Colombia: International drop in coca prices has the country’s poor peasants on the brink of suicide

Fernando Molina, spokesperson of ASCAMCAT.

We publish this unofficial translation of the article of the Colombian newspaper Nueva Democracia found here.

“I didn’t have anything to feed my children and I thought about hanging myself from a mango tree behind the house,” said a poor peasant woman from La Gabarra, a township in the department of Norte de Santander in northeastern Colombia. Currently, she works as a cook and for the last few years she had been supporting herself by selling coca paste, working on farms dedicated to the cultivation of this plant. Just like her, not only the growers and owners of coca farms, but also laborers dedicated to scraping the coca leaf are a sample of a whole division of labor that has been organized around the coca economy in the main exporting country of coca that product in the world, where outcast peasants, day laborers, cultivators, farm workers and prostituted women are the lowest link.

Despite a vertiginous/rapid increase in international coca prices in the period from 2018 to 2020, today there is a crisis in the sector due to the fact that the price of coca paste produced by peasants has fallen by almost 60%. Analysts indicate that it may be due to an oversupply of the product in the market, which is supported by data on recent records in the area of the country dedicated to coca cultivation, which in 2021 reached more than 200,000 hectares. Also, Gustavo Petro himself has considered the under-consumption factor as a determinant of this crisis, arguing that drugs such as 2CB -also known as “tusi” or pink cocaine- and fentanyl are the new fashion among consumers, mainly in the United States.

The consequences of this crisis are assumed by the Colombian peasant people, who, mainly since the 1990s, have begun to see a livelihood in the cultivation of coca leaves and the sale of coca paste to buyers linked to the large national and international mafias. Since that time the Colombian mafias came to control not only the processing and sale of coca, but also the production of coca paste itself, the rural landscape of vast regions of the country such as Nariño, Norte de Santander and Putumayo has seen full of crops of this type. The department of Cauca, the lower Cauca Antioqueño, the south of Córdoba, Guaviare and Meta also have important portions of their territory dedicated to this activity.

In the history of this coca-growing economy, other crises have occurred, in the face of which desperate alternatives have been sought. For example, it is common for peasants in coca-growing regions to use coca paste as a bargaining chip, exchanging it for inputs that allow them to survive while the crisis passes. Shopkeepers store these reserves for when the price rises again and buyers appear.

The current crisis, however, has already been going on for more than a year, raising serious doubts as to whether it is not merely a temporary phenomenon. It is also linked to the phenomenon of the crisis of hegemony unleashed by the disarmament of the FARC in different territories where this organization acted as a regulator of social relations and financed itself with taxes on drug traffickers and control of coca production.

In this scenario of a power vacuum, various private armed groups at the service of regional gamonalism in search of control of the coca-growing economy dispute the territories. Currently, for example, the Carolina Ramírez Front of the Central General Staff of the FARC “dissidents” and the Bolivarian Commandos of the Border, a group made up of armed men turned bandits from the extinct FARC and former members of gamonalist armies such as The United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia and the Colombian Military Forces are fighting for control of the border territory between Putumayo and Caquetá.

This conflict in some regions complicates the sale of paste for peasants because the absence of a regulatory monopoly confuses who is the “legitimate” buyer and discourages growers from committing themselves by selling to some, since with that they become military objective of others.

These groups intimidate and murder social leaders who struggle for the State to fulfill the promises of the peace agreement with the FARC regarding programs of alternative productive projects to coca.

However, what was promised by the agreement to the peasants has remained nothing more than promises. Regarding the National Comprehensive Program for the Substitution of Illicit Crops -PNIS, the balance is that “as of September 2022, only two percent of the family nuclei that were active in the program had received the long-cycle productive project.” In addition, from the mere beginning the program did not include the vast majority of poor and medium-sized peasants: more than 99,000 families were included in the program, but some 130,000 were left out of the scope of intervention. As of today, of all this universe, only some 386 families can say that they have participated in all the offers of the program for the incursion into legal alternatives for the rural economy.

Now, is the problem reduced to the illegal condition of the merchandise in question? No. Gold and coal mining and oil palm cultivation have been the alternatives chosen by land workers, poor and medium peasants. In Bajo Cauca, the coca workforce is migrating to gold mining, which is doing well in terms of international prices. In Catatumbo, where there were extensive coca crops, the land is being broken to open coal mines, which had a short boom at the beginning of the war of aggression in Ukraine because the European powers began to look for new markets for raw material. Also, in the midst of this decline in coca, oil palm as unique crops are gaining strength.

As with coca, the country’s rural economy is tied to imperialist capitalism through gold, coal, oil, palm oil and coffee. Throughout short or long cycles, depending on the case, the prices of each commodity rise, enriching the landowners and the exporting bourgeoisie of the country, while giving many peasants a material livelihood for a short period of time. Then, as is happening now, prices fall, leaving behind the rising wave a foam of more misery, poverty and hunger than there was before. Situations of exile, starvation and suicide take place, as we have already seen. This history of generalized misery with short periods of time that bring about illusions or mirages of progress, has been part of the history of this country and part of every nation without sovereignty of their own wealth and territory, where the price of work of their peasants are valuated by the speculators of the stock market of the imperialist centers or in the brutal competition of illegal capitalism, and where the political power serves to maintain the structure in the way that the wealth produced by the national work is privatized by the national and foreign monopolies which representative is the “public” and private power.

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