Voices from Colombia

Voices from coca growers, pickers and community leaders in three Colombian borderland regions.

The following three key messages emerged from our research in three borderland Colombian states, talking to coca growers and pickers in: Puerto Asís in Putumayo, Tumaco in Nariño, and Santa Marta in Magdalena.

1. Many people in Colombia’s borderlands are economically better off because of coca, but this comes at a high cost.

The coca plant has been the economy [where I live] for a long time. There is no other plant that could replace it. Even when prices are low, 200 grams [of coca base or paste] means $300,000 pesos. It provides a livelihood. To make that amount with licit produce is very difficult. Why is it difficult? In my case, I would have to move plantain or yucca from my farm by horse and by the time I arrive at the roadside, with sunshine like today, they would be black. And then to get them from there to the plaza. And who would buy them? Nobody.

Male coca farmer, Puerto Asís, October 2018

Coca production offers farmers a reliable income, creates jobs and boosts local economy

Coca cultivation offers farmers guaranteed market access. This is in contexts of high transport costs, unreliable demand for legal produce and significant price fluctuations. It enables them to earn regular incomes that are slightly higher than those in other agrarian economies. Thus, many peasants in Colombia’s borderlands perceive(d) coca production as the only economic option.

Coca also generates substantial and comparatively well-paid wage employment opportunities, especially but not only during harvest periods. These coca incomes in turn bolster other sectors by increasing local demand for goods and services. As a result, the coca economy has contributed to significant socio-economic advances.

Coca farmers invest their incomes in things like education, healthcare and land

Farmers and pickers have used their coca incomes to improve their homes, pay for their children’s education and family members’ medical treatment, and acquire land and other assets, such as motorbikes and solar panels. Many would simply not have been able to access these services or assets were it not for the coca economy. In some communities, people also pooled their coca incomes to pay for the construction of schools, footpaths and roads, and even for teacher’s salaries.

During the coca [boom], the first thing I did with the first payment was to put up a roof – over half the house. Afterwards, we started to buy bricks and also, we had to buy inputs for the farm because that [crop] doesn’t grow alone. So, like that, I put up the roof on my house – half of it; afterwards I got the bricks, and then the things for the farm, and then the boys were asking to buy a television.

Female former coca farmer, Tumaco, February 2019

After I had my first child, I remember we had coca and it was profitable. With just one harvest there was enough money to pay for electricity and a television. The television was the first thing one would buy, to watch the soap opera ‘Marimar’; then after that a little motorboat to move up and down the river.

Female former coca farmer, Tumaco, May 2018

With money from coca, one has economy: you can buy a horse, improve your house – invest in it, like the roofing and wire fencing. […] Everything we have done [in this village] was with money from coca, between all of us, our sweat and coca money. When we arrived, we paid the schoolteacher for around two years [with our money earned with coca cultivation]. She was a neighbour who said she had studied. Later, we got a public teacher [i.e. designated and paid for by the state].

Male former coca grower and picker, Puerto Asís, September 2019

In my case, I am not ungrateful with coca. I have been in difficult situations. I have a handicapped brother, my mother and my little siblings [to look after]. When mum got sick, I had the money to buy a house, [but] I let the doctors take a lot of money off me. [… Interviewer: and the money you paid them came from cultivating coca?] Yes. Why would one deny it?

Female former coca farmer, Puerto Asís, October 2018

[Because of the income from coca] we could watch television, buy gasoline, go into town, buy clothes. Our children had new clothes to wear whenever possible – every harvest, they got a new pair of shoes, a new pair of everything. Now [after leaving the coca economy], if you look at my children, they have repaired, patched-up shoes. Because the salary they pay my husband isn’t enough to buy shoes – if anything, maybe in December [with the Christmas bonus]. [… with the money from coca] we also bought that fridge there second-hand, the washing machine, the stove.

Female former coca grower and picker, Puerto Asís, September 2018

Women who work in the coca economy earn more than in other sectors

These socio-economic advances have benefitted both men and women. Women who participate in the coca economy earn considerably more than those who do not and roughly the same amount as their male counterparts – a relative equality not found in many other rural economies.

Here, the men don’t look down on the women as less, nor do us women feel we are less than the men. We [coca] pickers are equal.

Female coca picker, Puerto Asís, September 2019

[During the coca boom] I would sell lots of beer, aguardiente [a type of alcohol made from sugar cane], and those chickens for fattening – I would sell those. There was always money. […] I can say that if the economy was still like that now, I would never want to have a husband because I knew that every single weekend I would sell [a lot] and I would have money in my pocket for necessities, for food.

Female leader of a Community Council, Tumaco, February 2019
A ‘laboratory’ to transform coca leaf into coca paste in Tumaco, Colombia. Photo by Universidad Nacional de Colombia 2019.

The risk of violence

Tragically, coca growers and pickers (and the wider regions where they work) have paid dearly for these modest socio-economic advances. Because coca production is illicit, producers are vulnerable to assaults by illegal armed groups and by the state itself and have little or no access to institutional recourse. Graph 2 shows how the vast majority of survey respondents associate coca production in their regions with increases in violence. Nevertheless, nearly half of people surveyed evaluate their experience of participating in the coca economy as having both positive and negative sides.

It was in 1998 that coca started to arrive, when they [the government] removed the coca growers from Caquetá, they all came directly here […] But it was also a strategy of the FARC, they brought some people and they started to plant coca. We had in that territory of Zone 3, more or less 9,000 hectares to leave as reserve, as forest. And so, the colonisation of our territory, controlled by the FARC, began…

The FARC told our peasants, people from the Community Council: ‘Plant or leave because you are narks’. […] Those plots [of land] were collective. That’s when the disaster began and not just in our Community Council, it extended across the municipality of Tumaco.

Male leader of a Community Council, Tumaco, September 2019

The news of deaths, [at the hands of those] groups, we used to see that on television. When narco-trafficking coca started to arrive here in Tumaco, then we started to see this personally, this death, that disappearance – all of that which was once so far away.

Leader of a Community Council, Tumaco, February 2019

The need for viable alternatives that safeguard socio-economic advances

Living daily life in a context of illegality is not easy and, for that reason, most coca producers would prefer to work in viable legal economies. The biggest challenge, then, is to design and implement policies that enable peasants to work in sustainable and licit agricultural economies, which safeguard the socio-economic advances brought by coca production but without all the associated risks and costs.

Working with coca brings problems. […] There’s been a lot of death here because of the coca cultivations. […] There are young lads who start to work for the narco-traffickers, and they kill them over any old slip-up.

Female coca farmer, Puerto Asís, June 2019

The state has abandoned us and we survive with the coca bush because we have to. Many of us have become more aware, with so many deaths [of the problems coca brings …] If there were [other] opportunities, no one would work with coca because it’s enslaving.

Male coca farmer, Puerto Asís, September 2019

[During the coca boom] … that was another thing, because money kept coming in and when, well there were so many hectares, so when you finished picking in one [farm] you would return to another that was ready for picking again. So, there was never a moment that the picking stopped and that brought a lot of money, that stimulated the economy in the area a lot. But it was also too much violence and [brought a] lack of respect.

Female former coca farmer and picker, Santa Marta, March 2019
A coffee house, Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, Colombia. Photo by Universidad Nacional de Colombia, 2019.

2. Colombia’s coca growers are peasant farmers and do not lead the lives of narco criminals.

A peasant coca farmer, a normal farm owner, just like with any other crop, gets up, [makes sure] everyone has breakfast, organises the pickers: ’From this side to this plant, you pick; from this plant to over there, you …’, and so on and so forth. The pickers collect [the leaves], harvest. The leaves are weighed – the pickers work until four or five [o’clock] in the afternoon – because the payment is by kilo.

Female former coca farmer, Santa Marta, March 2019

Coca growers in Colombia are predominantly peasant farmers who depend on working the land for their livelihoods. Indeed, the vast majority of participants in the PNIS self-identify as campesinos.

Coca growing is not a particularly fast and easy way to make money

The coca production process involves preparing the land, planting, weeding, fertilising and harvesting with family and hired labour – just like with any other crop. In this sense, coca production is not an especially fast and easy way of making money (as is sometimes suggested) and families who cultivate coca are no different from other peasant families. The major difference between the cultivation of coca and other crops is that the former offers higher earnings than the latter.

I established a [coca] farm in alliance with a family member and that’s how I looked after my partner before the birth [of our child]. With an uncle, we went into sharecropping together; he had the land and we planted half each. But I was very attached to [coca] picking. It was hard for me to establish a coca farm because, well, it is hard work. You have to plant the coca, remove all the weeds around the bush by hand – but then you see the plant all leafy and lush, well looked-after, properly fumigated, and you feel proud.

Male coca farmer and picker, Puerto Asís, September 2019
Coca farmer, Puerto Asis, Colombia. Photo by Frances Thomson/Universidad Nacional de Colombia 2019.

Many coca farmers also cultivate other crops

Furthermore, many coca growers also cultivate other crops and keep animals (such as pigs, chickens and cows), specifically for household consumption and sometimes for sale on local markets, when/where possible. Indeed, farmers often invest their coca incomes in other agricultural activities. This is part of a diversification strategy that helps them to reduce the risks associated with monocropping.

Those who cultivated coca also had plantain, yucca, ñame – all those things for subsistence.

Female former coca grower, Santa Marta, March 2019

[In addition to coca] we also have plantain, yucca, maize, chickens, pigs – just for our subsistence though, not for commerce.

Male coca farmer, Puerto Asís, May 2018

The coca economy allows for modest social advancements

While coca growers typically earn more than other peasant farmers that do not cultivate coca, their consumption patterns are essentially similar to those of other rural middle-class families. Contrary to popular images of ostentatious ‘narcos’, coca farmers spend most of their earnings on their children’s education, land, cars/motorbikes and homes.

The coca economy allows peasant families to access services and acquire assets that might otherwise be out of reach but it in no way makes them rich. The wealth generated by the cocaine industry is accumulated by traffickers, not coca farmers.

I haven’t seen people making these [huge] profits [from coca] because they have stuck with, as they say, the dynamic of planting just a little, just the essential. […] There wasn’t this mentality of becoming rich, simply of living comfortably.

Male coca farmer, Puerto Asís, May 2018

There are a lot of people [who grow coca] here, but I haven’t met anyone who’s got money, who’s got wealth. It’s the traders who get rich, not those who cultivate. With coca, you plant a few bushes, fertilise twice or three times, and then harvest – and you end up with 200 or 300 grams, which is enough to buy some rice.

Male coca farmer, Puerto Asís, October 2018

Coca provides enough just for food and education […] It’s not like the government says, that we get rich with coca.

Male coca farmer, Puerto Asís, September 2019
A typical rural farmhouse in Putumayo, Puerto Asis, Colombia. Photo by Frances Thomson/ Universidad Nacional de Colombia 2019.

The Colombian state treats coca peasant farmers as criminals

Nevertheless, despite the fact that coca growers are simply peasant family farmers, the Colombian state treats them like criminals. Counter-narcotics policy in Colombia is still tied to War on drugs narratives. These are used to justify a war on the peasantry that cultivate coca.

Over the decades, this war has involved aerial spraying of coca crops with a chemical cocktail (including but not limited to glyphosate) and militarised manual forced eradication. This has had devastating consequences for the health (in the case of the former) and livelihoods of coca-growing families and surrounding communities. So far, the Colombian government has not offered these peasant families viable economic alternatives to coca cultivation.

They didn’t just pursue big narco-traffickers. There was a time they would take everyone they found working. The got me once, as I was leaving. […] They stopped me, caught me with [coca] paste and gave me home-jail time.

Female coca farmer, Puerto Asís, June 2019

When the forced eradication came, we said, ‘Let’s plant chocolate’. Some associations, entities, arrived to collaborate and we planted with technical assistance. But as time passed, [the cacao crops], they didn’t work, they didn’t provide enough for a person, for the family, to subsist. […] A lot of people ended up in debt […] It’s not like the government says – sometimes they speak badly of the peasant, say that we are the creators of the war, [but] we are obligated to plant [coca] because there is no other option, we don’t have support.

Female coca farmer, Tumaco, April 2019

They would fumigate sometimes every 15 days in our village. […] We had a hectare and a half of plantain and chiro – or as it’s sometimes called, ‘bocadillo’. But the fumigations finished off our food – the maize, the yucca, everything! There was nothing left. We were left without food and the only thing we had left were a few corners of coca.

Male coca farmer, Puerto Asís, May 2018

What else can a peasant farmer do? The fear is that we will be prosecuted again. We are peasants and we are coca growers. […] On TV everything looks great, but in reality we can’t even support our children. We are not knee-deep in money, but coca has maintained us.

Male coca farmer, Puerto Asís, September 2019

3. Despite facing social, economic and political exclusion, Colombia’s coca producers are organised and active citizens.

We organise ‘mingas’ [or collective labour initiatives, through the Community Action Committee] at the end of every month. Here we still lay logs of wood down to prevent them from getting too muddy. Participation is good. We built the school with a minga. […] Since we only have the river [for transport], coca is the only option; if the government keeps its promises and builds roads then there could be change [away] from coca…

Here there are solar power systems that people purchased with whatever little bit of money they had left over. The oil company arrived in other communities and gave away solar panels, which they [the beneficiaries] sold cheaply […Otherwise,] there is no electricity; there are no public services. We wash with water that we get from wells using motorised pumps [we also purchased ourselves]. We use well water because the river is polluted due to the [oil] company and it’s more practical than going to the river.

Male coca grower, Puerto Asís, September 2019

Social, economic and political exclusion

Colombia’s coca growers and pickers face multiple forms of exclusion. One of the clearest manifestations of this exclusion – that also affects rural communities in the borderlands more generally – is lack of access to basic public services. Most families who work in the coca economy do not have running water, a sanitation/sewerage system, natural gas or internet in their homes (see Graph 6). And while the graph below indicates that most do have electricity, the figures include that which is self-provisioned via diesel generators and solar panels.

Other manifestations of exclusion include the high levels of informal land tenure and the deficiency of transport infrastructure, such as roads and bridges, in coca-producing areas. This makes it very difficult for peasant families in Colombia’s borderlands to participate in licit agricultural markets.

There are no roads [in my area], nothing has changed since the 1970s or 1950s, since we started saying [we need roads … We have to travel by boat], an hour and a half to get to La Libertad. We don’t have to go the long way around anymore, like we used to, that would take about three days; now we go through La Libertad [… from there its] another hour and a half [to Puerto Asís…] by motorbike or car, mostly we use motorbikes [but if you] bring things with you, then you have to travel by ‘chiva’ [a type of rural bus… And within our sub-district] we have paths for [… moving about] on horse and by foot.

Male coca farmer, Puerto Asís, May 2018

In many cases, it’s possession [people have possession rather than full property rights over their land]. In fact, even today most peasants suffer [because of this]. We go to present a project and they won’t recognise our use of the soil because we don’t have legal documents for the land, but instead deeds or [certificates] of possession or tradition – these are useless…

So, people live between legality and illegality. And they don’t pay taxes, they don’t pay anything because there is no legal document. And if you want to go get your papers, well they ask you for this life and the next. You have to bring a surveyor, someone from the IGAC [the Augustin Codazzi Geographical Institute, which is in charge of the cadastre], you have to do this, that and the other. And not everyone has the money to go and do all those things. So, very few peasants in the Sierra have legal land titles.

Female former coca farmer, Santa Marta, March 2019

Coca farmers and pickers have also been excluded from public debates (including on counter-narcotics policies), as many government functionaries and sectors of civil society do not recognise them as valid interlocutors.

Many farms and villages can only be accessed by boat in Puerto Asis, Colombia. Photo by Frances Thomson/Universidad Nacional de Colombia 2019.

Strong agency

Nevertheless, peasant families involved in the coca economy have demonstrated significant agency, in particular through local organisations such as the Community Action Committees (which have high levels of membership, as indicated in Graph 7) and Afro Community Councils.

We have proposed alternatives, projects for food security, health, income. We are tired of knocking on doors, to ask for loans, because they ignore us. We are conscious of the social problems caused by drugs. It’s possible and we want to put our efforts into organic production, reforestation, ‘clean’ [or green] food. The forest is a rough diamond that can provide without the need to destroy it. We got disillusioned with [the idea of] carbon credits…

They say it’s prohibited to cut down the forest, they impose repressive laws but they don’t give any incentives. Conserving the native forest is a [potential] alternative, but where are the funds? […] I have always been committed to the organisation of the community. The JAC [Community Action Committee] was formally established on the 7th of May 1997. We’ve done everything ‘with our own hands’, without any help, ‘working with our backs and our beasts’.

Male coca grower and community leader, Puerto Asís, September 2019

At the moment, we have a Whatsapp group, just in case there is a project or something, and to organise meetings and all that. The 32 rural sub-districts are communicating constantly – daily it’s ‘this happened’, ‘there is this meeting or that meeting’…

We are just now amidst dialogues with the Mayor’s Office because they have us stigmatised too – they said we were paramilitaries, they never stopped saying that […] just because we lived here – they always said this was a paramilitary zone, and they categorised us as paramilitaries.

Inhabitant of a former coca-producing area, Santa Marta, May 2019

Many community members speak proudly about constructing their own schools and roads via collective labour initiatives (often called mingas) and using their own funds, as well as the protests and strikes they have organised that forced government functionaries to take note and sit down at the negotiating table.

With coca we have done everything, with coca we have guaranteed for ourselves, as best we can, the fundamental rights that the state hasn’t given us. [… For example,] the issue of roads, we built our own roads. […] In 1997, after the strike in 1996, we extended the road to our sub-district […] all the peasants in our sub-district started to contribute. We always had to organise ‘mingas’ to go out and work…

And that’s how it was, all the roads have been constructed in this way, with the support of [our] coca [incomes] – we all chipped in. For example, in our sub-district, my dad contributed 800,000 pesos at that time, plus the work we did on the road – every peasant had to give an amount of money […] We asked the Mayor’s Office to help us but most of all it has been through our own efforts, more than through what we got from [the] Mayor’s Office.

Male community leader, Puerto Asís, September 2018
The ‘Bocagrande’ beach, Tumaco, Colombia. Photo by Diana Machuca/Universidad Nacional de Colombia 2019.

The state is not delivering many promised reforms and programmes aimed at addressing exclusion

The National Illicit Crop Substitution Programme (PNIS), and the 2016 peace agreement of which it is part, were designed to counter the (social, economic and political) exclusion of peasant families, and of coca cultivators and pickers in particular. For example, the PNIS includes various spaces for participation that have permitted direct interaction between government functionaries and delegates of coca-producing rural sub-districts during the planning and implementation phases of the programme.

The PNIS is also supposed to be tied to local and regional development plans aimed at improving rural infrastructure and ensuring access to public services in the targeted areas. However, so far the government has done little to advance these aspects of the PNIS. The government has also stalled promised legal reforms, which were supposed to temporarily exempt small-scale coca farmers from criminal prosecution.

Participants in the programme have expressed frustration with the government, which they claim has not kept its end of the agreements, despite coca growers and pickers keeping theirs (see Graph 8). These very agreements are yet another manifestation of the exclusion that coca growers and pickers have been subjected to: in open violation of the basic principles of citizenship, the vast majority of families who are participating in the crop substitution programme have not been given a copy of the contract they signed with the state.

When they came here, [they said] we have to eradicate the coca. What did we do? We eradicated and that was it, because to this day, they haven’t given me one single [support] payment. We finished off with coca and we planted chocolate, but that chocolate isn’t generating any income yet. Sometimes we eat two meals [a day], sometimes one.

Female former coca farmer, Tumaco, February 2019

The government says it is keeping its promises but that’s a lie. […] Both sides signed an agreement, but the government sent eradicators – they want us to live from nothing. […] It’s not that people are happy with coca, but we are humans [with basic needs], and we haven’t seen change.

Male coca farmer, Puerto Asís, September 2019

A note on methodology

Our key messages are drawn from three main sources. First, we have throughout this research project been in permanent dialogue with leaders of organisations that unite farmers from across the country cultivating crops used in illicit drugs. During these conversations, we identified a number of recurring themes reflected in the views of these leaders about the world of coca production, in particular.

Second, the key messages are based on over 150 semi-structured and unstructured interviews with coca farmers and pickers from the three different borderlands in Colombia (Puerto Asís, Tumaco and Santa Marta). These were conducted by our research team during various fieldwork trips made between 2018 and 2019.

Third and finally, the messages reflect opinions and experiences expressed in a survey (applied June 2019) of peasants who are registered in the national illicit crop substitution programme in two of the country’s most important coca-producing municipalities: Tumaco and Puerto Asís.

Common themes and insights

Making sense of the life stories with common themes around agency and voice, violence and peace, and borders and boundaries.

Implications for researchers and policymakers

Life stories raise questions, provocations and pointers for researchers and policymakers.