Discussing drugs, development, and peacebuilding in Colombia

By: CIPADH or the Centre for Research and Action on Peace and Human Rights and CIVAD or the Centre for the Study of Illicit Economies, Violence and Development at SOAS.

September 2023

Earlier this year, on May the 5th, twenty-six stakeholders and experts got together to discuss drugs, development, and peacebuilding in Colombia. The workshop was co-organised by SOAS’ CIVAD and the Colombian organisation CIPADH (Centro de investigación y acción para la paz y los derechos humanos) and funded by a UKRI Consolidator Grant. It 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, drugs and development policies clash and that it is impossible to achieve all three simultaneously.

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. 

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. “Prohibitionism is negatively impacting peace”, one participant commented.

There also seemed to be a shared understanding that legal regulation of the cannabis and coca/cocaine economies is an unavoidable necessity. Some were enthusiastic about the prospect, while others leaned toward tacit acceptance. Interestingly, no attendees took an active stance against legalisation.

Those most vocally in favour of legalisation critiqued the predominant moralism underlying prohibitionist policies. But others argued for a distinction 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. 

Some were optimistic that legalisation and the growth of medicinal and recreational cannabis, coca and even cocaine markets – in addition to favouring peacebuilding and reducing development harms – could bring economic opportunities to Colombia and become a source of economic transformation. Others were more sceptical 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”. Another argued that if the government promotes or allows the monopolisation of the legal market then the drugs-development-peace trilemma cannot be overcome.

There was even clearer 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. 

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. 

There was also recognition of the difficulties of participatory policy design and implementation. 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 localised drugs, 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”.

At least two participants took the participation argument a step further, adding that resources should be managed directly by community organisations without the interference of intermediaries. There was a slight tension here with another recommendation in favour of focusing efforts and funds on larger issues such as rural infrastructure and land reform, which could imply a trade-off in terms of dedicating less money to community level organisations. 

The need for comprehensive agrarian reform was one of the dominant themes during the workshop. As one participant explained: victories in drug policy will not address the country’s deeper agrarian problems. Even if fumigation is abolished forever and voluntary substitution of coca for other crops is achieved, the underlying agrarian issues will still be there. The 2016 peace agreement promised to combine drug control policies with broader rural reform initiatives. But this has not occurred in practice. 

In conclusion, given the above, 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.

Para conocer la versión ampliada en español le invitamos a acceder al siguiente link:
Drogas, desarrollo y consolidación de la paz: ¿cómo abordar las tensiones y compensaciones entre los diferentes objetivos políticos en Colombia? – CIPADH

Para conocer la versión ampliada en ingles le invitamos a acceder al siguiente link:
Drugs, Development and Peacebuilding: addressing tensions and trade-offs between different policy goals in Colombia – CIPADH