by Adam Isacson

In the vast areas of Colombia’s countryside where evidence of government is scarce, you can see the bright green bushes once again growing up to the roadside. They’re usually knee-high, indicating that they were planted recently. They’re in the same parts of the country as before: farmers don’t seem to be cutting down new forest and growing in new areas. Usually, it is one of several cash crops on a farmer’s land: at least some of the legal crops are more profitable, he or she will tell you, but with prices fixed by armed groups or organized crime, coca offers the steadiest income.

Colombia is in the midst of a coca boom, perhaps its largest ever. The numbers show an explosion in plantings of the bush that produces leaves indigenous people in Peru and Bolivia (and a few in Colombia) have used for centuries, and drug traffickers today use to make cocaine. Using methods that it does not discuss, the U.S. government estimated 159,000 hectares of coca planted in Colombia in 2015 (a hectare is about two and a half acres). When it releases its 2016 estimate—reportedly on March 14—the U.S. number could reach or exceed 180,000 hectares for the first time ever. (The United Nations releases its own estimates, in cooperation with Colombia’s National Police, usually in June. Using a methodology that its reports endeavor to explain, the UN found 96,000 hectares in 2015. Though the U.S. and UN estimates diverge widely, they tend to follow similar trendlines—and both are increasing.)

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Thumbnail: Flickr CC Duane Storey