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  • Campesinos harvest coca leaves in La Asunta, Bolivia.

    Campesinos harvest coca leaves in La Asunta, Bolivia. | Photo: EFE

Published 17 April 2017

Campesinos producing coca, opium poppies and marijuana in Latin America try to make a living but become victims of a drug war.

Faced with few other viable alternatives for growing profitable legal crops, many campesinos have relied on growing marijuana, coca and opium poppies to help them survive, but are subjected the rules of the state and organized crime groups.

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Crops that have traditionally been used for centuries throughout Latin America have become increasingly criminalized. Programs to destroy and replace these crops with legal ones still fail to address some of the fundamental challenges faced by those living in rural communities, while years of free trade agreements that have undermined the viability of local farming by flooding national markets with cheap subsidized imports.

The lesser of evils

For many campesino communities, economic opportunities are scarce, and growing and selling illegal crops can be much more profitable and reliable than other alternatives.

To add to this, disadvantaged rural communities often lack access to basic infrastructure, making it difficult for campesinos to transport crops to market, all for a tiny profit. Given what seems a never ending thirst for illicit drugs on the international market, particularly for customers in Europe and North America, the illegal market is not only more lucrative, but has a stable demand of willing buyers.

"I only give life to campesinos, I am not a drug."

Across Latin America, there are numerous stories of organized crime and paramilitary groups entering into isolated rural communities and going on to have a Robin Hood-like relationship with locals. With a lack of infrastructure and opportunities — including basic services, quality roads, access to credit and other bases for dignified lives and livelihoods — criminal organizations can swoop into to fill critical gaps left by the government, roping campesinos into illicit activities by providing basics such as housing and roads, as well as an income source for growing illegal crops.

But for many campesino groups, the relationship they have will organized crime groups can vary greatly depending on the approach of the cartel in question. Often relationships with campesino communities is built on fear, exploitation and force.

According to Mexican-Australian human rights and law lecturer at the University of Wollongong, Luis Gomez Romero, a number of Mexican cartels such as Los Zetas and La Familia Michoacan have used forceful tactics to control markets from rival cartels, law enforcement and even the farmers that produce the crops.

“This is systematic discrimination of campesinos, which has created an anomie of lawlessness, where their only option is to defend themselves,” Gomez Romero told teleSUR. Other groups, however, while still extremely violent, have tried to maintain their relationship with local campesinos and “basically were playing the role of the state” by providing economic opportunities for many as well as security in rural areas

Indeed, when Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman — the notorious leader of one of Mexico’s largest drug organizations, the Sinaloa cartel — was arrested, he remarked that he “was just a farmer.”

From the religious to the criminalized

Drugs have a panorama of different meanings across the world, from the religious to the recreational, and this can be clearly seen in the history of Latin America and in particular across the Andes region.

Traditionally, the coca leaf has been used for religious and cultural purposes, and is commonly chewed for energy, to fight off the effects of working at altitude in the Andes, and it was even used by some civilizations as a form of currency. All of this happened long before international drug markets swept into the region and radically altered the way the plant was produced and farmed for local communities.

While the last century has seen an overall prohibitive approach to plants that form the base of illegal drugs, there has also been a push towards legalization and regulation for the benefit of local communities. Bolivia’s president, Evo Morales, a former coca grower himself, has continually spoken out against the demonization and criminalization of coca leaves as part of an imperialist-led war on drugs.

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Since 2013, Bolivia has had an exemption from the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotics, allowing the chewing and consumption of unprocessed leaves for “cultural and medicinal purposes.” In March, Bolivia signed a law to increase it's legal cultivation of coca leaves from 12,000 to 22,000 hectares.

But critics of the new coca bill, including parts of the Bolivian opposition, have argued that the increase is uncalled for, as there is already enough surplus for leaves to meet cultural and medicinal purposes, and any further increase in production will only end up on the illegal market.

Despite what the government says has been a scare campaign against the law, the majority of Bolivian farmers have supported the changes, where protests have even erupted, including clashes with police, for cultivation limits to be entirely lifted.

While Bolivia presents an interesting example of supporting campesinos and upholding the traditional uses of coca, Colombia and Mexico — two countries that have been plagued by crime and violence associated with the drug war — have approaches towards crop legalization that remains ill-conceived in light of the root economic factors that often underlie illicit crop production.  

In Colombia, recent efforts to move away from a heavy-handed approach to the war on drugs and instead support campesinos in a post-conflict transition to legal farming have had a lot good intentions and indeed received praise, such as President Juan Manuel receiving the Nobel Peace prize. But nevertheless, according to Gomez Romero, “many of these intentions have not yet translated into effective measures.”

In Mexico, half-hearted attempts to tackle the illegal crop problem has hit the same stumbling blocks for failure to dig deep.

“In Mexico, there has not been an real debate of other sorts of solutions beyond the eradication of marijuana and other illegal drugs,” Gomez Romero said.

Eradication, substitution and skepticism

Amid the continuing prohibitionist approach to drug policy across the world, eradication and substitutions programs with the aim of cutting down production at its source and moving farmers away from illegal crops has been a popular response. But for the most part the approach has been ineffective and costly, while also frustrating campesino communities with demands for more comprehensive solutions to rural challenges.

In Mexico’s so-called “Golden Triangle” of opium production in the states of Sinaloa, Chihuahua and Durango, military-supported eradication operations have continually been playing a cat and mouse game with growers, but overall little progress has been made.  

Close to 30,000 hectares of opium fields were destroyed in the country in 2015, an increase of 77 percent from 2013, according to figures from the Mexican Army. Yet poppy cultivation in the country more than doubled after 2013 to around 28,000 hectares in 2015, according to U.S. estimates.

Last year, a United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime report ranked Mexico as the biggest grower of opium poppy in the Americas and third biggest globally behind Afghanistan and Myanmar. Mexico is also a huge producer of marijuana and methamphetamines and known for trafficking major quantities of cocaine. Indeed, experts have noted that methamphetamine and heroin headed to the U.S. has become more lucrative for cartels and incentivised growers in Mexico, as marijuana became legal across several U.S. states.

Across the Golden Triangle and further south in the state of Guerrero, thousands of Mexican campesinos have demanded that the government stop the strategy of deploying the military to destroy their crops. Last year, grievances erupted into protests in areas of Chilpancingo, where poppy farmers blocked off a highway and clashed with police to clamour for rights as growers, with dozens jailed during the incidents.

Guerrero is another example of an isolated community with few alternative opportunities, where many are pushing for legal poppy growing to produce medical opiates such as morphine and painkillers to help support the livelihood of locals, while also improving security in the region. Even the state’s governor, Hector Astudillo Flores, has advocated for a trial of legal poppy production.

“Historically, the highland region of Guerrero has been one of the most forgotten by the government,” Ricardo Castillo, director of the news organization Quadratin Guerrero, told teleSUR last year. “They almost don’t make any roads, don’t develop public services, there almost aren’t any hospitals or schools."

In the the world’s biggest cocaine producer, Colombia, the story of eradication and substitution programs paint a similar narrative. Coca crops have been key in providing many campesinos with a living, but have also financed the long-running civil war by providing income for right-wing paramilitary groups and guerrilla armies, such as the FARC and the ELN, for years.

Now as the FARC continues its demobilization as part of its peace deal signed with the government last year, there are serious concerns for the plight of campesinos who were previously given protection from the FARC to grow coca. Not only do they continue to face few other economic opportunities, but other violent right-wing groups have begun to move into these areas vacated by the FARC, threatening human rights. And the overarching issue of rural inequality and lack of campesino rights to land, which has been at the heart of the country’s more than half century-long civil war, continues to loom large.

The current plan for crop substitution, agreed to as a cornerstone of the historic peace agreement between the FARC and the government, is to replace around 50,000 hectares of illegal crops across 40 municipalities with cacao and fruit tree cultivation in 2017.

The government has also started initiatives for giving land titles to thousands of campesinos who abandon illegal crops. Families that agree to the voluntary program will receive a monthly stipend of US$340 and will be eligible for two one-time payments of up to US$3,000 for implementing additional food security projects, such as fish and poultry farming.

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Nevertheless, many campesinos remain cautious and skeptical of the government plans. Apart from security concerns, many are wary the government will not be able to improve their market access to sell new legal crops and fall short on effort improve infrastructure, a promise that has in the past faded away.

Protests from coca farmers against eradication have also exploded recently in the Colombian department of Nariño. This month, according to local reports, a police officer was shot dead during protests in the village of Lorente and a group of police officers were kidnapped and later released.

Protesters say that crop substitutions programs have not reached them and their only source of livelihood is being destroyed. The government, under pressure to keep record levels of coca production at bay, has even accused armed groups, in particularly the still-active ELN guerrilla rebels, for paying farmers to protest.

“What we believe is that it is possible that many communities will not accept the government’s offer, not because it does not appeal to them, but because of the fear that they may be killed or displaced from their areas,” Alvaro Alvarez, coordinator of the Tierralta Municipal Table of Victims in the department of Cordoba told El Heraldo.

And if history is anything to go by, it's easy to understand campesino concerns. After years of continued aerial fumigations of coca crops, Colombia ceased the practice in 2015, after the World Health Organization deemed that the pesticides used were likely to cause cancer, but manual fumigation was later brought back into practice.

Winding back to the 1990s, the U.S and Colombia agreed on a number of programs to promote cultivation of legal crops, such as roses, to cut down on coca production and stem the flow of drugs into the U.S.

While the plan saw an influx of legal Colombian crops into the U.S., it had little positive effects for shifting the drug trade and the 1990’s was one of the bloodiest periods in Colombia's history. Despite the substitution program, coca cultivation from 1991 and 1992 actually increased by around 10 percent and potential coca leaf output increased by 13 percent, according to a 1993 report by the U.S. Office of National Drug Control Policy.

The report concluded that “crop substitution is not a promising strategy for reducing coca cultivation in the Andes," as was seen as political tool rather than a programs that offered sound economic benefits to producers.

Instead, Colombian campesinos “adopted successful strategies to remain coca producers even when governments have pressured them to change to legal economic activities,” the report continued.  With increased U.S. military funding through Plan Colombia at the beginning of the next decade, Colombia’s coca eradication efforts became more heavy-handed, but still without desired results, while the root causes that force campesinos to turn to illegal crops remained unaddressed.

Campesinos fight for better options

Overall, a fundamental problem of the crop substitution programs are that crops like marijuana and coca are extremely easy to grow as well as profitable. The contrast comes into even starker relief when these illicit crops are considered against legal crops that may require particular climate factors and rigorous tending to produce decent yields.

And the fruits of that hard labor, often challenged by lack of stable land access and poor infrastructure support, may not even make dignified money for rural families after years of free trade policies have ravaged local agricultural markets and undercut the viability of campesino livelihoods.

Despite a number of initiatives to support campesinos away from growing crops, for governments such as Mexico and Colombia who have relied on years of U.S. funding their drug wars, overall the approach remains the same and campesinos continue to be criminalized as the some of the key problems, namely viable economic opportunities, development and land rights in rural communities continue to go by the wayside.

“With these levels of oppression, the state has to take a stronger committed position on policy making,” Gomez Romero said. “And dialogue with stakeholders to provide campesinos with better options.”

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