Infosurhoy.com - Coca cultivation in Colombia fell from 64,000 hectares in 2011 to 48,000 in 2012, with most of the country’s 23 departments where it’s grown registering reductions.
However, the 2012 Coca Cultivation Survey released by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) suggests that in the departments of Cauca, Antioquia and Bolívar, the reduction is due to the shift of coca growers to illegal mining.
The government’s drug enforcement strategy has focused on the manual eradication of coca – the plant used to produce cocaine – and the continuous spraying of crops, according to Colombia’s Ministry of Justice and Law.
Throughout the coca production chain, it’s the agricultural sector (planting, crop maintenance and harvesting) that has the lowest profit levels, according to the ministry. Therefore, the migration of coca growers to illegal mining can be explained by the low profitability of the crop itself.
But the decrease in the hectares of coca crops doesn’t necessarily mean a decrease in coca production, said Angelika Rettberg, director of the “Armed conflicts, Peace building and Global Studies in Security” research group at Universidad de Los Andes in Bogotá.
“To determine the effectiveness of the coca eradication strategy, we have to monitor how much of the product is being exported,” she said.
Rettberg added illegal armed groups, such as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and National Liberation Army (ELN), have seen their financing decrease in recent years, leading them to seek new options.
Gold has become an alternative, mainly due to the upward trend of its price on the international market.
“The financial crisis has led investors to take a renewed interest in gold, which they see as a solid and secure asset,” Rettberg said. “Therefore, its price has increased considerably over the last decade.”
In addition, unlike coal or oil, gold provides high returns on relatively low levels of production, meaning it can be extracted on a small scale.
The migration from one illegal activity to another demonstrates that in many regions, residents are willing to provide their labor to the highest bidder.
“The danger of this dynamic is the legitimization of illegality and the persistence of the problem,” the Ministry of Justice said “Today it’s illegal mining. Tomorrow it could be illegal logging, human trafficking, weapons smuggling or something else.”
Among the alternatives proposed by the government for combating illegal mining are incentives to cultivate food crops and support for the construction of secondary and tertiary roads, allowing farmers to ship their products outside of the region.
Another possibility is to establish voluntary manual eradication programs, which provide financing, technical assistance and organizational support for alternative production projects.
About 310,000 people are engaged in coca cultivation in Colombia, according to the Ministry of Justice.
“Until steps are taken toward a systematic solution that addresses the root causes of drug trafficking, there will always be illegal crops,” Rettberg said.
In this regard, the Ministry of Justice has stated increased support for food crops and the building of roads will make it easier to deal with coca production.
Meantime, the Ministry of Mines and Energy has outlined a variety of agreements with informal mining groups. The idea is to protect traditional miners and target miners connected with armed groups.
Deputy Minister of Mines Natalia Gutiérrez presented a four-point proposal earlier this year for combating illegal mining:
Recognition of informal mining;
Protocols allowing informal miners to continue their activities while engaged in administrative procedures;
Establishment of criteria allowing small, formalized miners to participate in the bidding processes in Strategic Reserve Areas;
Definition of environmental criteria for small-scale mining.
Given informal mining is in the process of being legalized, the migration from coca cultivation to mining is seen as a positive opportunity for change, Gutiérrez said.
“The Ministry of Mines wants to encourage small-scale mining, provided that it’s carried out in an environmentally responsible manner,” she added.
*Editor’s note: On Oct. 28, Infosurhoy.com will publish a report by Felipe Fuentes on the farming of arowana fish in the departments of Caquetá and Putumayo, as alternatives to the illegal growing of coca.