Dying defending life III

Illicit crops: A story of resistance, repression, and oblivion

By Angélica Castro

July 26th, 2021

The historical approach of the Colombian state in the fight against drugs has been characterized by actions such as forced eradication, repression and stigmatization of growers and cultivation areas. These actions go against what was agreed in point 4 of the Peace Agreement in 2016, which seeks the participation and consultation of the population involved with illicit crops.


I am writing about “historical”, not because I personally see it that way, but because the Colombian government's decisions to solve the drug problem in Colombia began in the 1970s. Although it is difficult to calculate a date, in 1972 the famous "war on drugs" program of former U.S. President Richard Nixon was formulated in the United States. The program brought to the anti-drug policy an internationalist and prohibitionist vision. In it can be identified the strengthening of repressive actions in the exercise of eradication, interdiction and imprisonment of those who produce, distribute and consume substances declared illicit (for the time the focus was on marijuana), strengthening military spending not only in the United States but also in Latin America 1.

By the time Nixon promulgated his anti-drug policy around the world, guerrilla groups such as the FARC-EP, the ELN, the EPL and the M-19 had already emerged in Colombia around 1970 and Coca was carpeting the prairies and mountains in the south of the country 2, events that made this policy take on a counterinsurgency tinge in Colombia.




Our history of conflict has not been a coincidence, far from it. Social inequality in Colombia has been the cause of our endless conflict. The appearance and increase of illicit crops does not respond to the so famous effective absence or not of the State, but to the convenient presence of the State (which is present to the political interests of a few), as well as to the minimal access to goods and services, the almost null inclusion of peasant, indigenous and afro population, the weak accompaniment and guarantee towards a legal economy, adding the high social vulnerability and the lack of control of corruption by the government.


A peasant family that grows coca, marijuana or poppy does not do it because they want to, on the contrary, they do it to survive in the face of the scourge of the bad quality of life on the countryside and often as the only option in the face of the structural racism they suffer with each government in power. Some cultivate such crops  because it is part of their worldview, as in the case of indigenous peoples.


More than 60 years of uninterrupted forms of violence affecting mainly the rural population, including arbitrary detentions, extermination of peasant communities, and stigmatization of their inhabitants have not been enough to meet the needs of peasants, indigenous people and Afro-Colombians in the regions. There  coca crops are still grown and the  demands of the people have always been the same.


The peasant and indigenous coca growers' movement has demonstrated on numerous occasions including the protests of Doncello in 1976, the civic strike of 1977, the forum in Pará in 1989, or the massive coca growers' protest of 1996. The demonstrations all share the need to agree on an integral rural development plan where the effective participation of the communities is recognized as a vital foundation. But, unfortunately, to date no coca growers' demonstration has been attended to by the state. There is already a 4th and in many cases a 5th generation of peasants, indigenous and Afro-Colombians dedicated to the cultivation of coca and the transformation of the leaf. They continue to demand: access to roads, agricultural assistance, education for children and youth, health and better prices for their crops 3,4.

"In these areas, the only profitable crop is still the coca plant due to the lack of infrastructure to grow and sell other products (e.g. access to roads, agricultural inputs, and internet), and the pressure by illegal groups on peasants and indigenous people to grow this plant, necessary to maintain the lucrative cocaine business." Iván Beltrán mentions in his article Agriculture and territory. 

If these demands are not met, coca will continue to represent more than a plate of food for peasant families, it will continue to be a hope in the midst of poverty, providing financial opportunities for them and their children. Also, for many it is a symbol of resistance.


After almost 50 years of the presence of illicit crops in the country, there is still a lack of basic road structures, schools, universities, or technical assistance for the countryside. Additionally, there are still no policies and strategies to safeguard national agricultural production through fair prices, access to markets and prioritization of national products, which also includes the alternatives for control and management of illicit crops proposed by the indigenous community, as mentioned in the so urgent Integral Rural Reform. 

This endless list of problems is costing us the lives of environmental activists, coca growers, forest protectors and solidarity-based economies that oppose deforestation, mining, extensive cattle ranching, the water business, etc.

The historical and recent areas where illicit crops are present are also the most dangerous areas for social and environmental activism. For the year 2020, according to the United Nations report, the areas with the highest concentration of crops are Córdoba, Antioquia, Bolívar and Chocó. Cross-referencing this data with the analysis made in the first installment of this series of articles, a total of 22 environmental activists were killed in the aforementioned areas.

For decades we have been investing large sums of money, millions of dollars in military force, without caring how many millions of civilian and military lives it may cost us, convinced that the only way to end illicit crops is at the point of bullets, repression, and stigmatization.  

Colombia is a country where signs of alarm, such as the coca boom of 1970 in the south of the country, were never paid attention to. At this time the country had the largest amount of illicit crops to date 5 and a few years later the population plunged into poverty. It was the beginning of an endless bloodbath caused by guerrillas and drug traffickers 6, who disputed the control of the drug trafficking business, also taking with them the lives of social leaders, students, peasants, teachers and causing forced displacements.

Glyphosate rain

The country was falling apart, and the cartels not only took control - as they do today - of drug production, but also had a political presence in the regions where coca cultivation and cattle ranching are the main economic activity. Faced with such a panorama, not only nationally but also internationally, the government found no better way than to give in to international pressure, thus beginning to try to control the expansion of illicit crops in two historical periods of fumigation shown in the image below.

Own creation. Mamacoca data.

The first stage of spraying was with the herbicide Paraquat. This spraying was questioned by the National Institute of Natural Resources because of its toxic effects on water sources and human and animal health.  

The second stage has been with Glyphosate and although there are more than 30 studies, such as the one by Mejía and Camacho where harmful effects on human health are detailed, such as: reduction of the duration of pregnancy, probability of suffering skin conditions, respiratory problems such as lung cancer, poisoning, destruction of red blood cells, gastrointestinal erosion, kidney damage, lower production of testicular sperm, malformations in fetuses and anencephaly. Besides, there is a possible relationship with Parkinson's disease, Alzheimer's disease, and other diseases related to mental health and the already confirmed harmful effects on animals and the ecosystem.

During the government of Juan M. Santos in 2014, before the signing of the peace agreement, the Council of State in a ruling on national parks, asked the government to apply the precautionary principle in case a risk to communities from glyphosate was detected. The following year, recommendations to suspend spraying with glyphosate were considered after warning of the carcinogenic effects of the herbicide. Now, under the mandate of president Iván Duque, it is proposed through a controversial decree to resume the use of glyphosate, under the discourse that regulates its use as "necessary", ignoring all the scientific research on its harmful effects and its low efficiency in the control of illicit crops. 

The cost of a failed policy

Although numerous studies demonstrate the consequences of the use of glyphosate, its efficiency is also questioned, as well as the efficiency of all forms of eradication that have been used to date. According to the analysis presented by InSightCrime, although fumigation may mean the reduction of coca crops planted, the dynamics of cocaine production increase, as well as the replanting of crops. Let us consider a historical example: Plan Colombia 7, which had serious consequences for the social sector and a failed fight against drugs and drug trafficking. Military investment absorbed all social investment, as shown in the following graph, triggering the permanent debt that the State has with the country's peasants and keeping us as the largest coca producer in the world

In terms of forced eradication, it is estimated that up to 2013 the total investment in glyphosate was US$1.5 billion.

Although it is now almost an absolute truth that forced eradication is more costly than peaceful means, as Daniel Rico pointed out in his column, it is not easy to estimate the cost and its calculation remains a mystery. There are also doubts and questions about the self-reporting of forcibly eradicated hectares, as well as the statistics on replanting. This includes the current PNIS (National Integral Plan for the Substitution of Illicit Crops), which refers to lots reported by benefited families, but not to surrounding areas of families that did not enter the program.

Under this warlike logic, a three-actor recital is inscribed: the first, the illegal armed groups that dispute to this day the control of land, coca leaf cultivation and processing; second, fumigation as an eradication policy that has generated great costs in terms of human displacement, remembering that Colombia is one of the countries with the highest internal displacement in the world and CODHES estimates that the number of families that had to be displaced due to the effects of fumigation between 1999 and 2003 was 185 thousand 8; and third, the military forces as operators of the forced eradication programs.

It has been more than demonstrated that the anti-drug policy is nothing more than a wide and varied panoply of counterinsurgency warfare artifices and actions against the civilian population that has been designed with the sole objective of reducing at all costs the cultivation of coca, as well as the cultivation of crops by peasants, whose right to life and land has been delegitimized by these actions.

Who are the coca farmers?

In the thousands of hectares of coca fields in the country, peasants live in precarious conditions, not only because they are "cocaleros", because this situation of poverty coincides with the situation of thousands of peasant families in Colombia. Children, young people and the elderly live in the illicit crop zones. We have been led to believe that the farmer who grows coca receives exuberant payments for it, but recently COCCAM affirmed that the payment for the coca leaf is just as insufficient as any other agricultural crop, since paradoxically and sadly the farmers until recently never calculated the labor for the harvesting of the leaf. The difference with a traditional agricultural crop is that the criminal groups collect the leaves on the farm and take care of its sale.

The panorama of poverty and neglect is as old as our history itself. In the 1960s, colonist families opted to grow coca in the south of the country. Today, these growers are exposing their lives defending their territories because they are threatened by the modern expansion of the agricultural frontier, “mining and energy locomotives”, the presence of armed actors eager to control the markets for these activities, as well as by the bureaucratic and confusing land-use regulations regarding land tenure and ownership and eradication programs. 

Photo by Agencia Prensa Rural

As a result of all these dynamics, there is a peasantry without land ownership and without the possibility of formalization, because they are located in areas of special protection (natural parks and indigenous reserves, among others). Although they have protection, we must add two more problems, first, the increasing deforestation as shown by data from the Monitoring Project of the Amazonian Andes (MAAP) 9, between 2018 and 2019 this territory lost 2,200 hectares of forest. It is the third most deforested protected area in the country, after the Tinigua and Serranía de La Macarena national parks, both located in the transition from the Andes to the Amazon, and second, the innovative businesses that seek to profit from natural forests.

Peasants, indigenous and Afro-Colombians continue to be the most vulnerable link in the country's economy, as well as the first link in the cocaine production chain.

The following are testimonies from different time periods of two coca leaf growing families. Although their stories are almost 21 years apart, their situation has not changed for the better.

Interview with Juana year 2000


"Think about the stigmatization that was so fierce during the time of the coca growers' marches, now that the venom was used without mercy.

It was a critical moment, when the fumigations were carried out, militarization increased and the army planes came and bombed. And of course there were displacements because of this way of fighting against a bush that really was not even to blame, and neither were the peasants, because, with the militarization of many zones, everyone in the township and where coca was grown was considered a 'collaborator of the guerrilla" 10.

Interview with Berta year 2021


While a group of neighbors was camping day and night next to several coca fields to prevent the army from uprooting them, the military operatives returned in February of this year, with the objective of eradicating the plants (...) It is devastating. No one comes to this place anymore, neither the government, nor the prosecutor, nor the PNIS. The only actor that came here from the government was the army, and they came to destroy the people's food and the people. They came, killed the boy, left and never came back. They also forgot us." 11 

The task and greatest challenge for the Colombian state derives from the reality of competing with the guarantees that illegality has unfortunately given to the coca growers. The government should begin with the construction of roads to deep areas of the country, so that the peasants can easily carry their products and obtain agricultural supplies, as well as guaranteeing forms of dignified and fair trade that protect national agricultural production and, finally, provide goods and services to the peasant communities that inhabit these areas. Also, there is also a need to make more progress and with better studies, to take into account the victims' accounts, to strengthen the tools for monitoring the effects on health and the environment, and to establish strategies for the identification, prevention and mitigation of risks related to glyphosate spraying.

Undoubtedly it seems a titanic task, and taking into account the regrettable intentions of the current government to resume this harmful practice, a prompt social investment should be considered. If we think again about the costs of eradication, surely there will be economic resources to alleviate this problem, which is nothing more than social abandonment and the strong economic depression that led to the fact that coca is today deeply attached to our economy.

The government must not forget that the lives of hundreds of families who made the commitment to eradicate illicit crops and move towards a legal economy are at stake. Supporting substitution, as well as respecting coca crops that are for medicinal use, or that under the ancestral indigenous cosmovision should remain, requires a clear message and political stance that backs and supports the communities.


Peace in debt

Although this opinion piece, which gathers different reports on the subject, seeks for you as a reader to recognize key points in the dynamics surrounding illicit crops. It also contributes a small amount of historical memory to recognize the value of the stories, the experiences of those who are working in the fields, the narrative of the people who have experienced the fumigations on the territory, and even on their own bodies.

In 2017, the Illicit Crop Substitution Program (PNIS) was launched, a program that has proven to be more economical and sustainable12 compared to other forms of eradication. The PNIS is the central mechanism of point four of the Havana Accords. Although the program represents an opportunity to build peace, it has also had many political obstacles, which have produced endless delays in the program. Hundreds of families have been left out of the program and others have received neither benefits nor payments. It is also evident the problem of the PNIS in its elaboration, since it is not articulated with the Integral Rural Reform (reform that is part of the Peace Agreement), which seeks the transformation of the territory through the provision of goods and services. There is a risk of coca replanting in areas where the substitution of illicit crops has taken important steps, as the lack of supply of goods and services from the state leads farmers to grow illicit crops once again.

The program has also been affected by the resumption of fumigations in the Duque administration. In Tumaco, for example, there were people growing rice, cocoa, coffee, bananas, among other crops that were affected by the glyphosate spraying. Many cocoa trees died, rice did not grow, therefore, there were no products to sell and technical assistance did not arrive.


What does seem to be increasing is the arrival of multinationals that threaten national parks and protected areas. Multinationals that have, for example, strong links with drug cartels in Mexico, with holdings that manage mining and agro-industrial companies, or with deforestation and territorial control.

Insecurity has also been a critical point in the program, as the farmers who seek to replace their crop are threatened by the entire criminal drug chain and are caught in the middle of disputes for control of the drug between different criminal organizations, FARC dissidents and the ELN.

Between the period following the signing of the peace agreement in 2016 until 2020, 75 illicit crop substitution leaders have been killed.

The current crisis during the Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated the situation. It has not only generated deaths due to contagion, but has also generated scenarios for the social gap to increase. For example, in rural areas, poverty has worsened and hunger has increased; the quarantine was also used to carry out forced eradication, where peasants were injured and killed 13.

"A tense atmosphere has been generated that represents a clear threat to the peasantry, taking into account that in 2017 a collective agreement was signed to voluntarily and concertedly replace crops," reads a statement from Ascamcat 14

Truth, justice, reparation and guarantee of non-repetition, as mentioned in the Peace Agreement.


In view of this irregular panorama, it is necessary to maintain a constant dialogue with the families and communities involved in voluntary substitution. Policies in favor of the peasantry are required in areas where the PNIS is being implemented and where it has not yet arrived, as well as in all rural areas to avoid repetition. The state must also guarantee the security of the population, it must create tools such as Development Programs with a Territorial Approach that stimulate the development of legal economies, as well as programs with the full participation of peasant, indigenous and Afro communities.

We need programs for coca crops, where the murder, harassment, stigmatization and impoverishment of peasants, indigenous and Afro-descendants is renounced. Programs that also include the recovery of the land, the protection of water, moorlands and other ecosystems, as well as the protection of animals that have been harmed by fumigation. Because until now the eradication of coca has also been the eradication of the lives of our peasants and of the land.

This is a small and short tribute to each one of the peasants, indigenous and Afro-Colombians, coca growers and non-coca growers who expose their lives day by day and who today work for a tomorrow for all, so that they can be heard and recognized by the international community.


  1. Payan, Tony (2013). A War that Can't Be Won. Tucson, AZ: The University of Arizona Press.
  2. Entrevista a Pedro realizada en El Doncello el 20 de agosto de 2019. Cruz Olivera, L., Pérez, A. M. M., & Sabogal, C. C. (2020). El daño que nos hacen: glifosato y guerra en Caquetá ejercicio de memoria histórica sobre el territorio caqueteño en medio de la guerra contra las drogas.
  3. Mediante el Decreto 124 de 1955 fue creado el Fondo Ganadero del Caquetá S. A. y tanto la Caja Agraria como el Incora promocionan respectivamente esta actividad, con la que evidentemente se acapararon numerosas extensiones de tierra.
  4. En julio de 1972 se dio la toma de Florencia por parte de más de 10.000 pequeños colonos. Se trataba de un enfrentamiento directo contra el Estado y sus instituciones. En 1977 se realizó el Paro Cívico de Florencia, respaldado por toda la población y los gremios políticos y económicos
  5. Asociación Nacional de Instituciones Financieras. Marihuana: Legislación o represión Bogotá. ANIF, 1979.
  6. Select Committee on Narcotics Abuse and Control “Fact Finding Mission to Colombia and Puerto Rico” https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/Digitization/63241NCJRS.pdf
  7. Tokatlian, J. (2001). El plan Colombia: ¿un modelo de intervención? Revista CIDOB D'Afers Internacionals, (54/55), 203-219. Retrieved July 23, 2021, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/40585879
  8. Ceballos, Marcela. Consultoría para los Derechos Humanos y el Desplazamiento. Plan Colombia: Contra productos y Crisis Humanitaria. Fumigaciones y desplazamiento en la frontera con Ecuador. Bogotá. Bogotá : s.n., octubre de 2003.
  9. Monitoring of the Andean Amazon Project. (2019). La deforestación continúa en la Amazonía colombiana. https://maaproject.org/2019/chiribiquete_2019_esp/
  10. El daño que nos hacen. Dejusticia, entrevista a Juana pág. 106.
  11. Con balas y a la brava- Pacifista
  12. - UNODC. 2020. Programa Nacional Integral de Sustitución de Cultivos Ilícitos – PNIS (informe n° 21). Disponible en https://www.unodc.org/documents/colombia/2020/ Mayo/INFORME_EJECUTIVO_PNIS_No._21.pdf

- Respuesta de la Dirección para la Sustitución de Cultivos Ilícitos a un derecho de petición de la Cámara de Representantes. Octubre de 2018.

  1. Comunicado oficial- ONIC Organización Nacional Indigena de Colombia https://twitter.com/ONIC_Colombia/status/1253141161486815236
  2. Comunicado oficial Ascamcat - Asociación Campesina del Catatumbo https://twitter.com/AscamcatOficia/status/1239603728707194885