A coca leaf. (Photo via)
According to a UN report released earlier this month, coca growing in Colombia is down by 25 percent. At first glance, the news appears to be either welcome – if you’re of the Theresa May, War on Drugs school of thought – or panic-inducing, if you’re a cokehead. But then a lot of things are panic-inducing if you’re a cokehead.
The specifics: between 2011 and the end of 2012, the area of land coca was being grown on was reduced by about a quarter, from 64,000 hectares to 48,000 hectares. The farm-gate value – literally the value of the product at the farm’s gate – of the coca leaf and its derivatives in Colombia also decreased, dropping from $422 million to $370 million.
According to the BBC, the only parts of the country that saw an increase in coca growing were those where the work of the police is hampered by FARC rebels and drug gangs – Norte de Santander, Caquetá and Chocó.
You might think that less coca-growing must mean that there's less cocaine coming out of South America, translating to less cocaine on the streets of London and New York. Well, not necessarily. It’s complicated, according to the people who know about this sort of thing. Ricardo Vargas Meza, a sociologist who specialises in Colombian coca production, says that for years there have been problems with the reliability of coca cultivation stats, since no one can agree on how much cocaine you can get from each individual coca leaf.
Coletta Youngers, a senior fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America, says that it's also important to consider the quality of coca production techniques. In recent years, improvements in this field have meant that more coke can be produced from fewer leaves. So, while some – like the Colombian government, the US and the UN themselves – may point to the report as signs of progress in the War on Drugs, Youngers argues that “these statistics don’t tell us a whole lot”. She also claims that there is “more than enough cocaine produced in the region to meet world demand", and the regional aspect is obviously an important factor here – while traffickers may have moved out of Colombia, Vargas Meza says that many are now working in Bolivia and Peru.
A coca tree in Colombia. (Photo via)
While 2012 still saw 309 tonnes of cocaine produced in Colombia – making it an $8 billion industry – Vargas Meza and Youngers both suggest other reasons for the supposed decline recorded in the UN's report. An important factor, they say, is the country's illicit mining boom. Some of the guerrilla groups and cartels that control the regions that have historically grown coca crops have moved away from producing coke, deciding to profit instead from the mineral trade, since you can’t eradicate mines by aerial fumigation.
Another reason is that Peru has now surpassed Colombia as the world's largest supplier of coca that is used for making blow. Vanda Felbab-Brown is a senior fellow specialising in foreign policy at the Washington DC-based think tank The Brookings Institution. She says that, despite talk of coordinated, regional approaches to tackling narcotics production, often one country with a significant problem is more than happy to foist their headache onto their neighbours and call it a success – which, in a nutshell, is what may have happened with Peru.
Then there is the mentality of today's cartels, who aren't so inclined to be as brash and as balls-out as Pablo Escobar's infamous Medellin outfit. Felbab-Brown says the current kingpins learned from the 1980s that being overly aggressive and ostentatious is not the way to run an international cocaine empire.
Youngers agrees. There is still much work to be done to puncture the hemisphere’s illicit drug trade, she says.
“Both the US and Colombian governments have been saying for some time that this is a big success, that they’re turning the corner,” she told me. “The reality is that the drug trade is alive and well in Colombia. You don’t have the Pablo Escobars that just dominate any more; you have smaller operations that are much harder to combat.”
If the Colombian authorities are looking for ways to do this, they could do worse than study Bolivia's tactics. The country has – for the most part – chosen not to carry out forced eradication of coca leaves. It achieved its reduction in crops through economic development – initiatives that allow coca farmers to develop other sources of income. Youngers told me that one of the problems with forced eradication of coca crops is that poor farmers are deprived of their main source of income, meaning they quickly replant the coca plants, creating a one step forward, two steps back situation.
These are people who are barely eking out an existence. According to the UN report, while the amount of land in Colombia devoted to growing coca is the lowest in the country's recorded history, the average Colombian coca farmer makes just $1,220 annually. So the next time you're queuing for a cubicle, telling the bouncer you get stage-fright while pawing at your wrap in your change pocket, ponder this: the person who cultivated the crucial component to your coke makes in a year what it costs to replace the clutch in a 2001 Nissan Altima.
Follow Danny on Twitter: @DMacCash
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