Colombia cocaine production at all-time high, UN report claims

Cultivation of the plant used to make cocaine has reached an all-time high in Colombia, a UN report says, adding pressure on President Ivan Duque to resume an aerial spraying program suspended by his predecessor over health concerns.

Pesticide spraying ban, unintended consequences of crop substitution program among the factors

Workers harvest coca leaves in Puerto Bello, in the southern Colombia's state of Putumayo. Changes in government in both U.S. and Colombia in the past two years have led to uncertainty in their partnership in the war on drugs. (Fernando Vergara/Associated Press)

Cultivation of the plant used to make cocaine has reached an all-time high in Colombia, a United Nations report says, adding pressure on President Ivan Duque to resume an aerial spraying program suspended by his predecessor over health concerns.

Data released Wednesday by the UN indicates Colombian coca cultivation increased 17 per cent to 171,000 hectares in 2017. This could mean cocaine production grew by an estimated 31 per cent to 1,379 tonnes.

The findings, based on satellite imagery and on-the-ground verification, track with those of a White House report earlier this year.

Colombia is a top U.S. ally in Latin America, but the boom in coca production has tested relations between them. U.S. President Donald Trump recently threatened to decertify Colombia as a partner in the war on drugs if it failed to reverse course.

Duque, when he took office last month, identified the coca surge as a national security risk. Officials have since said they want to resume aerial spraying of herbicide that was ended by former President Juan Manuel Santos three years ago amid peace talks with leftist rebels who were heavily involved in the drug trade.

Consumer price not changing dramatically

But jumpstarting the program will require taking on a constitutional court ruling that places strict limits on the use of the herbicide glyphosate. Some drug policy experts have also questioned the wisdom of bringing back the costly program when drug production has migrated to areas off-limits to spraying, like national parks.

"Our goal is to show dramatic results in the next four years," Duque said Wednesday after a meeting with his top military command. "We can at least eradicate more than 70 per cent of what we have today."

One solution under study by military officials is the use of drones, which fly at a lower altitude, preventing chemicals from drifting and destroying legal crops.

Narino province is highlighted. If Narino were a country, it would be the second-largest producer of coca in the world, ahead of Colombian neighbour Peru. (Google)

But longer term, experts say, there is no substitute for the costlier, more dangerous and time-consuming work of building up state institutions in long-neglected rural areas and providing peasant farmers with economically viable legal alternatives.

The government signed a peace accord in late 2016 with the Marxist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrilla group, which was heavily involved in coca production. But new armed groups are now fighting over lucrative growing and trafficking routes.

Another factor may be the unintended consequences of a crop substitution strategy as a result of the detente, which was designed to wean growers off coca to other products. Some who previously never grew coca in previous years may be doing so to take advantage of the substitution plan subsidies — enrolment in the substitution program went from 54,000 families in 2017 to nearly 78,000 this year.

As in years past, the bulk of coca production in 2017 was concentrated in Colombia's southern region. Coca cultivation in Narino province alone surpassed 45,735 hectares — more than the entire amount found in Peru, the world's second-largest cocaine supplier after Colombia.

The UN said the increased supply has not resulted in any major drop in cocaine prices globally, although purity levels have risen considerably, according to U.S. and European drug enforcement officials.

With files from CBC News and Reuters