When the Government Orders You to Burn Your Crops (In These Times)


MADRIGAL, COLOMBIA – Each day at 6 a.m., Jorge Moreno walks to his coca field to harvest leaves that will eventually be made into cocaine. He inspects the leaves by hand and cuts them with a machete—his only tool—while swatting away mosquitoes.

He started recently, because there were few other options. The only thing he was ever taught to do was use a machete, he says, and at least coca farming allows him to make a bit of money to provide for his five children.

“The government thinks we coca farmers are narcotraffickers, that we’re rolling in money, but no, it’s not like that,” Moreno tells In These Times. “We cultivate coca because it’s the only way to survive.”

Moreno is one of hundreds of coca farmers in Colombia’s southwestern state of Nariño, among the poorest in the country. Rural areas of Nariño lack everything from proper roads and basic public services to, of course, jobs. It’s also the state with the most acres of coca. Almost everyone in Madrigal, Moreno’s village, depends on it for their livelihood, since coca money drives the local economy.

During Colombia’s 52-year civil war, Madrigal was repeatedly surrounded by armed groups fighting over control of the illicit crop. The government and guerilla groups finally reached a peace agreement in 2016, part of which includes a government clampdown on coca fields.

Earlier this year, authorities announced a plan to eradicate about 400 square miles of coca across the country. The first half would go through crop substitution programs promised in the peace accords, to replace coca with alternative crops such as corn, yucca or cacao. The rest is to be wiped out through forced eradication, with the Colombian army and antinarcotics troops manually ripping out or spraying crops, though the land will remain in farmers’ hands. Farmers who do not volunteer for the substitution programs risk arrest.

Since these initiatives have begun, farmers have come out in large numbers to defend their crops through blockades and protests, clashing with antinarcotics forces head on. These special forces haven’t been through Madrigal yet, but Moreno says he would fight them off if they were to come.

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