Colombia is an environmentally and ethnically diverse country with a population of about 48 million people. It is ranked 90 out of 189 countries on the UNDP’s Human Development Index and is classified by the World Bank as belonging to the ‘upper middle income’ group. However, Colombia is also one of the most unequal countries in the world – in certain remote areas, for example, inhabitants lack access to electricity, sanitation and running water.

The country has endured numerous periods of armed conflict. The most recent is often dated as beginning in the 1960s, when various armed insurgent groups were formed, including the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia). However, the origins of these groups can be traced back to decades prior, during an era of civil war known as La Violencia and the state-led ‘anti-communist’ military offensive that followed.

In the 1970s and 1980s an illicit drug economy, centred on cocaine exports, emerged. Around the same time, a number of anti-subversive paramilitary groups were proliferating across the country. Multiple factors, including the FARC’s decision to regulate and tax the drug trade, led prominent narcotraffickers to join the war against the guerrillas.

Meanwhile, coca cultivations expanded across Colombia, especially in southern ‘colonisation zones’ where people had settled, pushed out of other areas of the country by violence and/or land concentration.

In many of these zones, coca cultivation offered settlers a source of income where conventional commercial crops didn’t grow well, there was little state support for farmers and transport costs to regional markets were prohibitively high.

At the same time, illicit drug production has helped sustain the armed conflict. Civilians, and especially those in coca-growing regions, have been the primary victims. In addition to financing illegal armed groups, the coca economy has led to militarised counter-narcotics operations, including aerial fumigations, with devastating consequences for coca-farmers and local inhabitants.

The 2016 peace agreement between the Colombian Government and the FARC has opened the door to a new chapter in the country’s history. It remains to be seen what this will entail. The picture is complex. Hundreds of social leaders and community activists have been killed since the signing of the agreement. Coca cultivation has expanded and the illicit crop substitution programme seems to be faltering. ELN guerrillas, paramilitary successor groups and criminal gangs involved the illicit drugs trade have imposed themselves in many territories vacated by the FARC. FARC dissidents (those not participating in the peace process) are seemingly amidst a re-organisation. And talks between the ELN and the Colombian Government have been abandoned indefinitely.

Whatever the uncertainties of this new phase, the illicit drug economy, and the policies aimed at undermining this economy, will play a key role in shaping it.

Research sites

In Colombia, research is being done in four borderland sites:

  • Puerto Asís, Putumayo (Ecuador border)
  • Tibú, Norte de Santander (Venezuela border)
  • Tumaco, Nariño (Pacific coast and Ecuador border)
  • Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta (Caribbean coast)