As Colombia transitions towards peace, coca farmers and plantations could play an instrumental role in the country’s progression towards sustainability and inclusivity. A new report published by the Open Society Foundations, Coca Industrialization: A Path to Innovation, Development, and Peace in Colombia, explores the potential that the coca plant offers.
For thousands of years, the coca plant (Erythroxylum spp) has been considered to be a sacred crop in the Andean region. It has been used by indigenous people as a nutritional food, as medicine, and even as currency. Conversely, the use of coca’s most famous derivative, cocaine, is a relatively new phenomenon which largely departs from the traditional use of the plant.
The international crusade against cannabis, opium, and coca, beginning in the 20th Century, had a major impact on Colombia’s approach to the plant and its derivatives. In 1961, the UN enacted the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, which demanded that states “enforce the uprooting of all coca bushes which grow wild […], destroy the coca bushes if illegally cultivated”. The document also states that “coca leaf chewing must be abolished within twenty-five years”.
The ratification of this convention was followed by the systematic burning of crops and the aerial spraying of coca plantations, which caused innumerable problems for farmers and local communities. The latter practice being particularly hazardous, as it dissipates chemicals into soil and water reserves, poisoning food, water, and animals.
In the 1990s and early 2000s, the Colombian Constitution and multiple court rulings recognised that indigenous people have a right to a sustainable, healthy environment and participation in decisions affecting their daily well-being. With this recognition in hand, several communities regained confidence to practice traditions of coca cultivation. Nonetheless, the national food and medicines authority INVIMA, defying multiple court and state rulings, refuses to issue certifications for coca products and issues warning against their use. This bars local farmers from making their produce available to supermarkets and pharmacies.
Other Latin American coca-producing countries, including Peru and Bolivia, have recognised the importance of remodelling their approaches to the coca plant, and facilitating legitimate businesses’ production of coca products. The National Coca Company of Peru and the Coca Leaf Vice Ministry of Bolivia are two examples of coca industrialisation projects that are providing sustainable and profitable livelihoods for coca farmers, producing over 150 products between them.
As Colombia strives to maintain stability upon a fragile peace agreement, regulating the coca trade could offer profound benefits to the country. By shifting the cultivation of coca towards legitimate, profitable, and competitive products, coca farmers could gain economic strength and reassert their identity and relationship with local authorities. With mounting political will to recognise the traditional and beneficial properties of the coca plant, the industrialisation of the crop could be a sustainable approach for improving economic integration and growth. Furthermore, it would combat the stigmatisation of the coca plant and reaffirm it as one of Colombia’s most precious assets.
As Colombia continues to experience social and political changes, further legitimisation of the coca plant would help improve inclusivity and sustainability for all – particularly indigenous communities.
Read the new report from Open Society Foundations: Coca Industrialization: A Path to Innovation, Development, and Peace in Colombia
*Karen Mamo has a master’s degree in Conflict Resolution and Mediterranean Security and a keen interest in drug policy reform.