Holding criminal spoilers at bay for environment and peace in Colombia
In spring 2019, Colombian president Duque filed a request before the Constitutional Court to loosen its 2015 ban of aerial spraying of coca plantations with glyphosate. His goal is to reduce production of cocaine - the largest illegal agribusiness in Colombia. Glyphosate has long been used in large-scale aerial herbicide spraying programmes in Latin and South America to fight drug business.
Studies have analysed environmental and health-related consequences of herbicide use, such as soil erosion and chemical pollution. However, the full range of adverse effects for environment and peace only becomes apparent when the intricacies of organised crime in a fragile post-conflict setting are illuminated.
Between 2013 and 2017, coca growth had increased by 64% in Colombia. Under ex-president Santos the substitution of those crops for legal ones, having financed decades of conflict, became an essential element of the peacebuilding agenda. His successor Duque argues aerial spraying is a safe and efficient complementary strategy as manual eradicators often die due to landmines. International attention arose when President Trump assured a 46% increase in US-budget to fight drug trafficking in Colombia should it allow aerial spraying.
However, when considering the workings of organised crime, the strategy will likely fail to address root causes of problems and will have adverse effects on both peace and environmental health.
- First, aerial spraying contaminates land and undermines efforts to substitute coca business through other livelihood and land use opportunities, making it a counterproductive rather than complementary strategy. Because organised crime is highly adaptive to law enforcement, it quickly switches income sources and places. It feeds on Colombia’s two largest illegal economies, coca and gold. Experience made by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) has shown whenever coca production drops illegal gold mining increases. Beyond the glyphosate’s direct effects on the environment, illegal mining then exacerbates environmental damage such as water contamination due to unregulated mining practices. Besides, to evade aerial spraying coca producers migrate to reserve areas where spraying is more difficult to implement. This causes deforestation, damage to biodiversity-hotspots, and lately increased threats to park rangers.
- Second, aerial spraying, a destruction of peasants’ and particularly less developed and Afro-Colombian communities’ livelihoods, has been found to reduce their trust in state institutions. In most of the long-neglected and conflict-ridden zones the state has only recently recovered its presence. This lack of trust has been stressed as one of the crucial factors driving organised crime in post-conflict settings. Such institutionally fragile contexts enable organised crime to gain a foothold by providing income and quasi-public services to peasants. Aerial eradication therefore counteracts best practices gathered in Thailand, the only country worldwide having managed to sustainably reduce its illegal crops by flipping the chain of action. Peasants, international cooperation, and government first helped kick-start alternatives before jointly eradicating illegal crops, thereby prioritising trust. Recent findings on the Colombian case have shown that international cooperation has the capacity to help reinforce trust and establish economic alternatives.
Duque’s request has not yet been granted. Regardless of the outcome, the workings of organised crime in post-conflict settings are well-studied by researchers and should, for the sake of the environment and peace process, be regarded when shaping policies and forging international cooperation in such contexts.
Johanna Kleffmann holds a Master’s degree in Political Science and has done research on security and peace, recently in Colombia where her field research focussed on international peacebuilding’s mitigation strategies towards organised crime in a post-conflict setting.