Colombia’s voluntary crop substitution program has seen almost 35,000 hectares of coca crops destroyed in just eight months, at a time when President Iván Duque is pushing for forced eradication, but this uncertainty risks having a severe human toll.

A new report by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) stated that investigators had verified the destruction of 34,767 hectares of coca plantation from May 2018 to January 2019. They also observed a compliance rate of 94 percent within the National Comprehensive Program for the Substitution of Illicit Crops (Programa Nacional Integral de Sustitución de Cultivos de Uso Ilícito – PNIS) across 14 Colombian departments.

SEE ALSO: Aggressive Coca Eradication Threatens Voluntary Substitution Efforts in Colombia 

This compliance level ran across the departments of Putumayo, Nariño, Caquetá, Antioquia, Meta, Guaviare, Córdoba, Cauca, Norte de Santander, Bolívar, Valle, Vichada, Arauca and Guainía.

However, Duque has cast doubt on the speed and efficiency of voluntary substitution, calling instead on an ambitious forced eradication program, targeting 280,000 hectares. A UNODC report from 2017 showed only around 171,000 hectares of coca crops were present in the entire country.

The president claims that more urgency is needed since coca production in Colombia is at an all-time high and that voluntary substitution has not done enough.

“The substitution programs will not lead to ignoring the legal obligation to eradicate illegal crops and the criminal nature of this practice,” read his defense and security plan presented in February.

But critics have warned that voluntary substitution programs have proven popular with farmers, providing them with income in exchange for compliance. While faster, they warn that forced eradication will lead to renewed social conflicts and a further weakening of the 2016 peace process with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC).

InSight Crime Analysis

 The real-life impact of the eradication versus substitution debate has not received enough attention.

The reality in rural areas is that coca production has been a means of survival. The FARC peace process and the move away from such production was not a mere economic argument, it involved a shift in lifestyle for hundreds of thousands of Colombians.

Voluntary substitution programs might be seeing high compliance rates to date but the government’s increasingly tough stance threatens to reverse the successes seen by the PNIS so far.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of FARC Peace Process

Some families report that they have not received payments owed to them as part of the PNIS, and other incentives to prevent the cultivation of coca have also been frozen, at least temporarily.

InSight Crime found that in the municipality of Santa Rosa del Sur, in Sur de Bolivar, that the first round of payments arrived as scheduled for PNIS participants in September 2018. However, the second installment was due in November but had not been paid out by the end of February. In the nearby municipality of Simití, residents reported that the first payment had never arrived.

The impact has been swift. In areas of Colombia where the presence of the state is scarce, this has led to a return to coca cultivation by families who depend on it. Rural farmers in Sur de Bolivar confirmed to InSight Crime that they pay soldiers off to not eradicate their coca crops or only destroy part of them, while registering the eradication as complete.

This reversal is all the more tragic as significant efforts had been made to get voluntary crop substitution efforts to where they are. Convincing families to sign up was a long, drawn-out process, often involving the implication of community leaders, who spoke up in defense of the government’s intentions and quelled doubts.

Impacts within these communities will be wide-ranging. Those same leaders, who vouched for the peace process, now face losing the trust placed in them, if not more severe reprisals.

Worse, armed groups may now seek retribution against those communities or residents who signed up to the crop substitution program and accepted government funds.

Another challenge is that these crop substitution efforts have not been rolled out in partnership with other efforts, such as Territory-Focused Development Programs (Programas de Desarrollo con Enfoque Territorial – PDET), which seek to promote the development of priority municipalities in the post-conflict environment. Leaving these programs isolated makes their ultimate success less likely and allows them to be progressively weakened.

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