermo Botero (@GuillermoBotero) December 27, 2018
In his 2019 national budget, Duque announced a cut of around $140 million to the development funding established in the peace accords, which includes institutions such as the Rural Development Agency and the Territorial Renovation Agency (Agencia de Renovación del Territorio – ART). At the same time, the Duque government announced a 53 percent increase in defense spending.
Amid these proposed cuts, it is estimated that, over the next 15 years, the cost of implementing the country’s peace agreement with the FARC could amount to approximately $40 billion. Implementing the PNIS alone could reach $1.3 billion.
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As Duque and some of his top officials have pointed out, his administration inherited a fragile and complex peace agreement implementation process, both institutionally and financially. However, the apparent unwillingness of the new government to implement the illicit crop substitution programs agreed to in 2016 threatens to extinguish this struggling process instead of ensuring its effectiveness.
The few crop substitution programs that have gotten off the ground have only made slow and rocky progress. And in addition to security forces being sent in to forcefully eradicate crops that rural families would have voluntarily substituted, community leaders told Congress at a public hearing in December of the government’s recurrent failure to provide them with the required financial and technical assistance.
Compounding this climate of instability is a spike in assassinations targeting community and social leaders who support the very voluntary substitution initiatives currently at risk. In October 2018, the homicide rate in areas where families voluntarily eradicated their crops almost doubled year-on-year.
The failure to implement programs like the PNIS does not just push families to return to planting coca to survive. The continued lack of support and infrastructure has also been reflected in growing violence and local residents becoming more vulnerable, not only to recruitment by criminal actors but also confrontations and attacks, which is only exacerbated by increased military actions like forced eradication.
Residents in some parts of the country have already reported being pressured to go back to growing coca by criminal groups like FARC dissidents in Guaviare state.
During a special security council meeting conducted in January, the mayor of Tibú -- the municipality with the second highest number of hectares used for coca farming in Colombia -- addressed President Duque, who headed the meeting.
“Some people are worried about the fact that the PNIS is being interrupted. We know that forced eradication is a topic on the agenda ... but we hope that it will not occur without first exhausting all the substitution procedures we have.”
He added that “there is fear of a resurgence of the conflict in the territory.”
But the confidence of local communities most affected by the conflict is not the only thing the current government risks losing.
As a return to the harsher policies of the past looms over Colombia, the international community, the business sector, and civil society may also reexamine their willingness to continue investing in the country’s seemingly inconsistent crop eradication process.