The latest report from the International Narcotics Control Board (INCF) of UNDOC points to a marked increase in coca cultivation in the region. ¡PACIFISTA! visit the depths of the biggest coca-growing region in Colombia. Español
This article was originally published for ¡PACIFISTA!
Colombia’s Tumaco region has the country’s highest number of coca plantations: 16,920 hectares according to official figures. But according to Rear Admiral Carlos Serrano, commander of the Fuerza de Tarea Poseidón (a drug-trafficking task force), the number of hectares could reach up to 29,000.
The region exports 60% of Colombia's cocaine bound for the United States. Every month there are tonnes of cocaine, ready to be marketed abroad, but the beginning of this supply chain is the peasant farmers.
Don José, one of the coca farmers of Santa Rosa, one hour away from Tumaco by speedboat, has always known that the plant is illegal, but, he says, with no roads connecting to his land to be able to market other products and job opportunities or interested entrepreneurs in the peripheries of the country, the best alternative is growing coca. “We are willing to replace crops, as long as there is a real commitment to support us. The government only comes here by helicopter to damage our crops, shoot us and accuse us of being guerrillas”, says one of the farmers.
The coca leaf is collected every 3 months, whereas as alternatives such as cocao, banana or coconut is harvested annually. Furthermore, with coca, the revenues are four-fold. From his two hectares, Don José harvests 12 kilos of leaves that sell for 2 million pesos ($680 US) per kilo. He earns about 96 million pesos a year ($32,850 US), of which 40 million pesos are left over as net revenues.
Exponential profits have boosted coca plantations in recent years, despite the considerable amounts invested to combat it. According to the US State Department, Colombia experienced a 42% increase in illegal cultivation from 2014 to 2015.
The coca leaf is the main sustenance of 80 percent of the Afro-descedent community on the banks of the Río Mexicano.
Around the year 2000, coca cultivation arrived from the Chagüí River to these more remote areas. “Coca brought the guerrillas,and then the paramilitaries”, says a local man, responding to the recent threat of criminal gangs.
Each farmer cultivates around 2 hectares using traditional farming techniques, unlike the large plantations of the ‘mestizos’ who arrived two decades ago.
A year ago, the eradication of crops was carried out by aeriel spraying – which killed animals, contaminated rivers and affected crops. It also developed allergies in local communities, and even, according to some, deaths.
Coca generates about 40 million pesos ($13,799 US) net in revenues. The farmer produces about 12 kilos of coca per harvest, which sells as 2 ($684 US) million pesos per kilo.
The 55 year old Don José used to grow coconut. “Now necessities have changes, and families need to send their children to study”, he explained, as a reason for the increase in coca production.
Due to the lack of aqueducts, locals have to use water from the river, despite it being contaminated by the poison used to combat coca cultivation in the aerial spraying.
In the village of Guayabo, an hour by speedboat from Tumaco, there are about 100 families – all descendants of slaves.
The route to Tumaco is along the Río Mexicano, and can only be travelled by boat. A return ticket costs 100,000 pesos ($35 US), which is too high a cost for the locals. The tributary is drying up day by day, and is limiting their ability to move around the area.
A FARC camp in Variante, Tumaco. As the guerilla Group demobilises, other groups linked to drug-trafficking have moved in to continue the business.
In the last year, coca cultivation has increased by 90%, according to Rear Admiral Carlos Serrano, commander of the Fuerza de Tarea Poseidón (an anti-trafficking task force). This already covers 16,920 hectares, although the number could be as high as 29,000 he says.
The anti-narcotics police force are present in the área. This year, the government has eradicated 5,000 hectares of coca cultivation throughout the country, and of these, 424 were in Tumaco. The total goal is to reach 50,000 by 2017.
The armed forces uses helicopters to transfer the police responsible for the eradication of the coca crops.