A recent report on child labor in the municipality of Tumaco has shed light on why children and young people around Colombia find themselves cornered into participating in coca cultivation and production.
On October 13, El Espectador published a special report on precarious conditions at ten schools in the countryside around the village of El Tandil, Tumaco, in the southwestern department of Nariño. This has led to many children dropping out of school and going to work in the cultivation of coca crops.
According to the report, the schools are in such a poor condition that local residents have to pay out of their own pockets to restore the schools and pay the teachers to continue working there.
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However, the money being used to try and keep the schools open comes from the main economy in the area -- coca cultivation.
Despite community efforts, school dropout rates continue to rise, the article says. In 2016, 650 students attended the school. By 2019, the number of students had fallen to 288.
According to interviews conducted by the newspaper, school drop-outs usually end up harvesting coca leaves at plantations owned by relatives or neighbors.
Some locals also added that they preferred not to send their children to school, since violence in the area meant they could not guarantee their safety.
InSight Crime Analysis
What is happening in El Tandil reflects a national problem. Thousands of children around the country have become involved with drug trafficking operations run by criminal groups, due to state abandonment, a lack of institutional support, and the coca boom.
Child labor within the drug production chain, such as that seen in Nariño, also occurs in many other departments, particularly Cauca, Antioquia and Norte de Santander, where coca production thrives.
While there are no exact child labor statistics regarding this particular issue, at least six percent of all children under the age of 17 work in Colombia, according to the country’s National Administrative Department of Statistics (Departamento Administrativo Nacional de Estadística - DANE).
Remote areas like El Tandil suffer from a mixture of problems. Coca production thrives, in part because there are very few ways to access the community, driving up transportation costs and making it difficult to make the cultivation of legal agricultural products financially viable.
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Due to the lack of state presence, institutional support for children in these regions is also scant. This stems not only from a lack of educational resources, infrastructure and personnel, but also from an absence of security.
On top of this, Colombia produced record levels of cocaine in 2017 and 2018, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). And thousands of communities see coca cultivation as their only opportunity for economic survival.
InSight Crime fieldwork in Vichada and Norte de Santander has also confirmed that, for a number of these minors, gathering coca is only a first step. All too often, lured by the promise of a salary, food and lodging, or access to weapons, many then become closely associated with criminal groups and prone to physical, sexual and psychological abuse.