Repeated blockades by coca farmers in Colombia are stopping state agents from eradicating their crops, in a reminder of the challenges the authorities face in implementing the eradication and substitution plan developed during peace talks with the FARC guerrillas.
So far in 2016, manual coca eradicators have come up against close to 400 blockades by coca farmers, El Tiempo reported. The main departments affected are Nariño, Putumayo, Cauca, Caquetá and Guaviare -- which have been prioritized by the government's eradication campaign due to their high levels of coca cultivation.
The figures represent a sharp uptick on previous years; in 2015, authorities were confronted with 163 blockades, while in 2014 they faced 114, the newspaper reported. The number of blockades registered by eradication groups verified by the United National Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) -- which do not include all government oeprations -- were slightly lower for 2015 (see table below).
In Tumaco, the southwestern municipality selected for a test run for the coca eradication and substitution program developed as part of peace talks with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia - FARC), it has been weeks since government eradicators were last able to operate, according to El Tiempo.
The most violent of these confrontations took place on August 16, when 70 farmers armed with rudimentary weapons clashed with antinarcotics agents preparing to eradicate crops in Tablón de Gómez municipality, Nariño, according to El Tiempo. One farmer was killed and nine officials were injured, the news outlet reported.
SEE ALSO: Coverage of Coca
Armed groups have encouraged these protests in certain parts of the country, according to El Tiempo, which reported that last week the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional - ELN) and the Urabeños criminal organization summoned coca farmers in a rural area of Cauca to a meeting and called on them to oppose eradication efforts.
The government claims such groups are behind the wave of protests across the country.
Drug traffickers "disguise themselves, infiltrate social protests and show the media that this is a legitimate farmers' protest, when we all know that illegal cultivations, in the majority of cases, are a form of slavery," El Tiempo reported Defense Minister Luis Carlos Villegas as saying. Villegas said that hindering eradication was a priority for drug traffickers, along with obstructing coca crop substitution programs and the destruction of laboratories.
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Coca farmers -- the first rung in the international cocaine trade -- have been a key factor behind Colombia's vertiginous surge in cocaine production over the past two years. According to the UNODC's coca cultivation report for 2015, the country's near 40 percent rise in coca cultivations was partly due to farmers' protests weakening the government's eradication campaign.
Colombia's eradication efforts have been more vulnerable to such protests since the government suspended its controversial aerial coca eradication operations in May 2015, leaving it entirely reliant on manual eradication, which is easily halted by blockades and protests.
The government's claims that organized crime and armed groups are behind these farmers' protests likely have some validity, as criminal networks will seek to protect their drug trade interests. However, to dismiss farmers as "slaves" of drug trafficking who are being forced to protest by their criminal overlords undermines the farmers' legitimate concerns that their livelihoods are being removed and not replaced. To be successful, any eradication and substitution program will require the cooperation of coca farmers rather than their stigmatization.
This is a key point of the agreement struck between the FARC and the government, who now stand on the brink of a historic final peace deal. The fact that one of the pilot schemes resulting from this agreement already appears to be meeting stiff resistance in the field is of serious concern and adds weight to doubts over claims that coca cultivation is set to decrease once FARC fighters exit the conflict and collaborate in state crop substitution projects.
SEE ALSO: Coverage of FARC Peace
There is evidence that other criminal organizations are preparing to take control of the FARC's illegal economies, which includes overseeing around 70 percent of Colombia's coca crops. These groups may even offer farmers higher prices to encourage them to stick with coca. Until now, the FARC have kept the price of coca base -- an intermediate product between coca leaf and cocaine powder -- artificially low.
Unless the authorities can convince farmers that they offer a viable and sustainable economic alternative and can provide some semblance of security, growers will continue to be attracted by the high, largely stable price of coca compared to alternative crops. If this is the case, eradication efforts will continue to face resistance, substitution programs will struggle to make progress and Colombia may miss out on a golden opportunity to tackle the cocaine trade at the source.