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Coca, deforestation and food security in the
Colombian Amazon region

D. González Posso

Dario González Posso is an industrial agronomist
and regional development planning and management
expert and is working as a consultant with FAO.

The Amazon forest is being cleared to make way for illicit crops which threaten the food security of the region's inhabitants.

Colombia's rate of deforestation of humid tropical forest is among the world's five highest. Of the world total of 15.4 million ha of humid tropical forest destroyed in the 1980s, 4.5 percent was in Colombia, mostly in the Amazon region (National Department of Planning, 1996). Clearing for illicit crops (along with the expansion of the agricultural frontier, with new settlements and extensive cattle ranching) is one of the principal causes of deforestation in the Colombian Amazon.1

Coca, like marijuana and the opium poppy (which are primarily Andean crops), has been a boom crop in Colombia since the mid-1970s. External demand for coca, combined with a drop in coca-growing in other countries, has driven up the extent of Colombian land under coca from 37 500 ha in early 1991 to more than 100 000 ha in 1999 (SINCHI, 1999a).

From a purely economic point of view, such illicit crops could be regarded as the most profitable rural economic activity in Colombia; they can generate far higher earnings for peasant growers than legitimate crops, therefore seeming to provide a possible answer to the poverty and marginalization of so many peasant farmers.


Source: United States Embassy, Colombia ( /wwwhmain.html).

However, as this article shows, coca has had a deleterious impact, not only on the Amazon forest, but also on the food security of the inhabitants of the Amazon region where most of Colombia's coca crop is grown. Growers typically derive the least profit from the crop, and poverty and malnutrition have risen with the coca boom as a result of the inflationary effect of these activities on weak local economies.


Source: SINCHI, 1999a.


The Amazon region includes about 400 000 km2 of the river's catchment basin, comprising 36 percent of the national territory. Coca growing is concentrated in western Amazonia, in the departments of Guaviare, Caquetá and Putumayo (Figures 1 and 2), where it has become an integral part of the national and international economy, coinciding with accelerated population growth (Figure 3): the region's population is 800 000 people, or 80 percent of the population of the whole Amazon region. This is also the area of heaviest deforestation. Production is governed by the market, and foods are valued as marketable goods. In the eastern Amazon, in contrast, the population remains less dense and the indigenous people continue to practise primarily subsistence production.

There are very few indigenous people in the western Amazon region of Colombia, although there are caboclos - a shore-dwelling social group descended from white and indigenous people, who are culturally hybrid: they have adopted some of the indigenous practices with respect to the environment, but also produce a small surplus for sale on the local market. They are basically subsistence peasant farmers, however, whose diet parallels the indigenous fare of cassava, banana, fish, chilli and occasionally bushmeat, although caboclos may also eat pork, rice and noodles.


Source: SINCHI, 1999a.

With the coca boom which began in western Amazonia in 1978, a new population has arisen, largely migrant, linked to the illicit underground economy. The new settlers include raspachines (day workers who pick the coca leaves) together with a wave of traders and adventurers, who are devoid of peasant culture and import much of their food from the cities of the interior (and sometimes neighbouring countries) at very high prices. The river, which is contaminated by pesticides and herbicides (used in large quantities to maximize coca profits) and by coca-processing residues, does not represent a source of food for these people.

The few indigenous people tend to assimilate the productive practices of the local settlers in their relationship with the forest as well as in their means of procuring food. The decultured indigenous people "would rather eat sardines out of a can than fresh fish" (C. Dom'nguez, personal communication). Growing illicit crops has encouraged people to abandon food crops, and malnutrition is rising as a result.


Coca, with an IRR exceeding 114 percent for each of the two varieties (sweet and bitter), is more profitable than any other crop (Figure 4). Coca base is easy to market, and the product is bought by intermediaries at the farmgate, thus sparing the farmer the costs (and risks) of transport. It is therefore economically viable for settling areas remote from regional and national markets (SINCHI, 1999b).2


Source: SINCHI, 1999b.

However, while there may be more money and more trade, the benefits are not equitably distributed.The growers, as the weakest link in the coca commerce chain, derive the least profit from the crop. In addition, the coca boom has had an inflationary effect on weak local economies, and poverty and unemployment have risen as a result. With rising inflation, food prices have increased, while eating habits have worsened. With the appearance of a get-rich-quick mentality and runaway consumerism, people have become more and more dependent on food imported from other areas. Food self-sufficiency has dropped. Malnutrition and undernourishment, especially child malnutrition, have increased dramatically.

A 1988 study in Caquetá showed that almost 700 of the 2 100 children under five years of age examined in one area were undernourished. An additional 560 children were at risk of undernutrition, and cases were also noted of chronically undernourished children who were clearly stunted in their growth (R'os, 1994). Coca-growing areas have the highest infant mortality rates compared with other rural and urban areas.

The worst conditions of food insecurity are found in the most heavily settled rural areas, and in the poorest neighbourhoods of towns in the frontier areas. Among the indigenous groups, the loss of food security has to do with the pressure on their ethnic homeland and the erosion of their cultures.

A culture of violence and armed conflict, which has been partly spawned by the drug business, especially in the frontier and newly settled areas, compounds the problems of food production, supply and access for the poorer and more vulnerable sectors of the Amazon population.


The policy of attempting to eradicate illicit crops by aerial spraying of herbicides, which has a significant negative effect on surrounding forest vegetation and which can be toxic for human beings, has not solved the problem, but has rather driven coca growers to seek out new and more remote areas for their crops. This has had an adverse effect not only on legitimate crops, but also on the forest and on water supplies. Government plans for alternative crops have proved equally ineffective, as the figures for growth of coca from 1991 to 1999 (Figure 2) so clearly testify.

Some alternative forms of production that have been proposed are new patterns of livestock production, tree pastures, animal raising in stalls with alternative fodders, aquaculture, fruit growing, various kinds of animal husbandry and the development of medicinal and other promising plants. In some cases cacao and rubber, for example, are grown to replace coca. Each production unit encroaching on the forest is limited to 30 ha.

Strategies for bringing production systems into harmony with the environment must, however, be based on social reconstruction. They must involve equitably based agrarian reform to counteract the breakdown of rural society and the crowding of farmers into the Amazon forest area. A cultural turnabout is essential: programmes for substitute crops and technology transfer are simply not enough. What the country needs is a policy aimed at reweaving the social fabric of a free peasantry. A culture of non-violence must be strongly promoted. Production systems and relationships harmful to social well-being and the environment cannot be transformed without a prior and major transformation of culture and values. A society lacking in solidarity and respect for human life cannot make a peace pact with nature.

A member of the project team advises farmers on the intercropping of rubber trees
with pineapples to bring a disused rubber plantation back into use


Using forestry to fight
cocaine in Bolivia

In the Cochabamba Tropics of Bolivia, the tropical lowlands east of the Andes, FAO is implementing a Bolivian Government project that is introducing alternative forestry and agroforestry practices to provide farm families with sustainable livelihoods so that farmers will have less incentive to grow coca illegally. The project has been financed through the United Nations International Drug Control Programme (UNDCP), with funding from Austria, Bolivia, Ireland, Italy, Sweden, the United Kingdom and the United States.

The Cochabamba Tropics, home to around 35 000 families, covers 3.7 million ha of land, most of which is covered in forests. Over the past 30 years, clearing for coca and other crops has led to the loss of 300 000 ha of forest in the area. Despite these losses, more than enough native forests remain accessible to rural families to provide them with sustainable livelihoods. Even in the areas that have been settled and that are the site of most of the coca cultivation (accounting for more than 500 000 ha), 80 percent of the land remains forested. Although forestry has been extremely important to the local economy, the forests in the Cochabamba Tropics have not been managed with long-term sustainable economic development in mind.

The project, which began in 1997 and will continue until 2002, puts an emphasis on training and includes a high level of community participation. It focuses on two types of activity, which will benefit nearly 2 000 rural families.

First, it aims to develop forest management plans that will allow for the sustainable production of wood and non-wood products and, when possible, for local wood processing. The native forests in the area contain about 50 tree species that have commercial value which offer an immediate and sustainable source of income. Over the course of the project, 30 forest management plans will be established in collaboration with local farmers.

Second, the project is introducing agroforestry systems of tree and legume crops interplanted with annual and perennial crops, which are designed, in combination with home gardens and small-livestock raising, to bring in immediate extra income for farm families and to improve their nutrition. Over the longer term, these agroforestry systems will help to diversify food production and reduce the threats posed by unstable markets, pests and insufficient rainfall. They also protect the environment by maintaining soil fertility and preserving forest cover.

A promising system, for example, involves palmito (which can bring farmers nearly US$1 800 per hectare per year) intercropped with annual crops such as cassava or rice. Rubber trees, which take ten years to become productive, are also integrated into the system to improve forest cover and lay the foundation for a stronger local economy over the long term; when mature, they can bring producers more than US$3 000 per hectare per year.

Many forest plant species also offer potential for boosting local nutrition and livelihoods. These include Myrciaria dubia, a small shrub whose fruits contain very high concentrations of vitamin C; Theobroma grandiflorum, a tree grown for both its fruit and its seeds; and Solanum sessiliflorum, a shrub whose berries can be pressed to make juice. The development of small-scale fruit-processing operations could help local farmers earn a better living.

Although the agroforestry systems introduced by the project will not be as profitable as growing coca illegally, they can provide an attractive legal income. It is hoped that by raising local standards of living and improving household nutrition and health, they can make farmers less interested in running the risks of growing coca.

Source: Adapted from FAO News and highlights. FAO helps Bolivia in fight against cocaine trade (


1 Ed. note: For a detailed discussion of the local, regional and global impacts of deforestation on food security, see the article by Lipper on p. 24 of this issue of Unasylva.

2 Indeed, the narcotics economy has inverted the land values, with the furthest and most remote areas becoming the most valuable
(C. Dom'nguez, personal communication).

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