By Frances Thomson, Monica Parada-Hernandez and Camilo Acero

Published in World Development Volume 149, January 2022

Both policymakers and scholars have suggested that informal land tenure contributes to the perpetuation of illicit drug crop cultivation and, conversely, that land formalisation programmes serve counternarcotics aims. This article examines some of the key causal mechanisms said to underlie the posited relationship between land tenure (in)formality and the cultivation of crops used for illicit drug production.

Our analysis is grounded in the context of Puerto Asís, Colombia – one of the most important coca-producing municipalities in a country that produces the majority of the world’s cocaine. The case study is based on extensive fieldwork in Puerto Asís, including in-depth interviews with peasants who cultivate(d) coca, community leaders and local officials.

We found: (i) that informal and semiformal institutions provide a basic level of land tenure security for both those with and without state-recognized property titles; (ii) that peasants invest considerable amounts of money and labour in their farms and community infrastructures, despite lacking formal land titles; (iii) that coca cultivation itself is a comparatively costly investment, with 18 months minimum before payback; (iv) that peasants’ access to credit is not conditioned on them having a formal land title; (v) that bank loans do not make people less dependent on coca cultivation; and that (vi) farmers find it difficult to survive with legal livelihoods and thus permanently exit the coca economy for a long list of reasons, which are not addressed via land titling and registration programs. These findings are contrary to popular policy narratives.

We conclude that formal titles are an important tool for Colombian peasant farmers to defend their land against powerful external actors but will not necessarily serve the purposes commonly presented in the literature on illicit drugs.