Crop substitution challenges in environmentally protected areas in Colombia

María Alejandra Vélez and María Juliana Rubiano-Lizarazo

In 2020, 48{83ecf5b61c3deac6f8cdad8e1c8bee36d10ac3107192903d905d6fe2d4e88cad} of illicit crops in Colombia were in special management zones (SMZ) or areas that are important for forest and biodiversity conservation: 20{83ecf5b61c3deac6f8cdad8e1c8bee36d10ac3107192903d905d6fe2d4e88cad} in forest reserves, 4{83ecf5b61c3deac6f8cdad8e1c8bee36d10ac3107192903d905d6fe2d4e88cad} in national protected areas, 8{83ecf5b61c3deac6f8cdad8e1c8bee36d10ac3107192903d905d6fe2d4e88cad} in indigenous reserves or resguardos, and 15.5{83ecf5b61c3deac6f8cdad8e1c8bee36d10ac3107192903d905d6fe2d4e88cad} in Afro-Colombian collective lands (UNODC, 2021).  Although academic literature has shown that coca crops are not the main direct driver of deforestation in Colombia (Erasso & Vélez, 2020; Brombacher, Garzón & Vélez, 2021), coca crops are expanding in strategic environmental and conservation areas. This is problematic for illicit crop substitution efforts. Yet the design and implementation of the government’s National Illicit Crops Substitution Programme (PNIS) has given little consideration to a differential approach, in ethnic or environmental terms.

PNIS implementation started in 2017, as part of the Peace Agreement between the Colombian State and former guerrilla FARC, but it was not until 2019-2020 that there were guidelines for implementation in national protected areas and forest reserves. These guidelines include recommendations on voluntary and collective conservation or restoration agreements; conservation incentives such as bi-monthly remuneration for agreed restoration and conservation activities; sustainable production systems; and technical assistance for capacity building.

The government has also recently developed guidelines to include ethnic communities in the programme, but these are subject to prior consultation and have not yet been implemented with former programme beneficiaries. As illustrated by our case studies in Putumayo and Guaviare, new guidelines incrementally increased mistrust and conflict as the PNIS did not consider or solve land-use overlap conflicts or land tenure disputes between communities with different ethnic backgrounds before agreements were signed.

Currently, 20{83ecf5b61c3deac6f8cdad8e1c8bee36d10ac3107192903d905d6fe2d4e88cad} of PNIS households are in SMZ – in national protected areas or forest reserves (7.2{83ecf5b61c3deac6f8cdad8e1c8bee36d10ac3107192903d905d6fe2d4e88cad}) and Afro-collective territories or indigenous reserves (13.6{83ecf5b61c3deac6f8cdad8e1c8bee36d10ac3107192903d905d6fe2d4e88cad}). However, in the latter case, these are not necessarily ethnic households, which creates tensions between communities. Beyond environmental concerns, PNIS households are also poor: 56{83ecf5b61c3deac6f8cdad8e1c8bee36d10ac3107192903d905d6fe2d4e88cad} of households in national protected areas and forest reserves, 51.1{83ecf5b61c3deac6f8cdad8e1c8bee36d10ac3107192903d905d6fe2d4e88cad} in Afro-collective territories, and 53.4{83ecf5b61c3deac6f8cdad8e1c8bee36d10ac3107192903d905d6fe2d4e88cad} in indigenous reserves live in multidimensional poverty. Hence, government interventions and PNIS need to consider not only environmental dimensions, but should also include productive alternatives designed to simultaneously conserve sensitive ecosystems and improve quality of life.

To explore these issues, we are studying the challenges of implementing the PNIS in indigenous or forest reserve areas in Putumayo and Guaviare in the south of Colombia (see Map 1), using social cartography workshops and semi-structured interviews.

Map 1. Putumayo and Guaviare – the sites of the research case studies

From this work we have identified three main challenges for the implementation of crop substitution programmes in SMZs.

Challenge #1: Mestizo peasant coca growers living inside indigenous reserves were suspended from PNIS without warning

In some cases, peasants signed crop substitution agreements, eradicated coca crops and received immediate food security payments, but before receiving the subsidy to implement a productive project, they were suspended from the PNIS because their plots of land were located within an indigenous reserve (see maps 2 and 3). In other cases, local indigenous authorities didn’t allow peasants living on their collective land to become involved with the programme. In either case, to remain in the programme and receive benefits, peasants had to rent a plot of land outside the indigenous reserve. Despite the costs of this (an average rent amounts to approximately 40{83ecf5b61c3deac6f8cdad8e1c8bee36d10ac3107192903d905d6fe2d4e88cad} of a minimum wage) some peasants rented new land, but even so, never received their payments for productive projects.

PNIS did not solve (or plan to solve) old land conflicts and tensions before signing crop substitution agreements, exacerbating both mistrust of the Colombian government and land use conflicts. In some cases, peasants claim that the delimitation of indigenous reserves and forest reserves did not consider the presence of diverse communities and land uses. In other cases, peasants do not recognize the presence of indigenous people in legally constituted indigenous reserves.

Map 2. Social cartography map. Guaviare from mestizo peasants’ perspectives

Map 3. Social cartography map. Putumayo from mestizo peasants’ perspectives

Challenge # 2:  Unexpected requirements to remain in the programme for peasants living inside Forest Reserves

Years after peasants signed voluntary agreements to become involved with the PNIS, new requirements to solve land use overlaps with conservation areas were developed.  For example, mestizo peasants living in forest reserves, are now required to comply with nature conservation agreements and sign land use rights. However, peasants found this unexpected change in the rules to be unacceptable, claiming that official delimitations of the forest reserve area are not clear (See map 2). With current regulations, peasants in Type A forest reserves (areas with restricted productive uses) must replace their usual activity of cattle ranching with conservation activities, while those living in Type B Forest reserves (areas with more flexible uses) must engage in agro-sustainable cattle ranching. In any other case, peasants need to rent land outside these protected areas. Current regulations also forbid the construction of roads and infrastructure development within forest reserve areas. According to the peasants, in these conditions, cattle ranching is one of the few economic alternatives to coca since no other productive activity is economically profitable with the current roads.

Challenge #3: Differential ethnic approach

Some ethnic communities enrolled in the PNIS have not received any of the benefits due to the absence of a differential ethnic approach. This is the case of Nukak indigenous groups in Guaviare. Forced into new sedentary livelihoods due to displacement by armed conflict and territorial disputes, they have adopted coca harvesting as their main livelihood activity. The implementation of PNIS with a differential approach requires prior consultation with indigenous communities, but it is unclear at what level this prior consultation should occur: settlement, ethnic group or ethnic associations. Other important obstacles – including language barriers, and varying political and social organization within each ethnic group – lead to many unanswered questions. Should substitution agreements be developed collectively or individually? How should technical assistance or productive projects be developed? For example, for Nasa communities in Putumayo, productive projects should be aligned with their own productive calendar and with organic and local seeds, and technical assistance must be provided by trained members of their community.

Future crop substitution programmes in SMZs

These challenges highlight the lack of a structural and comprehensive approach in the design of the PNIS. The initial focus was to eradicate coca and substitute it with another product but without solving underlying land use tensions.

The current substitution programme needs to recover the trust of former beneficiaries by implementing all the promised components. Further, environmental requirements need to be socialized with local communities.  In Putumayo and Guaviare, for example, conservation activities are not embedded in the culture of peasant coca growers. In their case, they signed voluntary agreements thinking that they would receive support for cattle ranching. As one peasant put it: “if we grow coca, it’s bad, and now if we work in cattle ranching, that is bad too.  What are we supposed to do?” The PNIS needs to provide effective technical assistance to shift preferences for more sustainable activities, while also allowing peasants access to new markets. This implies better institutional coordination with other government organizations in the environmental and agricultural sector to implement programmes in each area, and to develop sustainable alternatives for peasants and ethnic communities. Alternative development programmes need to clarify land property rights and solve land use conflicts as a first step, before signing substitution agreements with communities. The requirements for each SMZ should be designed and socialized at the beginning of the programmes. Otherwise, new interventions can bring more tensions, rather than provide tailor-made solutions for each specific context.


Brombacher, D., Garzón, J.C., & Vélez, M.A. (2021). Introduction Special Issue: Environmental Impacts of Illicit Economies. Journal of Illicit Economies and Development, 3(1).

Erasso, C. & Vélez, M.A. (2020). ¿Los cultivos de coca causan deforestación en Colombia? Documento Temático #5. Centro de Estudios sobre Seguridad y Drogas (CESED).

Resolución 056 de 2020. [Dirección de Sustitución de Cultivos de Uso Ilícito]. Por medio de la cual se adopta un documento técnico de soporte para el “desarrollo de los componentes de procesos de sustitución voluntaria de cultivos ilícitos y desarrollo alternativo de hogares beneficiarios que estén ubicados en áreas ambientalmente estratégicas o de importancia ecológica”. October 26, 2020.


We thank Lucas Marin and Juan José Quintero for their help in the implementation of the workshops and conducting interviews; and VisoMutop, especially Pedro Arenas, for support on developing the field work of this project.

Credits to Juan José Quintero for all the maps in this blog.

Seminar series: Illicit Economies, Violence and Development

The Centre for the Study of Illicit Economies, Violence and Development (CIVAD) at SOAS, and the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), are organising a series of six seminars which will bring together academics, students, policy makers and practitioners with an interest and engagement in questions of illicit economies, violence and development. 

Seminar 1: Frontiers, illicit flows and the geographies of uneven development (online)

This opening seminar will discuss how the circulation of illicit flows (capital, commodities, people, ideas) shape and connect processes of (uneven) development within and across regions. Rethinking what is meant by key terms, it will take a systemic and structural look at how the world is changing, setting the agenda for the rest of the series.

Chair: Jonathan Goodhand (SOAS University of London)

Panelists: Michael Watts (University of California, Berkeley); Laleh Khalili (Queen Mary, University of London)

Date: 20th October 2022, 17:30 (GMT+01:00)

Venue: Zoom

Click here to register for Seminar 1

Seminar 2: Illicit economies, violence(s) and state formation in Latin America (online)

Chair: Jeff Garmany (University of Melbourne)

Speaker: Jenny Pearce (London School of Economics)

Date: 10th November 2022, 17:30 (GMT)

Venue: Zoom

Click here to register for Seminar 2

Seminar 3: The everyday life of drugs: producers, dealers, consumers, enforcers (in-person)

This session will showcase research on the everyday realities, perspectives and experiences of participants in illicit drug economies, and discuss the wider implications of everyday perspectives on drugs. How can the narrative frame around drugs shift to bring everyday life to the centre?

Chair: Maziyar Ghiabi (University of Exeter)

Panelists: Frances Thomson (University of Bradford); Neil Carrier (University of Bristol)

Discussant: Niamh Eastwood (Executive Director, Release)

Date: 8th December 2022, 17.30 (GMT)

Venue: SOAS – Brunei Gallery Lecture Theatre

Click here to register for Seminar 3

Seminar 4: Militias, coercive brokers and public authority (online)

This seminar explores the entanglements between para state armed groups (PAGs) illicit economies, organised crimes and formal politics. It will challenge dominant narratives on PAGs, which see as them a temporary response to governance deficits, or as automatically apolitical and criminal actors. It will discuss the role of PAGs as an embedded feature of many frontier regions, in which they act as ‘coercive brokers’ who mediate between different actors, scales and jurisdictions.

Chair: Vanda Felbab-Brown (Brookings Institution) (TBC)

Panelists: Francisco Gutiérrez Sanín (National University of Colombia) and Antonio Giustozzi (RUSI)  

Date: 12th January 2023, 17.30 (GMT)

Venue: Zoom

Click here to register for Seminar 4

Seminar 5: Creating and implementing financial disruption strategies – successes and challenges. A UNODC perspective (online)

Chair: Heather Marquette (University of Birmingham and FCDO)

Speaker: Oliver Gadney (UNODC Global Programme Against Money Laundering)

Date: 7th February 2023, 17.30 (GMT)

Venue: Zoom

Click here to register for Seminar 5

Seminar 6: Terrorism and illicit finance (face-to-face)

In 2019, the Security Council passed Resolution 2482, expressing ‘concern that terrorists can benefit from organized crime … as a source of financing or logistical support’. The resolution stressed the urgent need for research on the interlinkages that may exist between terrorism, organised crime and illicit finance. This reflected the growing international focus on the crime-terror nexus. This session will explore this nexus in practice including top-down responses alongside local efforts that harness local knowledge, local researchers and civil society.  

Chair: Emily Winterbotham (RUSI)

Panel: Keith Ditcham (RUSI); Dr. Hans-Jakob Schindler (Counter Extremism Project); Joana De Deus Pereira (RUSI) (final panel TBC)

Date: 9th March 2023, time TBC

Venue: RUSI, room TBC

Registration details for Seminar 6 available in 2023.

We eradicated coca: now what?

This year, Colombia commemorates five years since the signing of the Peace Agreement by the Colombian state and the FARC. It has also been almost five years that the families, who signed up to the PNIS (the coca crop substitution programme that came out of the Peace Agreement), have been waiting for the state to deliver what was promised to them after they voluntarily eradicated their coca bushes.

This digital report highlights the personal experience of some of these “substitution farmers”; these people who believed in peace, who got rid of their illicit crops and who, today, are suffering as a result of the state’s failure to fulfil the agreement.

Voices from the borderlands 2022

Voices from the borderlands 2022 – Life stories from the drug- and conflict-affected borderlands of Afghanistan, Colombia and Myanmar presents voices and perspectives from seven borderland regions.

This collection of life stories, gathered during our four-year research partnership, is intended for a broad audience of researchers, practitioners and policymakers working on issues related to drugs, development and peacebuilding.

The stories offer valuable insights into how illicit drugs, violence and conflict, poverty and development, and insecurity and resilience are entangled in the everyday lives of people in the borderlands. Our hope is that they challenge our readers to think about and engage more critically with how illicit drugs, development and peacebuilding interconnect in their work.

Agribusiness meets alternative development: Lessons for Afghanistan’s licit and illicit commodity markets

This AREU Research Paper, by Adam Pain, Mohammad Hassan Wafaey, Gulsom Mirzada, Khalid Behzad and Mujib Azizi, is a programmatic case study of the Afghanistan Comprehensive Agriculture and Rural Development Facility (CARD-F), a two-phase, aid-funded rural development programme (2009-2018). CARD-F’s design and first phase had counter-narcotics goals, which were less prominent in the agribusiness-focused second phase.

This research takes an ethnographic approach to understanding how different actors who were involved in the project viewed its activities and effects, and judged its outcomes. It considers what this reveals about the rationale of the project, and its effects on drug economies and processes of development in Afghanistan.

Spatial borderland biography: Myanmar

Drugs & (dis)order is making as much of its anonymised research data as possible accessible to other researchers and users, via the UK Data Service. Details of how to access the data are on the UKDS landing page for each dataset.

This geodatabase, built by Alcis, containing spatial data for Kachin and Shan states on research sites, points of interest, administrative boundaries, population, transport and road networks, infrastructure (development projects, cell towers, places of worship, visible lights at night), agriculture, land use, hydrology and catchment areas.

Spatial borderland biography: Colombia

Drugs & (dis)order is making as much of its anonymised research data as possible accessible to other researchers and users, via the UK Data Service. Details of how to access the data are on the UKDS landing page for each dataset.

This geodatabase, built by Alcis, containing spatial data on research sites, border crossings, narcotics (coca production), borderland points of interest, administrative boundaries, population, transport and road networks, infrastructure, agriculture and hydrology.

Spatial borderland biography: Afghanistan

Drugs & (dis)order is making as much of its anonymised research data as possible accessible to other researchers and users, via the UK Data Service. Details of how to access the data are on the UKDS landing page for each dataset.

This geodatabase, built by Alcis, containing spatial data for Nangarhar, Badakhshan, Nimroz and Helmand: borderland locations, narcotics (opium production), borderland points of interest, drug routes, administrative boundaries, population, security events, transport and road networks, infrastructure, agriculture, crop cycles and hydrology.

“Everyone here feels that they have been let down by the government.”


Audio translation
Question: When you decided to take out the coca as part of this programme, what was your motivation to do so, why did you make the decision?
Answer: On the one hand, because we know that it’s illicit, and that we’re working breaking the law. So, if the government provides some sort of support, we’d get rid of it … because coca causes a lot of conflict and a lot of problems. So, we told ourselves that if the government offers us the means to get rid of it, or to grow cacao or palm because there’s no problems with these, then we would. But if the government doesn’t fulfil the agreement … all of us here in my village feel directly let down [by the government].

We met Yolanda* for the first time in December 2018 in a rural area of Tumaco. That same day, she recounted to us an unimaginable situation: it had already been a year since she eradicated her coca crops and she still hadn’t received the first food assistance payment. Since the arrival of the PNIS in the area, not a day has passed without Yolanda having to fight with officials about the lack of payments. In the different conversations we had concerning her situation, Yolanda repeats, “everything has been problematic with this programme.”


Audio translation
Question: When you found out about the substitution, did you think that it was going to change your life?
Answer: Yes of course. Well I said that it was going to change our situation, that in any case at least two or three of my kids would be able to get out of here … but they’ve all stayed here. You see the problem then, when you’re not paid?
Q. When you started to get rid of the coca, what were you hoping for?
A. We were hoping that the government would give us an opportunity to move forward in life, but the government didn’t fulfil [their promise].
Q. And now what are you waiting for?
A. Well now, I hope that it gives me the opportunity … that they pay me or resolve my case, basically, the opportunity for my kids to be able to leave and start the projects they want to do.

On Yolanda’s farm there are a wide variety of species amongst the cacao

Like other participants in the PNIS, Yolanda has been suspended from the programme due to data issues with her SISBEN (The System of Identification of Social Programme Beneficiaries). Officials have also told her that there were inconsistencies in the checks that the UNODC (United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime) conducted concerning the removal of her crops. “We’ve sent paperwork to Bogotá out of our own pockets, and nothing”.

Faced with the possibility of suspension, the programme’s officials recommended that various documents be sent as evidence, with the aim of resolving these inconsistencies. In Yolanda’s case, she had to send the coordinates and photos of her farm to prove that there were no longer any illicit crops. She also had to provide certificates from the board of the community council that would accredit her membership to the council and to the rural division. The cost of these procedures needed to sign the paperwork, including transportation, came out of their own pockets. Efforts which, after so many years, leave the situation unresolved. In fact, it’s the opposite: the last notification that others in a similar situation in the rural division received was that they had been expulsed from the programme.

Doña Yolanda contemplates the plot she thought she would cultivate as part of the PNIS

The years go by and the failure to fulfil the agreement is becoming a reality. All this time, Yolanda has been waiting for payments and for the programme to fulfil its other commitments, notably the food security project and various short and long-term projects. This is why she wanted to make her own chicken coop, so that when the chickens from the food security project arrived, there would already be a place to keep them. Yolanda insists that,

“the programme has given me nothing directly, what I do have is because I set about building the chicken coop before the chickens arrived, but they’ve given nothing to me.”

“We wanted to grow palms, but the government didn’t implement the plan; we’ve started on a cacao project which got us fertiliser and seeds and well, here we are”, Yolanda tells us.
“Seeing as the project didn’t happen, I had to find enough money to start growing cacao”
The first fruits of the cacao cultivation

Based on what Yolanda has told us, cacao can be a sustainable crop (depending on the price that it fetches). However, the deterioration of the soil quality of this land following the glyphosate fumigations has led to a bad cacao crop.

Result of glyphosate use on the cacao. Yolanda: “Some of the cacao bushes didn’t bear fruit, and that’s because this area was fumigated a few years ago.”
“With these small cacao fruits, we hope to earn a little money.”


Audio translation
Q. Do you hope that this will change?
A. Of course, we hope that the situation changes, so that all my kids get the chance to make something out of their life. Not just one or two of them, but all of them.
Q. When you signed the agreement and got rid of your coca … after five years what were you hoping for? In other words, after all this time waiting what did you have in mind?
A. I was expecting to have palm trees, that I’d already be harvesting, that I’d be able to tell my kids, say one of them has gone to study in Cali, that I’d tell them I could send them money for their studies, I’d tell them go ahead because we’re alright with what we’re growing.

Yolanda continues to hope for better opportunities for her children, to enable them to move forward in life. Although the circumstances surrounding the breach in the agreement make an optimistic evaluation of the situation impossible, Yolanda reminds us, “we still dream of this, only after dying do you stop dreaming”.

*Name has been changed to protect anonymity.