Coca growers in Latin America need support, now

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Coca growers in Latin America need support, now

17 September 2020

By Marianne Coulavin, Student - MA Program 'Policies and Practices in International Organizations', Sciences Po Grenoble*

As almost all coca leaf markets have been severely disrupted by the pandemic situation and prices have fallen, coca growers throughout the Andean region are in dire need of assistance.

Bolivia: Power struggle between the Áñez government and farmers of the Chapare region

Since the highly-contested ousting of former president Evo Morales in November, a power struggle has been taking place between the interim right-wing regime of Jeanine Áñez and coca growers, especially those in the Chapare region.

According to Kathryn Ledebur, from the Andean Information Network (AIN), the government has taken advantage of the pandemic to cut off the Chapare region, where coca farmers are known supporters of Evo Morales. This siege has resulted in fuel shortages and made growing communities unable to access the government’s aid scheme set up to mitigate some of the impacts of the COVID-19 situation. The regime’s apparent vendetta has been riposted to with protests and blockades.

The pandemic has had and continues to have a significant impact on coca growers throughout the country. Coca leaf prices have collapsed and although they are now rising, they remain worryingly low.

To make matters worse, farmers who cannot find a legal outlet for their crops are caught between a rock and a hard place, as markets are still paralysed. As mentioned above, the government has launched three emergency subsidies, but this aid is far from reaching all the families who need it.

Moreover, since the interim government took power, the policy regarding coca cultivation has changed. What used to be tolerated and even encouraged in recognition of coca’s embeddedness in the cultural and traditional practices of the region (Morales was a cocalero himself), is now stigmatised and criminalised.

Rather than proposing a comprehensive development plan, the government has vowed to resume bygone coercive practices. Quarantine rules enacted in March have led to a standby in eradication plans. And most farmers have managed to weather hardship by having recourse to their own production (most farmers grow crops other than coca). But it is extremely likely that the pandemic will have dramatic and lasting effects in the country’s growing tensions.

Colombia: Farmers trapped between eradication task forces and armed groups

Unlike Bolivia, the Colombian government has not stopped its eradication campaign while imposing lockdown restrictions. Quite the contrary. Eradication task forces conducted such operations without protective equipment, raising fears of COVID-19 infections and violating the spirit and word of the 2016 Peace Accord.

Indeed, the Accord stipulates that the eradication of illicit crops must be voluntary. These eradication operations, which are often violent, threaten the lives of farmers, destroying their main means of subsistence and food supply, and leading to gross human rights violations.

The Duque government also expected to resume aerial spraying of glyphosate on coca fields, which had been stopped in 2015 due to concerns about the risks this chemical poses to human health and environmental sustainability. But this plan was suspended by the Constitutional Court until robust guarantees were offered by the government. In addition, on 21 August, another, local, court ordered the National Army to stop the forced eradication of illicit crops and to give priority to crop substitution.

Farmers are also threatened by powerful armed groups that rival official authorities in certain regions. Activists, human rights defenders, union and other community leaders have been killed by the hundreds in near absolute impunity.

In this context, some farmers are more frightened by the eradication task forces and armed groups than the pandemic.

The economic impact of the pandemic on coca growing communities should not be overlooked either. As in Bolivia, the price of coca has fallen and markets are paralysed, undermining families’ livelihoods and entrenching rural precarity.

Peru: The government is trying, but it’s not enough

In Peru, the price of coca leaf is reported to have gone down by up to 70 percent. This drop, accompanied by market paralysis, has raised concerns for the foreseeable future for farmers, although the price is expected to rise again once the lockdown restrictions are eased.

The state-owned company ENACO continues to operate, but most farmers sell their production to illicit operators and ENACO is unlikely to help them by buying their coca leaves.

In addition to coca, most farmers grow other crops, such as corn and bananas. But for them coca cultivation is a central means of subsistence. Even at reduced prices, coca generally yields more income than crops such as coffee or cocoa, of which prices have also been affected by the pandemic.

Since the introduction of the lockdown, the Peruvian government has stopped eradicating coca and is working with farmers to provide assistance. However, according to AIN, this aid has been unevenly attributed and many families are still waiting for it.

Peruvian authorities have also tried to take advantage of low coca prices to try to convince farmers to grow alternative crops, investing in coca-producing regions. However, without credible safety nets and clear commitments toward sustained investment, this incentive alone is not likely to be enough to prompt the switch. Researchers fear an upcoming recession may lead to the opposite, a new cultivation boom driven by one of the most resilient and established crops in the region: the coca leaf.

* This blog post was produced within the framework of a 4-month volunteering experience placement at the International Drug Policy Consortium as part of the student's MA Program 'Policies and Practices in International Organizations' at Sciences Po Grenoble.

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