Colombian families face hardship as coca market collapses; Some blame cartels and fentanyl
By Luke Taylor
Noralba Galvis usually returns home to her village in the Colombian jungle with fresh supplies of rice, meat, salt and other foods stuffed into bags. But today, as the 40-year-old steps onboard a boat for the two-hour journey home along the Putumayo River, she carries just a single cardboard box.
“My mother gave me these chicks,” she says. “Chickens are great in times of emergency like these, when there is nothing else left to eat.”
Like most farmers in Putumayo, a vast southern department where the Andes meets the Amazon and where Colombia borders Ecuador and Peru, Galvis depends on selling coca to make a living.
Despite decades of efforts from successive Colombian governments to stamp out the green shrub used to make cocaine, it has thrived across the country’s most remote corners since the 1990s.
If families in the region do not grow coca, there is a good chance they are employed in fields to strip coca leaves, or in rudimentary labs chemically transforming the plant into white powder. Many have abandoned growing food entirely to focus on the small green shrub, depending on coca buyers for their income.
But no buyer has come to Galvis’s village for three months now, pushing her family – and nearly half a million other households – deeper into poverty.
“For most of us, coca is the only income we have,” says Galvis, who is the community representative for her remote village of 50 families. “Now no one is buying and many of us mothers are having to go hungry.”
After three years of rising prices, over the past 12 months the coca market in Colombia has inexplicably collapsed, fuelling speculation from government officials and organised crime analysts as to why cartels have stopped buying.
While experts debate whether the collapse of the market was triggered by over-production, the US fentanyl boom, Mexicans cartels muscling in on Colombia’s drug trade or a simple market glut, many rural families have been left wondering if they will be able to afford their next bag of rice. They note that similar coca market collapses have occurred in Peru and Bolivia.
The price drop has been so severe and sudden that it has prompted concern from the Colombian government and international organisations such as the World Food Programme that it could cause widespread hunger.
“Coca is a lifeline for many families. For several decades it is what people have looked to in times of crisis, such as when other crops fail. So the question is, what can they look to now?” said Elizabeth Dickinson, senior analyst for Colombia at the International Crisis Group.
About 400,000 households depend on the coca crop to get by, but in departments such as Cauca in central Colombia the price for coca base – the first step in the production of cocaine – has almost halved from £0.60 ($0.75) a gram to about £0.35.
As coca’s market value has plunged, the cost of the pesticides, gasoline and chemicals used to make cocaine base has spiked. So too have food prices.
In communities like Galvis’s, the coca buyer who came every week started coming monthly and then disappeared entirely, leaving families wondering anxiously when he will return.
“Things are never easy here. Coca is the uncomfortable way that we can get by, but now even that is becoming impossible,” the mother of three says, spooning a serving of chicken and rice on to a metal plate for her four-year-old son. Coca production in the Putumayo region leapt 77% last year, helping drive national cocaine production up 24%, to 1,738 metric tonnes– a more than 20-year high, according to the UN.
Billions of dollars are made from the illicit cocaine trade, which in Colombia has perpetuated six decades of conflict between armed guerrillas, paramilitary death squads and the military.
But precious little of that wealth has made its way to the jungle settlements where the drug’s journey begins.
There is little state presence in Galvis’s village, where residents live hours away from the nearest town in rickety wooden shacks and must fetch water from a well and construct their own bridges from concrete and wooden planks.
Coca farmers live in constant fear of violence, but continue anyway, since it is the only way to make a dignified living, said Meily Calderón, 50.
A kilogram of plantain fetches about 15,000 pesos (£3, $3.75) at the nearest market, but by the time a farmer has paid for it to be dragged through the rainforest on a mule and for a boat to ship it upriver, only about 6,000 pesos (£1.15, $1.44) remains.
“What are you supposed to do with 6,000 pesos?” Calderón asked as she walked through a forest clearing filled with rows and rows of fully grown coca plants.
Theses crops reached harvest maturity weeks ago but have been left abandoned when nobody turned up to buy the harvest.
The effects of the coca crisis have also rippled out far beyond the coca fields, hitting regional capitals. Three years of rising coca prices had caused a flurry of new restaurants and bars to pop up in the town of Puerto Asís, but as coca money dries up, the local economy is slowing down, say small business owners.
“Many of my friends studying in Puerto Asís suddenly stopped coming to class,” said 20-year-old university student Neider Cortes. “Without the coca money coming in they can’t afford the semester and had to drop out.”
The Colombian government is aware of the crisis but so far its response has been limited. Addressing the issue is complicated by a lack of clarity as to precisely why armed groups have suddenly stopped buying coca.
A recent report published by the Washington Office on Latin America listed 12 leading theories for the collapse in the price of coca – among them the deadly fentanyl boom in the US hurting demand for cocaine and the fragmentation of Colombia’s drug cartels into tiny competing businesses.
“Many of these theories don’t make sense as the market in the USA for cocaine is relatively stable and continues to grow in Europe and Asia,” said Gloria Miranda Espitia, Colombia’s director of drug policy, while on a visit to dialogue with coca producers in Putumayo. “So we think this is only an issue in Colombia and only in certain regions, which is associated with the dynamics of armed groups. There are some armed groups that are managing to sell to the international market, and there are others that are not.”
The government sees the coca crisis as an opportunity to entice farmers away from the illicit coca economy and out of the orbit of armed groups.
In Galvis’s village, campesinos are returning to legal crops such as plantain, yuca and sugar cane, which were sown by previous generations before coca swept the region.
But coca farmers could just as easily swap one illicit economy for the other: in areas with mineral deposits, struggling coca farmers are reportedly leaving coca cultivation for illegal mining.
Successive governments have tried the carrot-and-the-stick approach to halt coca production and end the cocaine trade, but neither spraying herbicide from the skies nor paying farmers cash to grow legal alternatives has prevented the crop’s relentless expansion.
Now that rural families can no longer guarantee putting food on the table by growing coca, Galvis hopes they may finally be able to leave the crop behind and with it the armed conflict.
“Even though we are screwed right now, maybe this could help farmers find their way again back to their roots,” she says. “Maybe this is just the wake-up call we need.”
Credit: The Guardian