Hacking at the roots with a shovel, yanking out the severed bush – it’s exhausting work in the equatorial heat. The labourers can expect little respite though, with orders from up high to hasten their efforts. Clearing plantations near the Ecuadorian border, these “eradicators” are leading the fight on Colombia’s cocaine production crisis. The South American nation grows and exports more of the notorious drug than anyone else, something new president Iván Duque is determined to change. But with one-time narco-farmers struggling to scratch out a living on the right side of the law, there are fears that Colombia’s cocaine cultivation boom won’t be tailing off anytime soon. 

Nearly 2000 tons of the drug was produced on Colombian soil in 2017, figures from the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) show, accounting for a staggering 70% of global output. And while that number dipped slightly in 2018, levels remain close to the record high. Once it’s produced, packed and paid for, traffickers feed the illicit haul into global circulation. Much makes its way west across the Pacific to Australia and New Zealand – but the biggest consumer is the United States to the north, which is facing a spiralling opioid crisis. 

Colombia’s drug boom has come at an unlikely juncture in the state’s turbulent history.  After a half century of civil war, 2016 saw a landmark peace deal between the Bogotá government and FARC, Colombia’s notorious rebel group. Deeply involved in the cocaine trade, many had hoped the guerrillas’ disarmament would help break production chains. Instead, a violent new generation of narco-gangs have moved into former rebel territory, ensuring the industry’s continuation.

Many blame a lack of foresight in the peace accords. They hoped to address the structural causes of the war, bringing disenfranchised drug farmers into the national economy with the promise of subsidies for those willing to go straight. Some 124,000 volunteered to uproot their coca crops in exchange for cash – but the system soon backfired. Financial incentives pushed those not already growing the drug to do so, as payments were promised only to those in the cocaine industry who committed to reduce their cultivation. UNODC observers also noted an uptick in production from pre-existing coca farmers for the same reason.

Those who did shift to a legal crop have fared poorly. Subsidies have been slow to reach these ‘alternative development’ farmers, with perhaps as many as half yet to receive their promised payout. Investment in local services has been equally sluggish, stymieing any hope of commercial viability. To profit in the trade of avocados, for instance, remote farmsteads need proper roads to convey their bulky harvest to market. But the infrastructure of Colombia’s poverty stricken rural hinterland is crumbling at best – addressing this is a prerequisite for progress, experts believe.

“In the municipalities with the highest coca presence, poverty reaches 93 percent of the rural population,” said Isabel Pereira of Dejusticia, a think-tank. “Rural development, the formalisation of rural property, and the guarantees to live in the countryside with decent conditions, are effective [strategies] for the elimination of coca,” she added.

President Duque seems wedded to a more direct approach, however. “If we want to achieve a lasting peace in Colombia, coca crops have to be absolutely defeated,” he told a conference in London recently. To this end, his administration is pushing to reintroduce aerial crop spraying. Airborne herbicide campaigns were widespread in Colombia in the 1990s, and helped restrict coca cultivation to one-third of its current size. But it was linked to a spike in cancer rates and the accidental destruction of legal crops, and was banned by a constitutional court in 2015. Undeterred, Duque is fighting the ruling – a move some say is unwise.

“Fumigation [in Colombia] achieved short-term reductions in coca cultivation in specific areas,” says Adam Isacson of the Washington Office on Latin America group (WOLA). “In the medium and long term, though, crops recovered as growers adjusted. They did so through replanting, growing more plants to minimize lost harvests, cutting back plants to save them immediately after spraying, and other strategies,” he added. 

President Duque is under pressure to get results however, least not from his American counterpart. Desperate to reduce the flow of cocaine into the US, the Trump administration – which supports aerial spraying – has threatened to decertify Colombia as a reliable partner in the war against drugs, which would lump Duque with Venezuela’s rogue leader Nicolás Maduro.

“He has done nothing for us,” seethed a furious Donald Trump in April – words that’ll fill Colombia’s president with dread. His country is dependent on American development money, receiving some $10bn in aid between 2000 and 2015. If the White Houses suspends the cash flow, Duque’s cocaine crusade almost certainly falter. That means – in the short-term at least – evermore manual eradication. 

But for every crop cut from the ground, another ten might be planted. When their options are a flimsy promise of government investment or cold hard militant cash (often offered at the end of a rifle), it’s hard to blame the resurgent coca growing communities. Forgotten by far off federal powers and doomed to destitution, Colombia’s far-flung farmers are vulnerable to coercion – something no amount of aerial herbicide will change. If progress is really to be made, a softer touch is required.