Drugs, Development and Peacebuilding: addressing tensions and trade-offs between different policy goals in Colombia

Authors/workshop organisers: CIPADH or Centre for Research and Action on Peace and Human Rights (Centro de investigación y acción para la paz y los derechos humanos) in Bogotá and CIVAD or Centre for the Study of Illicit Economies, Violence and Development at SOAS – University of London. Note: this work was funded through a UKRI Consolidator Grant.

Earlier this year, on May the 5th, twenty-six stakeholders and experts got together to discuss drugs, development, and peacebuilding in Colombia. The workshop consisted of small group discussions in the morning, followed by a plenary in the afternoon, and was organised around three questions on the tensions and trade-offs between different policies within these three broad areas. More specifically, participants were asked to discuss the application of the trilemma concept to these areas, or the idea that the objectives of peace, drug and development policies clash and that it is impossible to achieve all three simultaneously.[1] Participants included: peasant, Afro and indigenous leaders from different parts of the country, representatives of national and international NGOs and research organisations/thinktanks, functionaries of the National Crop Substitution Program – PNIS, National Land Agency and District Health Secretary, members of senators’ technical teams, officials from the British and French embassies and academic/activist experts. This article shares some of the contours and conclusions of these discussions.

Putting peace first

There appeared to be consensus that overcoming or at least managing the trilemma requires an urgent change to drug policy. “Prohibitionism is negatively impacting peace”, one participant commented. Everyone agreed on the inadequacy of current drug policy, though they focused on different problems. One focus was the injustice of a policy that “criminalises coca but not hunger” and that persecutes and stigmatises the peasantry. Linked to this, is a critique of the government’s emphasis on forced eradication of coca crops, which according to one participant is at the root of the trilemma, as it is this policy specifically that generates violence and development reversals within coca-producing territories. Another commentator focused on the mistaken premises of drug policy: that the problem is a moral one, that these crops are necessarily bad and that narcotrafficking is the source of all problems in Colombia. Similarly, one functionary signalled that it is a mistake to expect drug policy to resolve all Colombia’s problems, but that it was fair to expect that drug policy should not make things worse.

While there seemed to be agreement among participants that peace is more important than drug control, peacebuilding policies received less attention compared to counternarcotics and development during the discussions. One commentator pointed out that people don’t like talking about “security” specifically because there is an idea that it’s about militarisation. “We have to re-signify what security means and discuss it because this is urgent in the territories”.

Following on from this, one point of discord was surrounding the nature of insecurity people face. Some social leaders insinuated that other participants were mistakenly minimising or ignoring the violence wrought by legal or government actors. Similarly, at least one participant objected to the institutional representation of illegal armed actors as external agents; where she lives, they are members of the community – friends, family members or neighbours. Despite a few incongruities, one pattern of thought was clear: it is a mistake to try to build peace and address security issues through existing (prohibitionist) drug policies.

Building on local visions of peace and development

One of the most fundamental questions running through the discussions was: what do we mean by development? Not everything labelled “development” is positive from all perspectives or for everybody. Social leaders in particular expressed dismay at the type of development that has been promoted by the Colombian government for decades. “For the indigenous and peasant communities it is the extractivist economy that is the illegal economy!” someone said, noting that these extractivist economies, like oil exploitation, had not contributed to substituting or replacing the drug economy. At least two participants proposed a model of development based on food sovereignty. This implies the diversification of production and communities managing their own economies. The main message, however, was a rejection of development imposed from above.

Workshop participants reiterated the importance of local visions of peace and development. People have different values and ideals and there are differences between territories, including differences marked by ethnicity, which shape cultural and psychological ways of being. That’s why it doesn’t work to import or replicate policies from other contexts. Even the drugs-development-peacebuilding trilemma manifests in specific ways according to regional, local and ethnic differences. Policies must be constructed based on an understanding of and a respect for these differences.

How can we build policies based on local visions of peace and development? Several participants argued in favour of strengthening local organisations that can provide a certain degree of self-government, especially Peasant Reserve Zones, Indigenous Resguardos/Cabildos and Black Community Councils. As one leader stressed, these organisations are already “governing” and doing their own “territorial planning”, but they need more support. The importance of collective land titling to such local organisational processes was also mentioned on multiple occasions. While the focus was mainly on participatory and localised development plans, peace and security issues also came up; for example, some see a role for peasant, indigenous and cimarrona or black community “guards”, which – among other functions – may act as interlocutors in moments of crisis.

There was also recognition of the difficulties of participation. Social leaders remarked on experiences where their communities were supposed to be involved in decision-making, but their voices weren’t actually taken into account. One commented that the government tends to call on the same social organisations and that these aren’t representative. Nevertheless, and notwithstanding the difficulties, there was broad agreement on the need for participation – for drug, development and peacebuilding policies built by their main stakeholders. As one participant put it: “Policies thought up from desks in USA, Bogota or the EU don’t work. The solutions have to come from the territories in question in order for them to be effective”.

The costs and failures of crop substitution programs and the need for agrarian reform

Under the right conditions, coca growers would prefer to exit the illicit drug economy. “Peasants don’t like working in illegality and the stress of the coca economy”, one participant explained. So, there is a will for change, but – to date – substitution programs have not created the right conditions. They have not been sustainable.

One participant offered an account of an unsustainable substitution program: the armed conflict continued, poverty got worse, food security got worse, and many were forcibly displaced. The problem, he or she said, was that the program was much more focused on eradicating coca than on achieving development. Another spoke of how people replaced their coca with other crops but then found there were no buyers for this produce and that it was too difficult and costly to transport due to the lack of roads. There was also mention of how substitution programs had exposed social leaders to heightened risks. In sum, there was agreement that “substitution generates costs for communities”. And these costs are often not considered or/understood by those who design the policies.

Participants made several recommendations to governments and donors, in terms of substitution and alternative development (AD) programs specifically:

  1. promote associations/cooperatives and focus on collective productive projects, rather than individual households (though one participant warned that this could generate conflicts, especially if used to force or obligate people to join associations)
  2. train and support communities so that they can put together their own development plans
  3. sign eradication/substitution agreements with communities and collectives rather than individuals or households
  4. design substitution programs for the long-term, not to achieve short-term eradication goals
  5. substitution should be gradual – no one should have to eradicate their coca before alternatives are in place or before local economies are strengthened, so that the conditions that drive people to cultivate illicit crops are removed
  6. address land and property rights (without this, substitution will not be successful)

Of all the recommendations, point ii was the most reiterated in various forms. Participants agreed that the communities and families involved must have decision-making power and feel they have ownership over the projects in question, including the methodologies for achieving them. This would also ensure alignment between substitution projects and the peasant way of life/vision of development, which was a key concern. At least two participants took the participation argument a step further and added that substitution/AD resources should be managed directly by community organisations without the interference of intermediaries. There was a slight tension here with another recommendation: some participants argued in favour of focusing efforts and funds on larger issues such as inadequate infrastructure (which could imply a trade-off in terms of dedicating less money to community level organisations), noting that productive projects and monetary transfers don’t resolve underlying problems.

Following on from the above, one of the dominant themes during the workshop was the need for comprehensive agrarian reform. This includes improvements to infrastructure, such as roads and aqueducts, and to public services, such as education and health care. It also includes land (re)distribution, titling and formalisation programs.

As one participant explained: victories in drug policy will not address the country’s deeper agrarian problems. Even if fumigation is abolished and voluntary substitution of coca for other crops is achieved, the underlying agrarian issues will still be there. For example, land conflicts and food insecurity linked to extractivism and the use of land for extensive cattle ranching will remain.

The 2016 peace agreement promised to combine drug control policies with broader rural reform initiatives. But this has not occurred in practice. In discussing why this has been the case, there was a lot of emphasis on the lack of coordination between different government entities. It was stressed that institutional integration and articulation is required for policy success more generally.

Legalisation: the risk-filled path forward

Legalisation and regulation came up repeatedly during the discussions. There were two branches to this discussion. One was about the possibility of building legal non-recreational coca and cannabis industries or what someone called “substituting illicit for licit uses”. Some peasant and indigenous communities already have experiences with products such as coca tea or cannabis oils for muscle pain. However, one participant advised that scaling this up into a broader policy would require creating markets abroad. The “coca yes, cocaine no” policy wouldn’t work in Colombia, he or she argued, because the domestic market isn’t large enough to absorb all the coca currently being produced. Another pointed out that developing a legal coca market won’t reduce cocaine production and consumption.

The other branch of the discussions was on full legalisation, including for recreational use. Some were more sceptical than others about the benefits. As one participant put it: “when you legalise the business, you finish off with the business for the small participants, the business gets monopolised”. But interestingly no attendees took an active and open stance against legalisation.

In terms of cannabis legalisation, several participants presented it as a future certainty that Colombia needs to prepare for and make the most out of. They mentioned the legislative proposal to regularise adult cannabis use, which went to the sixth of eight debates in congress around the same time as the workshop.

In terms of coca and cocaine regulation, there seemed to be agreement that this is something to be fought for. For many, this is the route to aligning drugs, development and peacebuilding policies. But international pressure favouring prohibition prevents this alignment. As one participant put it: “we need to take legalisation and regulation seriously. We can’t keep allowing foreigners to determine policy.” In addition to favouring peacebuilding and reducing development harms, there was some optimism that legalisation – and the growth of medicinal and recreational cannabis, coca and even cocaine markets – could bring economic opportunities to Colombia and become a source of economic transformation.

Legalisation/regulation are not only potentially beneficial for peacebuilding and development, but also necessary for tackling problems associated with consumption. “People consume coca and marijuana because it gives them pleasure and helps them to socialise, among other reasons” – the public health expert stressed. “We need to recognise this and support organisations such as Échele Cabeza, which educate people who consume, helping them to understand the risks, while recognising that consumption is a reality and that we have to learn to live with drugs because they are here to stay”.

Despite the apparent shared enthusiasm for legalisation, there were, however, at least two warnings. First, if the government promotes or allows the monopolisation of the legal market then the drugs-development-peace trilemma cannot be overcome. And, second, “legalisation and regulation generates new tensions and trade-offs” that we must be mindful of.

What role for the international community?

One of the workshop questions was about the role of the international community in helping Colombia to manage the drugs-development-peacebuilding trilemma. The need to fight for more sovereignty in drug policy was a key theme. As one participant put it: “The government’s policies are based on external demands rather than domestic needs and, as a result, the country has never had a serious anti-drug policy, which means cleaning up the public [government armed] forces and addressing the enrichment of those with economic power”. Another commented: “The Colombian government designs its substitution policies as a form of accountability to USA but not to attack the structural causes” of the country’s problems. Several people suggested that the imposition of prohibition at the international level is an obstacle to peace in Colombia. There were questions about how binding international conventions are.

The misuse of international funds also came up in all three discussion tables. On the one hand, most of this money goes to eradication and military efforts rather than community development. And, on the other, what money does get channelled to development tends to be “wasted” on intermediaries and on disconnected projects that are not sustainable in the long run. There was a shared sense of frustration about the role of intermediaries. Some argued that these funds would be better used if they were channelled directly to community organisations. At least one participant, however, called on his/her colleagues to bring more realism into the discussion, to recognise that international investments may be about economic and political interests and “who puts the money in chooses the agenda”.

There was also discussion of the positive roles that have been and can be played by the international community, in terms of holding the Colombian government to account and mediation/monitoring of negotiations and agreements with armed groups. Participants made pleas to the international community for: open dialogue, including with actors who have different viewpoints; careful listening on the complex problems Colombia is facing; more efforts to understand local and regional dynamics and particularities, rather than treating Colombia as homogenous; more emphasis on environmental defence, but through concerted solutions based on an understanding of the relationships between different communities and nature, rather than externally-imposed solutions; and the allocation of international funds according to community-needs (e.g. prioritising local employment) and in coordination with communities and local planning bodies.

Points of contention: moral questions and the overall impacts of the drug economy

The main areas of contention were the morality of involvement in the drug economy and its impacts in Colombia, especially the implications of coca cultivation for development.

In terms of the first issue, some objected to the predominant moralism. One even affirmed that the tensions between peace, development and drug policies derive from the insistence on treating drug production/trafficking and consumption as moral issues. Meanwhile, others argued in favour of distinguishing between coca and cocaine, including on moral grounds. “Coca is health, cocaine is sickness”, said one indigenous leader. Among these participants, there was apparently a willingness to support legalisation but not to promote social acceptance of certain forms of drug consumption.

The overall impact of the drug economy was an even more divisive topic. Some participants emphasised positives such as how coca cultivation offers peasants the possibility of earning enough to save and how the drug economy as a whole has enabled social mobility in the country. One social leader disputed this, noting that in in his territory very few coca-growers have been able to improve their lives. Others didn’t necessarily deny the advantages of participation in the drug economy but suggested that these were outweighed by the problems it has caused, particularly in terms of associated violence, but also in terms of the cultural impacts like young people expecting to work fewer hours for the same amount of money or losing interest in education because of the incomes offered by the coca economy. At least two participants criticised how coca monocropping had led to food insecurity as farmers abandoned other crops. The generality of this problem was questioned, however, as another social leader affirmed that coca production has combined well with subsistence cultivation in her area.

Whose drug economy?

Finally, there was some reflection on how the discussions within the workshop itself tended to reproduce and reinforce the status quo focus on coca cultivators. The drug economy, one participant reminded everyone, is a business made profitable by prohibition that benefits different actors, including those working in government institutions. The issue of corruption and its links to trafficking came up repeatedly. More broadly, there was emphasis on the fact that economic and political elites – especially large landowners, cattle ranchers and certain public functionaries – profit most from the illicit economy, much more so than peasants. Finally, beyond the injustice of unequally distributed costs and benefits, is the complex relationship between legal and illegal economies. One participant called this relationship a “revolving door”, which “creates its own set of tensions that are rarely discussed”.

Where to from here?

In conclusion, despite points of contention during workshop discussions, there was agreement that the root problem underlying the drugs-development-peacebuilding trilemma in Colombia is prohibitionist drug control. Related policy goals and strategies – such as achieving zero coca through forced eradication – are the ones that must be relinquished. Through both vocal enthusiasm and tacit acceptance, there seemed to be a shared understanding that legal regulation of the cannabis and coca/cocaine economies is an unavoidable necessity. There was also clear convergence on the need to build peace and development from the ground-up, through processes that put community institutions at the helm, and in the context of a broader agrarian reform. Given this, future discussions need to focus on two areas: (1) how best to achieve participatory localised development and peacebuilding – alongside national agrarian reform – in practice; and (2) how best to pursue legal regulation of cannabis and coca/cocaine, in a way that minimises associated tensions and potential trade-offs.

[1] https://drugs-disorder.soas.ac.uk/wp-content/uploads/2021/01/Policy-brief-trilemma-final.pdf or https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0955395921000141