A group of farmers in Paraguay announced they might return to marijuana cultivation, revealing the limits and challenges that crop substitution programs are facing throughout the region.
On October 1, members of the Farmers Committee Association (Asociación de Comités de Productores) in Kamba Rembe, a town in Paraguay’s southern San Pedro department, announced that they might return to marijuana farming. The announcement came after the Paraguayan government allegedly failed to comply with a series of marijuana crop substitution assistance projects, reported Última Hora.
Daniel Romero, an association leader, said that “the situation has become untenable. Families are going hungry. They have nothing left to eat, and many unfortunately decided to go back to growing marijuana if we don’t have an answer from the authorities this week.”
SEE ALSO: Coverage of Paraguay
Paraguay is currently the main marijuana producer in the Southern Cone region of South America, primarily feeding markets in Argentina, Brazil and Chile. Most of the nearly 5,000 hectares of marijuana farms in the country are concentrated in or near Kamba Rembe, with others located in the departments of Amambay, Concepción and Canindeyú, according to the country’s National Anti-Drug Secretariat (Secretaría Nacional Antidrogas – SENAD).
Kamba Rembe dominated both headlines and the attention of former President Horacio Cartes’ administration in 2015, when its residents protested in favor of marijuana cultivation as a response to the government’s supposed absence from the area. The demonstration resulted in the announcement of a series of programs to replace marijuana with sesame crops.
The government of recently elected President Mario Abdó has also indicated that it must “offer alternatives to the residents of the area in such a way that they stop farming drugs and start doing legal work.” The Abdó administration also promised to implement Agriculture Ministry programs to mechanize small-scale farming for sesame cultivation in the area.
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The farmers’ announcement of their likely return to marijuana cultivation as a result of the government’s alleged failure reveals the flaws in imposing legal crops that might not be economically viable.
According to Kamba Rembe farmers, cultivating sesame, as proposed by the government, would not help them generate enough income to survive. One kilogram of marijuana sells for up to $30, at least thirty times more than a kilogram of sesame or manioc, another crop commonly grown in the area, according to an investigation by the newspaper La Nación. Nearly 80 percent of the 4,500 farmers in Kamba Rembe cultivate marijuana.
Meanwhile, the Paraguayan government eradicated nearly 2,500 hectares of marijuana crops in 2017, a new record. But that only constitutes half of the land devoted to farming the illicit crop, a sign that this strategy may not be at a functional level either.
However, drug raids are on the rise with a recent highlight being the June seizure of nearly 14 metric tons of marijuana in San Pedro, the same department where Kamba Rembe is located. Authorities have linked the seized shipment to an individual who was arrested just a few kilometers from the town.
SEE ALSO: Coverage of Drug Policy
Paraguay is not alone in facing criticism regarding its crop substitution policies.
Colombia is perhaps the region’s clearest example of a country battling increasing coca cultivation. Its government has also been accused of noncompliance with illicit crop substitution programs, which was one of the items set out in the historic peace agreement signed with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia - FARC) in 2016.
While the Colombian government has made efforts to implement its crop substitution programs, they have not gone far enough, and the programs have still not reached many illicit crop farmers. InSight Crime field research has shown that this directly increases the risk of expanding illegal crop cultivation. Add to this the government’s continued policies of aggressive eradication that include the use of glyphosate, which has incited social protest and damaged the local communities’ confidence that the state is complying with the alternative strategies it agreed to.
Ironically, the push behind both the repression and substitution initiatives did not prevent Colombia from registering record levels of coca crops in 2017.
In some of the poorest and most remote regions in Latin America, small-scale, local farmers may inevitably see the cultivation of illegal crops as an activity that will bring them high returns despite the risk of facing authorities, a risk that only diminishes with a lack of state presence.