Diakonia - People change the world
Erney Ruiz – 80 per cent of the small scale farmers cultivate for the drug dealers, says Erney Ruiz, standing in his neighbor’s coca field. He used to be one of them. But now he is against illegal trade.

Drugs a threat to lasting peace

Colombia is the world leader in cocaine exports. According to the peace agreement, the illegal cultivation of coca leaves for narcotics production must cease. But this is a difficult task. Conflicts and violence surrounding the drugs trade pose a threat to peace. Diakonia’s partner organizations are driving efforts to ensure that the government takes greater responsibility and to offer small-scale farmers alternatives.

Around the small town of Miranda, western Colombia, most inhabitants make a living from illegal plantations of marijuana or coca leaves used to produce cocaine. We need only travel a short distance outside the town centre to see the coca plantations spread out before us. Bright-green bushes cover the steep slopes of the mountain, stretching all the way to the roads, in plain sight. Kilometre after kilometre. Two girls aged about eight stand by the roadside, with plastic sacks tied around their waists, their hands sore from picking coca leaves. They look down self-consciously as we pass by.

Coca becomes cocaine

Coca leaves have traditionally been grown in these areas for centuries. People have mainly chewed the leaves, which gives a mildly stimulating effect and keeps hunger at bay. The leaves also contain a multitude of nutrients. It’s only when they are processed chemically that they are converted into the drug cocaine. This is made in illegal laboratories. It’s due to the profitability of cocaine that coca leaves have seen such high demand and attracted groups of violent criminals to the area. 

Farmers can see no alternatives

“The economy in and around Miranda is based on illegal crops – coca leaves and marijuana. Not because those who grow them want to contribute to the drugs trade but because they can see no alternatives. Regular crops aren’t profitable. Our people need help from the government to replace coca and marijuana. But the government has abandoned us in this part of the country,” says Fredy Guevara, leader of the Páez people in the area.

Threat to peace

Drug production poses a genuine threat to peace in Colombia. The replacement of illegal crops has been assigned its own chapter in the peace agreement. The coca bushes must be removed and farmers offered alternatives. But here in Miranda, people are afraid that the offer from the government is not generous enough.

The impoverished small-scale farmers who grow coca leaves don’t earn huge amounts, but they have enough to buy food, clothes and school materials for their children. The coca bush is well suited to the dry land, it is easy to maintain and yields four harvests per year. Also, the drug dealers collect the harvest straight from the farmers’ doors, so the farmers avoid transporting products such as maize, pineapples or tomatoes on the poorly maintained roads to markets far away, where they only earn a fraction of the amount.

Hunger an obstacle to peace

“When hunger comes calling, peace goes out the window. As long as there’s hunger, there can be no peace,” says Fredy Guevara.

If the government decides to destroy the coca bushes using repressive methods and a massive military presence, there’s a great risk that violent situations will arise.

“Last week, the army came here to uproot coca bushes. The farmers didn’t dare go and harvest them, which immediately results in hunger. There are no margins,” says Erney Ruiz, himself a coca farmer.

Offering alternatives

Previously, he also sold his crop to the drug dealers, but 18 years ago, he decided to take a different path. Together with Diakonia’s partner organization Fundecima, he wants to offer the farmers in the area an alternative. He buys coca leaves from them to make traditional, innocuous products such as tea, flour and nutritious biscuits. He sells the products in a small shop, in the centre of the village of Lerma.

“Government needs to take responsibility”

“But to get the farmers to give up growing coca leaves for narcotics production, the government has to take responsibility. Investments must be made in roads, opportunities for the farmers to market and sell fruit and vegetables must be improved, and credit and technical training must be provided,” says Diakonia’s Country Manager in Colombia, Cesar Grajales.