Bolivia's Smarter Approach to Controlling Coca Production

Photo source: Thomas Grisaffi/FPIF

On May 14, 2015, the government of Colombia announced that it would stop using glyphosate in the aerial fumigation of coca crops. The herbicide was being used as part of a 20-year-old supply-reduction tactic backed technically and financially by the United States.

Colombia’s decision followed on the heels of a report published by the International Agency for Research on Cancer and issued by the World Health Organization that labeled glyphosate as a potential carcinogenic herbicide.

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, a champion of drug policy reform in the international arena, has announced a moratorium until October 1, 2015, to identify alternatives to the aerial eradication method of controlling the production of cocaine at its source. While advocates of forced eradication are demanding Colombia resume this practice, critics of this model are calling for policies that prioritize human development and human rights. 

This article was first published by Open Society Foundations. Read the original here.

Over the last 30 years, Colombia, Bolivia, and Peru, the world’s largest coca-cocaine producers, have experienced the worst of the "War on Drugs," and their poor and marginalized communities have shouldered this burden disproportionately. Forced crop eradication using harmful pesticides and without viable livelihood alternatives has put the health and economies of local communities at risk and caused forced displacement. Increased militarization of the War on Drugs coupled with expanded police authority and corruption has led to social destabilization, the erosion of public safety, and the death of citizens, activists, and journalists.

New evidence of the potential benefits of a more progressive approach offers Colombia the opportunity to distance itself from traditional supply-side coca control mechanisms by placing farmers’ rights at the center of drug policy reform.

Habeas Coca: Bolivia’s Community Coca Control by Kathryn Ledebur and Linda Farthing, is timely in offering alternatives to forced eradication. The most recent contribution to the Lessons for Drug Policy series draws from a process initiated in Bolivia in 2004 when the Cato policy was put into effect allowing farmers to grow 1,600 square meters of subsistence coca per household. Later, in 2009, under the administration of Evo Morales, implementation of the community control model began. Under this scheme, farmers are subjected to monitoring by their peers and where excess coca production is identified, it is voluntarily eradicated, taking forced eradication out of the equation. This model is not necessarily limited to controlling excess coca production. As reported by Ledebur and Farthing, it is a multidimensional and participatory model that promotes the industrialization of coca and improves farmers’ livelihoods.

The Bolivian community control model can be seen as a sequence of replicable public policy actions: decriminalization of coca leaves and coca growers; creation of a coca grower’s participatory mechanism; and support for integral and sustainable socio-economic development projects with respect to the coca plant. As pointed out by Ledebur and Farthing, the community control model “has proven more effective and cost-efficient than forced eradication in controlling coca production and represents a local proposal appropriate to its context.”

The Colombian experience offers evidence of the harmful effects of mechanisms focused exclusively on reducing supply and demonstrates their limitations given that the Andean country remains the main cocaine exporter to the U.S. Habeas Coca offers lessons that other Andean countries can adapt to their own realities. The report shows that is it possible to reduce coca cultivation in a manner that is peaceful and increases the legitimacy of the state. All of these factors are relevant to the current Colombian context.

According to Habeas Coca, coca production in Bolivia has dropped by around 24 percent since 2008 when forced eradication ended and was replaced by a model focused on community control. Since the implementation of this new policy, violent confrontations between police and farmers have almost disappeared. Furthermore, of the almost 12,000 hectares of coca eradicated, less than 2,000 hectares were eradicated by force, whereas almost 10,000 hectares were voluntarily removed.

The potential benefits for Colombia are even greater given the context of the peace process between the government and the insurgent group Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC). The partial agreement between the two parties on the drug problem has established participatory mechanisms for the coca growing communities to define their own integral development model, avoiding ineffective alternative development projects.

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime’s (UNODC) most recent report on Colombia indicates that coca cultivation increased by 44 percent between 2013 and 2014 and cocaine production rose from 290 to 420 tons. Clearly the policies that maintain the status quo approach to coca control have failed.

Bolivia’s community control model offers many insights into limiting coca production that can be adapted to the Colombian context. Such approaches, combined with state-building policies in historically marginalized territories, can also reduce violence, augment livelihoods, and place human interests at the center of an effective supply-side drug policy.

Later this month, Pope Francis will visit Bolivia and has reportedly requested that coca leaves be available during his visit. Ideally, this event will increase awareness in the international arena of supply-side policies that have been harmful to the human rights and cultures of indigenous communities.


Diego Garcia-Devis is a Colombian political scientist and program officer with the Open Society Global Drug Policy Program.