Colombia’s coca farmers want viable alternatives, not militarization
Marina, a 50-year-old farmer and human rights defender from Colombia’s mountainous Catatumbo region, has never known peace. Dotted with lime-green coca plantations, this fertile but remote area near the Venezuela border has suffered decades of conflict between the army, paramilitaries and multiple guerrilla groups, two of which killed Marina’s father and brother when she was a child.
Today, like many local farmers, she has little choice but to grow coca – the illicit crop used to make cocaine – on the steep plot of land where she also keeps chickens, pigs and rabbits alongside parsley and turmeric plants. Guerrillas often skirmish with the soldiers camped near her mountaintop farmhouse, at times forcing her to flee with her husband, son and grandchildren when they hear gunshots and mortars raining down.
“Every day I think my life could be in danger, because if I don’t give the soldiers water or I don’t sell them whatever they want then I become a guerrilla accomplice,” says Marina, who works with the Committee for Social Integration in Catatumbo (CISCA) to defend agricultural workers’ land rights.
Her fears are well founded. Colombia was the world’s deadliest country for human right defenders in 2019, with Front Line Defenders counting at least 106 killings. The UN said it was “deeply troubled by the staggering number” of killings, which could reach as high as 120. The 2016 peace deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) has had little impact in Catatumbo, where other groups like the National Liberation Army (ELN) and Popular Liberation Army (EPL) have a strong presence and some FARC dissidents have since returned to armed struggle.
President Iván Duque has deployed 5,000 troops to support the 12,000 already stationed there in “liberating citizens from the pressures of terrorism and drug-trafficking”, while boasting of delivering new infrastructure, aqueducts, electricity, housing, childcare and roads to the region. Yet Catatumbo’s agricultural workers say the state has abandoned and stigmatized them, with insufficient social investment leaving no viable alternative to coca farming. Local officials and social leaders want more sustainable development instead of militarization, warning that government plans to resume the controversial aerial fumigation of coca crops will provoke yet more violence and displacement.
Marina would like to stop growing coca but says it’s the only product with enough demand for buyers to come directly to collect it. The area’s dirt roads are impassable when it rains, making it impractical for farmers to transport other produce to the nearest cities, which are many hours away. With little evidence of a state presence beyond the army checkpoints and helicopters that buzz overhead, local communities have even set up their own toll booths to raise funds to fix the roads as best they can. Instead of sending more soldiers, Marina wishes the government would invest in roads, health centers and reforestation programs to protect the environment and create better opportunities for future generations: “I believe in peace. I don’t want other children to suffer what I went through.”
Distrust of the army is pervasive in Catatumbo. Locals fear that if they stand up for their rights the army will accuse them of involvement with guerrillas to justify arresting, killing or forcibly disappearing them. In one case last April, residents of the village Campo Alegre discovered soldiers burying the body of Dimar Torres, a former FARC combatant who had disarmed in accordance with the peace agreement. A corporal was convicted for shooting Torres, while a colonel faces trial for allegedly ordering the extrajudicial execution.
Every day I think my life could be in danger, because if I don’t give the soldiers water or I don’t sell them whatever they want then I become a guerrilla accomplice... I believe in peace. I don’t want other children to suffer what I went through
Fighting back tears at her humble home, Dimar’s sister Mary Torres says the army falsely claimed he was carrying firearms and tried to portray him as an active guerrilla: “If they knew something, why didn’t they take him and hold him? They didn’t have to kill him like a dog.”
Children are also at risk. In July 2018, María Trinidad Andrade’s nine-year-old daughter and three-year-old granddaughter were wounded when a shootout erupted in Campo Alegre and stray rounds sliced through their bedroom walls. Trinidad believes soldiers stationed in front of the house were responsible for the shots that scarred her daughter above the knee and damaged her granddaughter’s bladder and colon. When she confronted the army, it blamed guerrillas for the shooting.
The school in San José del Tarra, another remote village, has advice on avoiding landmines pinned to its walls and holds workshops instructing children on what to do if they find grenades or other explosives. “The conflict has scarred every one of us,” says a member of a local women’s collective. “We want this to end already. We don’t want more deaths… we’re afraid that people will get used to it, that it becomes something normal.”
The village’s 700 inhabitants have few alternatives to coca farming. Those who have tried selling cacao, coffee and bananas say their sales failed to cover the costs of production. “There are honest people here, noble people who are waiting for the state to notice them and address their needs,” the woman adds. “Militarizing the area will not solve the problem of San José del Tarra… It needs decent housing, modern public services, good education and healthcare.”
In Hacarí, a nearby town with soldiers camped in its leafy central plaza, the municipal government secretary, Isnardo Rincón, agrees the state presence is lacking and that troop deployments “don’t help us at all, really”. Rincón urges the federal government to provide locals with viable alternatives to coca, ensuring that they have the necessary infrastructure to sell legal crops at a profit. “We need projects that will benefit the families here, because they’re dependent on coca, it’s their livelihood,” he says. “If the state doesn’t provide a solution for agricultural workers, they won’t stop farming coca.”
So far, the Duque administration has provided insufficient funding to subsidize the substitution of coca plants through a program established under the peace deal. His government is pursuing a more aggressive approach, announcing plans in December to resume the aerial fumigation of coca crops using the herbicide glyphosate, five years after the previous administration suspended its use due to links to cancer.
On a humid evening at a ranch in the town of El Tarra, the mayor, José de Dios Toro Villegas, warns that aerial fumigation, which can also affect legal crops near coca plantations, would have devastating effects, leaving families in extreme poverty and driving farmers to take up arms. “It will unleash a wave of violence because the people are against it,” he says. “Nobody likes having the bread taken from their table.”
We need projects that will benefit the families here, because they’re dependent on coca, it’s their livelihood. If the state doesn’t provide a solution for agricultural workers, they won’t stop farming coca
Rather than providing security or opportunities for the population, many in Catatumbo suspect the government’s priority is to safeguard the exploitation of natural resources in a region rich in oil, gold and coal. Álvaro Pérez, a CISCA member in El Tarra, believes the army and paramilitary groups are primarily there to pave the way for extractive projects: “They sow terror among the population in order to displace people, leaving the land free for them to do as they please with it.”
A 2014 UN report supports this interpretation, noting that mining and energy firms sometimes work with paramilitaries to advance their interests in Catatumbo, while army deployments to protect oil infrastructure have resulted in human rights violations such as the bombing of territory belonging to the indigenous Barí people.
Similar concerns arise at a community meeting in the town of Filo Gringo. The government is reluctant to provide viable alternatives to coca, suggests one man, “because it allows them to keep criminalizing us and come to our territory to impose the development plans they need. We must study these plans and ask: development for whom?”
The community echoes agreement. Many locals view their territory as a sacred and intrinsic part of their identity, providing subsistence and spiritual wellbeing. They will not give their land up easily.
Back at her farmhouse, Marina is equally determined to resist displacement. “I was born here,” she says, “I live here, and I want to die here.”