The production of coca, the principal ingredient in cocaine, reached record levels in the Andes mountains of South America in 2020, according to a recently released report from the U.S. Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP).
The two largest coca-producing countries on Earth, Colombia and Peru, both set new records well above their 2019 numbers, which had previously ranked as the highest cultivation on record.
In their report, the U.S. government said that the coronavirus pandemic had an effect on production. In Peru, the pandemic derailed the government's “efforts to provide alternative livelihoods to former coca farmers, build transportation infrastructure in underdeveloped areas, and bring safety and security to rural Peruvians. There also was a months-long pause on eradication efforts in 2020 due to the country’s COVID-19 quarantine restrictions."
In Colombia, the government of President Iván Duque “faced several obstacles during that time that impacted their overall efforts to reduce coca cultivation, including increased violence in rural areas and high rates of COVID-19.”
The report claimed that Peru’s cultivation grew from 72,000 hectares to 88,200, while Colombia went from 212,000 to a significantly higher 245,000 hectares, according to the report.
Sanho Tree, a drug policy expert for the Institute for Policy Studies, agreed that coronavirus played a significant role in rising figures.
“In both cases, you've got Covid and social distancing, and the eradication squads can't work in groups in the same way. And so you've got less policing, less eradication going on while at the same time you've got a lot of economic insecurity and fear because of Covid and the global recession,” Tree told VICE World News. “So there's a lot of incentive for farmers to plant in times of insecurity. If you don't know what next year or next harvest is going to bring, then your tendency is going to be, you know, to overcompensate.”
But Tree was also skeptical of the accuracy of the statistics provided by ONDCP because they do not publish their methodology and “are the least transparent and the least meaningful, in my opinion.”
Several weeks before the U.S. published their findings, the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC) published their own study and claimed that the cultivation of coca in Colombia had dropped.
In the recent report, the Whitehouse reiterated its intention to create "a strategy that includes expanding access to prevention, treatment, harm reduction, and recovery support services" in the U.S., while also supporting “efforts to strengthen source country programs that address drug trafficking and corruption, strengthen the rule of law and anti-corruption activities, promote human rights, and support development programs in communities across the region.”
But since entering office, U.S. President Joe Biden’s policy towards eradication has followed a similar playbook as his predecessors.
In March, the Biden administration applauded Colombia's plan to restart aerial eradication in its annual International Narcotics Control Strategy Report. The backlash to U.S. support of toxic chemical spraying was swift, with more than 150 experts coming together to publish an open letter to Biden that called Colombia's plan “misguided.”
“The recently announced decision sends an unfortunate message to the Colombian people that your administration is not committed to abandoning the ineffective and damaging war on drugs internationally, even as your administration takes bold steps to mitigate its multiple impacts on Black, Indigenous, and people of color in the United States,” it continued.
Tree attributed the lack of innovative policies towards cultivation in South America to the slow transition in terms of Biden, “so you've got a lot of beaurucrat's bureaucrats who are running on autopilot.”
“I see very little positive signs for change,” continued Tree. “It could happen. But it's a wait and see kind of thing.”