Colombian Coca and Poppy Production Up Last Year Despite Heightened Drug War, Market Crash Ahead?

According to a report in the Colombian newsweekly Cambio, coca and poppy production in Colombia expanded by 60% last year, from 103,000 hectares at the end of 1999 to 162,000 hectares at the end of 2000. The net number of new hectares put into production almost exactly equaled the number of hectares fumigated by herbicides.

The findings were based on satellite photos provided by a French company under contract to the United Nations Drug Control Program and the Colombian government. Cambio quoted UN and Colombian anti-drug officials as saying that Colombian coca production alone last year nearly equaled the previous totals for the entire Andean region.

In a lengthy article titled "The Great Failure," the magazine wrote that growth in production despite a decade of eradication efforts is evidence of a "profound failure of anti-drug repression based on aerial fumigation that raises serious questions about the future of the strategy and Plan Colombia itself."

Plan Colombia, the Barry McCaffrey-authored and US-backed effort to destroy Colombian drug production, has only accelerated the fumigation of coca crops, with much airborne spraying and increased political violence, but without much impact on the overall coca crop.

"This is incredible and disheartening," a high official of the Colombian government told Cambio, "since the growth of 59,000 hectares is almost identical to the area fumigated, which was 58,200. It is as if fumigation not only did not work to eradicate coca cultivation, but to the contrary, multiplied it. The news is a true disaster and proof that we are going down the wrong path."

For General Gustavo Socha, head of the Colombian anti-drug police, the lack of alternative development opportunities for coca growing peasants was key. Otherwise, he said, peasants simply reverted to coca. "The problem is that to fumigate is not necessarily to be done with the cultivation, since it will begin again a few months later if we do not offer some alternative to the peasants, if we do not intervene in an integral manner."

The Colombian state has not managed to do so in vast swathes of the country where the state barely exists or where armed rebels hold sway. For many peasants, the first interaction with the national government is the arrival of troops and planes to destroy their crops.

Peasants are also adaptable, one unnamed alternative development functionary told the magazine. "I have seen peasants who sow a plainly visible hectare of coca to be the one the authorities fumigate, and nearby they sow other small plots that add up to another hectare or more," he said, adding that "they have learned to break up the plots to break up the risk."

The magazine examined underlying factors behind the explosion in coca production and, while paying lip service to the crisis in Colombian agriculture in the 1990s, pointed to "two central factors. First, the successful interdiction policy in Peru. And second, the fact that in Colombia there are illegal armed groups with the capacity to lend protection to the growing, processing, and exportation of this illicit product."

While market forces and armed actors may prove insuperable obstacles to coca eradication, the market itself could paradoxically be the solution, according to Colombian drug analyst Francisco Thoumi. He told Cambio that the combination of continued high coca production and declining levels of use in the US and Europe could lead to a market crash.

With production increasing in Colombia and indications that both Peruvian and Bolivian coca production are beginning to increase again, as well as reports of significant new sowings in Brazil, the global cocaine industry is on the verge of a crisis of overproduction, Thoumi said.

Finally, the magazine noted, "the great irony is that if the fumigation had been successful... Colombia would have lost half of its production capacity and the world 35%. With that, it is very likely that the market would have readjusted itself, and supply and demand would have remained balanced. The prices would have increased at the same time as profits for the intermediaries. That is to say, if Colombia had achieved its eradication goals in 2000, it would have done a grand favor to the narcotraffickers by ordering the market.

"This is only of the many absurdities that is derived from the manner in which the governments of the word, and especially that of the United States, have conceived the struggle against drugs," concluded Cambio, which expects more of the same. It noted that drug czar-to-be John Walters "talked of fighting the drug trade 'at the source,' which makes it foreseeable that for Colombia, in spite of the proven failure, the recipe will continue being the same."