Published in the International Journal of Drug Policy.

By Francisco Gutiérrez-Sanín

This article compares coca with mainstream agrarian economies in Colombia. It shows that the country’s legal and illicit sectors share several fundamental characteristics and processes. Due to its very illegality, coca is endowed with positive characteristics that are not easily found elsewhere: it is a productive – even in the absence of basic public goods – familial, labour intensive, smallholder agriculture, relatively resistant to monoculture. Furthermore, different processes of social change have mitigated some of the typical problems of agrarian frontiers linked to global markets. In turn, its illegal status also imposes extreme costs over peasants and other social sectors. On the one hand, due to coca producers can escape from the ‘reproductive squeeze’ and extreme pattern of land concentration that affect other peasants; on the other, coca becomes an unending source of risk and distress. This contradiction puts peasants in front of very tough trade-offs, which in turn demand a careful reconsideration of what ‘alternative’ development can mean in the Colombian context.