Issues of personal safety also came up frequently. There are already reports of unknown individuals coming into the communities – like Briceño – where the FARC has pulled out, presumably coca paste buyers employed by other armed groups or criminal gangs. The Defensoría del Pueblo has confirmed that there have been threats and assassinations of social leaders involved in substitution programs.
Finally, local residents are deeply concerned that they will eliminate their primary source of cash income and the government will fail to deliver on what it has promised. “We’ve had many international visitors come through our little towns,” said one woman. “But we know that they will leave and the government will leave, and in the end, we will just have to fend for ourselves.” With the 60-day deadline fast approaching and with some farmers having started to pull out their coca, many are still reluctant to eradicate everything amidst so many insecurities.
Requests for a more gradual reduction of coca plants in parallel with the creation of alternative sources of income have been denied, however, as the peace accord spells out: “Coexistence between being a beneficiary of a substitution program and being linked to economies related to crops used for illicit purposes is not acceptable,” (126.96.36.199) and that PNIS support “will be conditioned on compliance with the schedule of commitments made by growers in the agreements on substitution and refrainment from replanting” (188.8.131.52 a). In addition, the contract signed by each family – none of them had yet received a copy, in spite of multiple requests – clarifies that noncompliance with the 60-day deadline immediately results in withdrawal from the PNIS program and forfeiture of any future development assistance. As any contract requires reciprocity, however, the exception is in the case of “noncompliance from the side of the government.”
Just prior to our Briceño visit, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) released its 2016 coca cultivation statistics which revealed a 52% increase over the previous year: from 96,000 hectares in 2015 to 146,000 in 2016. While the increase came as no surprise, it has put pressure on the government to achieve quick results through forced eradication. Reports began proliferating of forced eradication and violent confrontations between eradicators and the local population in areas where communities have already signed crop substitution agreements. These operations aim to eliminate another 50,000 hectares before the end of the year, but are also meant to keep alive a real threat: the classic carrot-and-stick approach. For the communities in Briceño that threat is very credible indeed, as an army battalion is already stationed there and military posts have also been established in the townships of El Roblal and Pueblo Nuevo. However, confidence in a supposedly voluntary substitution program based on the principle of community participation cannot be built on threats.
The Colombian government faces a tremendous challenge in building trust amongst communities that have been neglected for decades and have suffered bad experiences with previous broken pacts. In addition, implementing a highly complicated process with scarce resources and limited capacity, while under political pressure to show quick results, is not an easy undertaking. This is especially challenging in the midst of conflicting agendas between the different state agencies and under strong pressure from the U.S. government. In a testimony to the U.S. Congress on August 2nd, William Brownfield, Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, stressed the need of “overcoming the persistent social protests that disrupt forced eradication operations. Without a permanent solution to the social protest issue, forced eradication efforts are unlikely to have a significant effect on coca cultivation levels in 2017…Voluntary eradication agreements must also have expiration dates so the security forces can forcibly eradicate in farms where coca growing communities fail to meet their obligations.”
We left Briceño at night to keep ahead of the expected rainfall, thus avoiding the risk of being trapped, even though the thought was attractive, as we would have loved to have stayed longer amongst the many friendly and courageous people we had met. We left impressed by their commitment to support the peace process, but also worried about the difficult choices they face and the troubled times that may lie ahead for them and their families. So, let us end here with some suggestions of what we think would most benefit the people of Briceño during this crucial moment:
- President Santos must ensure that all Colombian government institutions, including the Ministry of Defense, respect the substitution agreements: ongoing forced eradication operations are destroying confidence and threaten to undermine the peace process as a whole (also see the recent civil society statement).
- The proliferation of agencies created to carry out the rural development and crop substitution parts of the peace accord – PNIS, PDET, PISDA and PAI – must begin to operate in tandem, and with quicker delivery of technical and broader development assistance.
- The basic infrastructure, like roads and bridges, and access to land titles must be improved.
- The criminalization of subsistence farmers, sharecroppers, and harvesters must end. Even the temporary waiver announced in point 184.108.40.206 of the Peace Accord is not yet in force; the proposed law on “Differential Penal Treatment for Small Cultivators” still needs to pass Congress.
- Expectations must be realistic. International experience with alternative development in countries like Thailand has shown that levels of cultivation for illicit drug markets can be reduced locally under certain circumstances, but these processes happen gradually over time, with strong community participation and through sustained government support.
- Community participation must be taken more seriously and must include all actors, including women and youth. In chapter 2 of the peace accord, which is devoted to participation, it says that “a guarantee of citizen participation in the discussion of development plans, public policies and, in general, matters affecting the community should have a direct impact on the decision-making of the relevant public authorities”. Community leaders from the Briceño region complained that they were presented with standard substitution contracts and told that they could take it or leave it – and face the consequences.
- There must be a flexible and pragmatic approach. Implementing the peace accord in Colombia is going to be complex, and the many obstacles on the road ahead can only be overcome if all parties are willing to make the necessary adjustments to keep the process moving forward.
- Finally, the narrative and the indicators of success must be changed. Reaching the target of 100,000 hectares of eradicated coca this year should not be an end in itself, but rather should facilitate the “construction of a stable and long-lasting peace.” Chasing those numbers should not become an obstacle to achieving that overarching goal, and other, more critical, indicators such as building trust with marginalized rural communities, reducing poverty and violence, and keeping the peace process moving forward need to be prioritized.
 Martin Jelsma is the Director of the Drugs & Democracy program at the Transnational Institute (TNI) and Coletta Youngers is a Senior Fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA).