That white powder you snort off your key takes a long journey, starting in the rural mountains of Colombia and moving thousands of miles along drug trafficking routes. Colombia is the world leader in cocaine production, and the US the world’s largest consumer. Pressured and aided by the US, Colombia governments have waged war on the coca plant for decades, and it may soon be heating up once again.
On March 2, US President Donald Trump met with Colombia President Iván Duque Márquez in Washington, DC to discuss challenges including the Venezuela crisis and drug trafficking. Trump urged Duque to resume aerial herbicide spraying on the country’s coca farms, which was previously abandoned.
“Well, you’re going to have to spray. If you don’t spray, you’re not going to get rid of them. So you have to spray, with regard to the drugs in Colombia,” Trump said. Duque then promised to “combine all the options available” to target the cocaine trade, adding, “We have to work on all the elements and we have to be very strong against that crime.”
Whether or not Colombia can or will resume coca crop spraying is complicated, affected by court rulings, rural economic development and an historic 2016 peace treaty. But the glyphosate used in past spraying campaigns may put both the country’s people and its environment at risk. And aerial spraying is likely to have little-to-no effect on overall production.
Throughout the 1990s and again until 2015, the US assisted Colombia in using airplanes to spray glyphosate herbicide over 4.4 million acres of land, an area almost the size of New Jersey. Former President Juan Manuel Santos suspended the program in 2015, after UN officials found that glyphosate is “probably carcinogenic to humans.” (Fun fact: Glyphosate is also the active ingredient in the weedkiller RoundUp, which is widely available in the US.)
The US denies that glyphosate has significant negative side effects, but governments including the state of California and Belgium, France and the Netherlands have warned against using it or placed restrictions on its sale. In 2018, a California court awarded a man $78 million after he contracted cancer from the chemical.
Research on glyphosate’s environmental impact is less clear but, a 2018 study suggested that it accumulates in plants and the environment. By shifting microbial compositions, it may lead to more pathogens, disease and antibiotic resistance. The researchers called for more study on this.
In 2015 and 2017, Colombia’s supreme court placed significant restrictions on spraying, but did not ban it. According to their ruling, aerial spraying can resume only if the government avoids nature reserves, and indigenous and “peasant” reserves; if it completes a scientific study proving there are no health impacts; and if it includes affected indigenous communities in setting regulations and passing them through legislation.
Duque appealed to the court as recently as last year to ask that they allow the maximum possible spraying. His government wants to eradicate coca through a combination of aerial spraying and manual techniques.
In November 2016, the Colombian government signed an historic peace deal with the rebel group Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), after more than 50 years of civil war and hundreds of thousands of deaths. Although the deal has not completely ended fighting in the country, it has bound the government to some important terms as it seeks to unify the country and bolster its credibility.
The deal includes provisions to reduce the illicit drug trade, and the government agreed to pay subsidies to farmers to substitute legal crops for coca. Farmers who can prove they destroy their own coca crop will receive the equivalent of $12,000 per family over two years. Before former President Santos left office, his administration signed contracts promising to pay over 200,000 families.
Santos’s successor, Duque, has refused to sign on any new families to these accords. Both presidents have been late in issuing payments and have not budgeted enough federal funding to cover the cost. And the US government is refusing to pay anything in assistance because some farmers are allied with FARC, whom the US considers terrorists.
The 2016 peace deal also includes promises to fund economic development in rural areas, many of which lack basic services and infrastructure. The government has made little to no progress in this effort.
“By going ahead with [farmer subsidies] first, Colombia is essentially doing this backwards,” stated the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) last year. “What happens when the two years of [subsidies ends], but farmers remain in zones with no land titles, no farm-to-market roads, and no police or other basic services? Many will turn back to coca.”
By any measure, Colombian cocaine production is shooting up. In 2018, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) found that in 2017, coca production by acre was higher than ever recorded. And since 2013, the number of families living off the crop has nearly doubled, to over 119,500. Aerial spraying has historically done little to drive down the cocaine trade.
“The experience in Colombia between the early 1990s and the mid-2010s showed that fumigation could achieve short-term reductions in coca cultivation in specific areas,” WOLA stated. “In the medium and long term, though, crops recovered as growers adjusted.”
Both the UNODC and the US Government Accountability Office have agreed that crop spraying is ineffective. Even President Santos told US Vice President Mike Pence that in 2007, the year when crop spraying was at its peak, coca production increased the most.
UNODC data show that the street price of a gram of cocaine has steadily declined since 1990, despite increased enforcement and crop eradication. As WOLA explained, this is likely because even if enforcement in Colombia causes cocaine prices to increase, the drugs’ value still balloons nearly 30,000 percent by the time it reaches US cities, providing a huge incentive to find a way to deliver the product.
Rather than spend hundreds of millions of dollars each year to spread a poison over the countryside and people’s homes, the Colombian and US governments should instead work to create better economic opportunities and security for poor farmers.
Image of crop eradication efforts in Colombia from the US Government Accountability Office via Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain.