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News > Latin America

Cocaine or Roses: Colombian Drug War Debate Sends Flowers to US

  • A worker checks roses in preparation for the upcoming Valentine's Day, at a farm in Cajica, Colombia.

    A worker checks roses in preparation for the upcoming Valentine's Day, at a farm in Cajica, Colombia. | Photo: Reuters

Published 14 February 2017

Failed crop substitution programs aimed at stemming coca production are the reason that your Valentine's Day flowers come from Colombia.

To arrive at a U.S. household on Valentine's Day, a bouquet of roses likely came from a farm in Colombia. This is the same route most cocaine takes to reach the U.S. This is not just a coincidence. A drug war crop substitution program has made it easier for Colombian flowers to flood the U.S. market, but the policy has not achieved its intended result.

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As flower exports from Colombia to the U.S. have increased in the past two decades through loosened trade restrictions, lawmakers in both countries hoped cocaine trafficking would decrease. But that hasn't been the case.

As Colombia moves towards implementing its peace deal and works towards cutting out illegal drug production and associated organized crime, for many Colombians – particularly farmers – the choice between the country’s most well-known crops has significant political and economic consequences.

Peace was signed last year between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. Troops have begun demobilizing and the mechanisms to give the organization a legitimate legal political voice in the future have started to be put in place. But Colombia’s drug trade will not simply vanish with the signing of peace.

Coca crops were a key part of financing the FARC’s operations and fueled conflict for decades, where coca plantations were controlled by the FARC and farmers were given protection to illegally grow the base ingredient for cocaine.

While the FARC has begun demobilizing, coca crops continue to be grown and are still very profitable for poor farmers, many of whom do not have legal rights to land. One of the key challenges for a post-conflict Colombia and indeed for its “war on drugs” is to be able to provide economic and agricultural alternatives in the legal economy.

According to the latest DEA figures, between 2014 and 2015 over 90 percent of seized cocaine shipments in the U.S. originated in Colombia. For flowers, it's a similar story. Close to 75 percent of flowers imported to the U.S. were cultivated in – you guessed it – Colombia.

Pushing flowers as an alternative crop for Colombian farmers has been part of joint U.S.-Colombian drug policy for decades. “To save Colombia, buy its roses,” former Colombian President Cesar Gaviria wrote in a 1990 Wall Street Journal op-ed.

As part of the Andean Trade Promotion and Drug Eradication Act of 1991, the U.S. suspended import duties for certain products from Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia, with the aim of cutting out coca harvesting in favor of the legal alternatives, and thus cut down down drug use in the U.S.

While the plan saw an influx of Colombian flowers and other crops into the U.S., the program was seen to have little positive effects for shifting the drug trade. The 1990’s was one of the bloodiest periods in Colombia's history.

Despite the 1991 act as well as increased U.S. military funding through Plan Colombia, coca cultivation from 1991 and 1992 actually increased by around 10 percent and potential coca leaf output increased by 13 percent, according to a 1993 report by the U.S. Office of National Drug Control Policy.

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Instead, farmers “adopted successful strategies to remain coca producers even when governments have pressured them to change to legal economic activities,” the report said. The Office also noted that it can take many years for substituted legal crops to fully develop and become profitable.

“Crop substitution is not a promising strategy for reducing coca cultivation in the Andes," the report concludes. Instead, the program was seen as a political tool rather than offering sound economic benefits.

Indeed others have drawn similar conclusions for such programs. A 1998 study by Graham Farrell in the Journal Drug Issues said that “the likelihood of these policies achieving their aims in the near future seems minimal,” referring to global crop eradication and crop substitution programs.

Farrell's analysis also said that across the globe, “there seems to have rarely been more than 10 percent of anyone type of illicit crop eradication in a given year.”

Today, Colombia faces a different political situation as peace is slowly implemented. Many are fearful that history may repeat itself for the proposed substitution programs. And of course, this debate continues in the context of global drug prohibition, where demand for drugs, whether it be legal or illegal, will always persist.

The current substitution program, proposed by the Colombian government and the FARC, hopes to replace around 50,000 hectares of illegal crops in 2017 across 40 municipalities with the growing of cacao and fruit trees.

The government has started initiatives to grant land titles to thousands of families who abandon coca crops and announced a crop substitution program to encourage farmers to grow flowers instead of coca, opium and marijuana. As of 2015, Colombia no longer carries out aerial fumigations of coca crops, after the WHO deemed that the pesticides were likely to cause cancer.

Families who commit to the voluntary drug crop-substitution program will receive a monthly stipend of US$340 and will be eligible for two one-time payments of up to US$3000 for implementing additional food security projects, such as fish and poultry farming.

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According to the country’s post-conflict minister, Rafael Pardo, the government has allocated US$340 million for the program, with the hope that additional funding will be provided by international agencies.

The current substitution program has been called ambitious and many farmers are concerned that with the FARC’s protection gone they will be vulnerable to violence and displacement.

Many affected farmers are wary of the government's ability to improve markets for selling their new legal crops and complete their promise of improved infrastructure in rural areas – something that the FARC has been a strong supporter of.

“What we believe is that it is possible that many communities will not accept the government’s offer, not because it does not appeal to them, but because of the fear that they may be killed or displaced from their areas,” Alvaro Alvarez, coordinator of the Tierralta Municipal Table of Victims in the department of Cordoba told El Heraldo.

Others are more hopeful for the future of crop substitution programs now that a peace deal has been signed.

“This is a good sign, (the FARC) themselves helping to eradicate the coca with us. This is positive. It’s a new strategy to put an end to all illicit crops,” said General Jose Angel Mendoza, the commander of the National Police’s countecounter-narcoticstment.

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