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Latin America

Colombia's Coca Farmers Face Uncertain Future As FARC Negotiates Peace

A man carries a bag with coca leaves in December 2013 in a rural area of Corinto, department of Cauca, Colombia. The Colombian government and the FARC are attempting address the issue of "illicit cultivation" as the third point of their ongoing peace talks. AFP/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

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A man carries a bag with coca leaves in December 2013 in a rural area of Corinto, department of Cauca, Colombia. The Colombian government and the FARC are attempting address the issue of "illicit cultivation" as the third point of their ongoing peace talks.

AFP/AFP/Getty Images

Some were reticent as they mumbled their troubles, while others launched into angry diatribes. But each of the farmers to address the crowd echoed the same concern: "Can we live in a Colombia without coca?"

They may soon find out.

Around two-thirds of Colombia's coca crop — which supplies 95 percent of cocaine consumed in the U.S., according to State Department estimates — is controlled by the Marxist guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).

The FARC has been waging war against the state for half a century, but the winds are beginning to shift. The rebels are two years into peace talks with the government and are talking not only about putting an end to armed revolution, but also about helping to dismantle a huge chunk of the coca trade.

The FARC and government negotiators already have drawn up the deceptively simply titled "Solution to the Problem of Illegal Drugs," which hammers out a three-step program for halting coca cultivation: voluntary and gradual eradication of coca, replacement with legal crops, and new social investments in impoverished coca-growing regions.

Proponents hail the plan for offering coca farmers a new life and for creating an unprecedented opportunity to attack the cocaine trade at its source. But in Colombia, life rarely is simple.

Many of those at a peasant farmer summit in Catatumbo, in the coca-growing heartland east Colombia, said they welcomed the plan in theory but questioned the government's ability to deliver.

That's not without cause: According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, Colombian coca farmers earn just $1,000 a year on average — but many who agreed to participate in past government-run crop-substitution programs were left even worse off.

Farmers harvest coca leaves in June 2012 at a plantation in the mountains of the department of Cauca, Colombia. AFP/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

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AFP/AFP/Getty Images

Farmers harvest coca leaves in June 2012 at a plantation in the mountains of the department of Cauca, Colombia.

AFP/AFP/Getty Images

One farmer — wearing a baseball cap and wiping away sweat with the towel he, like many Colombian farmers, drapes over his shoulders — described the dismal upshot of trying to swap coca for coffee in his Pacific coast home state of Cauca. Coffee prices were unstable, he said transport costs from the isolated region were steep, and the farmers lacked coffee-growing expertise.

"You can make as much in a month from coca as in a year from the substitute crops," said the farmer, who can't be named for legal reasons.

In the northeastern state of Bolivar, efforts to substitute coca with cacao failed even more spectacularly: In 2007 and 2008, government planes doused the farmers' new cacao plants with weed killer. It left the farmers outraged, in debt, and more cynical than ever, says Luis Francisco Gonzalez, a community leader from the region. So they went back to growing coca.

Supporters of the agreement, which will be implemented if and when a final peace deal is signed, insist this time will be different. The new substitution programs will be tied to investments in infrastructure and public services to make them economically viable, and both the programs and investments will be designed in collaboration with the farmers, rather than imposed from the top down. And the government insists it can eliminate — or seriously hobble — the drug trade.

One supporter, economist and coca expert Felipe Tascon, says the plan can work as long as the government does its homework and invests its cash wisely. The ambitious goal means there's much to be done, he says — addressing the local agricultural considerations, for starters, but also improving the roads and infrastructure surrounding the farmland.

But what if the attempt to strangle the drug supply backfires? A Colombia without the FARC controlling coca could turn even more criminal. As long as global demand continues, experts say, drug traffickers will fill the vacuum left by the insurgents.

"Organized crime syndicates will be able to adapt overnight to this," said Jeremy McDermott, director of InSight Crime, a Colombia-based organized-crime research foundation.

Nevertheless, some believe that even if Colombia's peace talks might not be the magic bullet to snuff out drug production, it could be a vital first step. The overriding hope is that farmers' lives will change for the better, but there are those who agree with one farmer from the south, who declared, "we have to defend coca with our lives."