Last Friday the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime released its latest estimates of coca cultivation and cocaine production in Colombia, Peru, and Bolivia, the three countries that produce nearly all of the world’s cocaine. The UN agency’s findings were summarized in a single headline: coca cultivation declined sharply in Colombia in 2008, while it rose in Bolivia and Peru.
- AP: UN: Colombia coca crop down; Peru and Bolivia up
- Reuters: UN reports big drop in Colombia cocaine production
- BBC: Colombia coca-growing ‘declines’
- Presidency of Colombia: UN confirms that reduction of cocaine production and crops is a result of the achievements made by the Colombian Government
The UN agency found an 18 percent drop in Colombian coca-bush cultivation from 2007 to 2008, which it attributed to “the manual eradication of 96,115 hectares of coca bush (an increase of 44 per cent compared to the area eradicated manually in 2007) and the spraying of 133,496 hectares of coca bush in 2008.”
While the 2008 drop in Colombia is encouraging, however, it is not as remarkable as it sounds. It represents a return to the same levels of coca cultivation that the UN agency detected in 2003-2006, the years after Plan Colombia brought an increase in eradication, especially in the department of Putumayo, and the FARC guerrillas lost the free rein they enjoyed over five municipalities in western Meta and northern CaquetÃ¡ departments during a failed 1998-2002 peace process.
This time last year, the UN was expressing “shock” about a huge increase [PDF] in Colombian coca-growing for 2007, a major departure from the steady 2003-2006 levels. This finding caused an outcry from the Colombian government and was not reflected in the U.S. government’s very different coca-growing estimates, which found only a tiny increase in 2007.
That 2007 increase has been reversed, and Colombian coca-growing has returned to what, when one removes the seemingly anomalous 2007 estimate, has been a stable level of coca cultivation. In five of the last six years, the UN has found Colombian coca-growing to be consistently within a narrow band between 78,000 and 86,000 hectares. The 2008 figure, 81,000 hectares, fits comfortably within that band.
This steady result comes despite a constant increase in the Colombian government’s coca eradication efforts. With U.S. aid, the Colombian government has increased by 58 percent the number of hectares of coca eradicated since 2003, only to achieve the same results as it did in that year.
Since 2006, interestingly, it has done so while reducing the aerial herbicide fumigation program, instead sharply increasing on-the-ground manual eradication, a method that was barely in use five years ago. Teams of manual eradicators ripped 95,731 hectares of coca out of the ground in 2008.
Despite this, the coca-growing result is steady, with the exception of 2007. This is because coca-growers are not deterred when eradication is not coupled with assistance or a real state presence: they simply grow again elsewhere. The UNODC’s report confirms this: 75 percent of the coca plots the agency detected in 2008 were not planted with coca in 2007. And 59 percent of them had no coca in any of the UNODC’s earlier surveys.
Why was 2007 an outlier year in the UN’s estimates? The areas that the UN found coca-growing increasing most robustly in 2007 were in Colombia’s Pacific coastal region (NariÃ±o, Cauca) and paramilitary-heavy areas in the north (Antioquia, BolÃvar, Norte de Santander). With the exception of Antioquia, these areas of sharpest 2007 growth did not experience significant decreases in 2008. In fact, cultivation is now so concentrated along Colombia’s Pacific coast that this increasingly violent region can now be considered the country’s coca heartland.
Instead, last year’s reduction occurred mainly in parts of the country that saw increased manual eradication: Putumayo, Antioquia, and the area in and around the “La Macarena Consolidation Zone” in Meta, CaquetÃ¡ and Guaviare.
Though we have no statistical evidence yet to back up this prediction, CIP is concerned by reports that coca cultivation is increasing dramatically this year in Putumayo and NariÃ±o departments, in southwestern Colombia. The reason is the late 2008 collapse of several pyramid schemes, including the notorious DMG corporation, which wiped out the assets of a large portion of the population in these departments’ traditional coca-growing zones. As a source of easy money, these schemes served as a sort of “alternative development program” in several of southern Colombia’s longtime coca boomtowns. Their sudden disappearance, which brought a financial meltdown in many localities, appears to be spurring a massive replanting, according to anecdotal reports that we have received from Putumayo and NariÃ±o.
Here are a few other noteworthy findings from the UNODC report, with explanatory text from the report itself:
- The agency believes that Colombian cocaine production fell even more sharply than coca-growing in 2008, from 600 to 430 tons. “[A]s a result of government pressure, coca fields are becoming more dispersed and smaller and, therefore, harder to tend, resulting in lower yields. The farm-gate value of coca leaf in Colombia is falling, making it less attractive for farmers. Indeed, 20,000 less households grew coca in 2008 compared with 2007 (a decrease of 26%).”
- The UNODC’s estimate of the average farm-gate price of coca paste – the form in which most growers sell coca in Colombia – changed very little. It rose from US$943 per kilo in 2007 to US$968 per kilo in 2008.
- Families that grow coca in Colombia do not make much money. The UNODC report cites a survey of coca growers in two regions of the country, in which respondents are asked about their economic reality. It estimates that the growers’ net income – after taking out all the costs of producing coca – was US$3,893 per year in one region and US$4,619 per year in the other. These income levels – between $300 and $400 per month – are above the poverty line, and by all estimates the majority of rural Colombians live below that line. However, the UNODC figure shows that (a) growers get a very tiny piece of the cocaine trade’s massive profits, and (b) the income they receive is so low that other, legal crops could realistically compete with coca.
- As noted in the charts above, UNODC found small increases in coca-growing and cocaine production in both Peru and Bolivia.
- Peru: “[I]t can be affirmed that the growth registered in both basins [Upper Huallaga and ApurÃmac-Ene] may have been facilitated by violence, which news media attribute to subversive [Shining Path] remnants. It would appear that in the past few years, they have become the armed wing of narcotrafficking gangs.”
- Bolivia: “The area of greatest growth continues to be la Asunta, in the Yungas of La Paz, where neither erradication nor alternative development is carried out. … The government of Bolivia deserves praise for a significant increase in drug interdiction.”