â€œHand over the coca and take the cash, similar to a country fair: Hand over the pig, take the cash,â€ President Uribe said on Saturday, announcing a government initiative to buy farmersâ€™ illegal coca harvests. According to APâ€™s coverage of Uribeâ€™s surprise statement, coca-growers in southern Meta department â€œshould approach the nearest police or army commander without fear of arrest and hand over their crops of coca or poppy, which is used to make heroin. The price would be negotiated at the point of sale.â€
This proposal â€“ which may have been a bit of presidential rhetorical improvisation â€“ is likely to die a quiet death. Either way, itâ€™s a strange about-face for a president who has repeatedly promised to â€œspray and sprayâ€ all coca in the country, and to expropriate all lands with coca planted on them. And it is interesting that he would propose it in Meta, the department of Colombia that, according to the UN Office of Drugs and Crime, had the most coca in 2004.
Never mind whether paying farmers for their coca is even legal in Colombia. Can something like this work?
It certainly does have some advantages over anonymously spraying herbicides from above. Itâ€™s more humane. It encourages contact between citizens and government officials (unfortunately, not civilian government officials) in areas that have known little government presence. It helps to break down mistrust of the government in zones that have spent decades under guerrilla or paramilitary control.
But coca buybacks on their own are unlikely to do much to reduce coca-growing. A 2002 report [PDF format] from the U.S. General Accounting Office discusses a somewhat similar program that USAID funded in Bolivia for eleven years.
Between 1987 and 1998, the U.S. embassyâ€™s Narcotics Affairs Section funded a Bolivian program to pay individuals cash for not growing coca. The Bolivian National Directorate for Agricultural Reconversion paid $2,000 per hectare to peasant farmers who voluntarily reduced their coca plantings. The directorateâ€™s operating costs and the compensation paid to farmers came from U.S. cash transfers to Bolivia. U.S. officials in Bolivia estimated that the Bolivian government spent the equivalent of approximately $100 million.
U.S. officials told us the program was poorly implemented and failed to produce net coca reductions. USAID officials told us that individuals were paid to not grow coca in particular areas, but they continued to cultivate coca in other areas, thus defeating the purpose of the program. In addition, two U.S. audits by the USAID inspector general found several material weaknesses in the programâ€™s management, including inadequate verification procedures and ineligible beneficiaries.
Ultimately, partial measures like fumigation and coca buybacks are gimmicks. They are poor substitutes for an on-the-ground presence of government representatives, who can both create the conditions for a legal economy (land titles, dispute resolution, credit, farm-to-market roads, etc.) and verify that illicit crops arenâ€™t being replanted.
In a place like southern Meta, where the only government presence is the military or police post where farmers are to bring their coca harvest, a buyback program will create a perverse set of incentives. Residents of southern Meta who do not grow coca will feel cheated, as their coca-growing neighbors get a big handout from the government. Meanwhile, with no access to markets for legal crops, coca-growing farmers will be sorely tempted to re-plant the crop after selling their harvest to the government. Since the government lacks the ability to verify that they are not replanting, it will be all too easy to give in to this temptation.