Article / December 2, 2020

Crop Substitution Creates Opportunity in Colombia

While it’s true that Colombia has gone through some difficult years, the country has made great strides in eliminating illegal coca production, and is firmly on the path of crop substitution. If handled well, there are truly massive agribusiness opportunities in repurposing land to high-demand crops for export to lucrative markets around the world. By replacing illicit crops with high-value permanent crops, Colombia is well on its way to agribusiness success.

Turning the Page on Coca in Colombia

It would be naïve to think Colombia could just snap its fingers and make coca production completely disappear. Every country has its own illicit drug production problems to deal with, but the unique opportunity in Colombia lies in the agribusiness opportunities of converting former coca plantations to different crops.

Much of Colombia’s coca production has been eradicated. 

There are hundreds of thousands of acres of land previously used for growing coca that could undergo land conversion to be put to better use. But doing so can only be accomplished through a focused effort to develop alternative livelihoods for the tens of thousands of people and their families who have depended on coca cultivation.

The problem is that without focused investment and guidance, smallholder farmers often end up opting for crops they know they can sell locally, which are inevitably low-value crops that don’t provide the kind of income security they need and deserve. If presented with real possibilities to choose higher-value crops and scale their operations cooperatively with other small growers, real progress could be made.

Coca production has been reduced to small, extremely isolated regions. 

In other words, closing the chapter on coca in Colombia means opening a new one based on more lucrative agribusiness opportunities.

Moving Forward

Colombia has made great strides in the substitution of illicit crops through the National Comprehensive Program for the Substitution of Illicit Crops. This program, a crucial part of the landmark 2016 peace agreement between the government and the FARC, has successfully converted almost 35,000 hectares of former coca plantation and involves over 100,000 families.

The opportunity to convert illicit crops to productive, licit uses has not gone unnoticed. Howard Buffet, eldest son of the legendary investor, has committed $200 million dollars to just that purpose, promising to help convert coca cultivation into sustainable coffee and cacao production.

The Buffet heir is no stranger to the country, where he helped pop star Shakira establish schools for underprivileged children in Barranquilla and has previously directed a program to help families convert coca to cacao plantations. His new endeavor targets 170 high-risk municipalities that form part of the government’s official crop substitution plan.

What Replaces Coca? 

Colombia’s declining coca trade creates an opportunity to turn illicit crop cultivation into scaled agribusiness. But what crops can replace coca, and how can those solutions be implemented?

Up until this point, the crops most often suggested for replacing coca are those with well-established supply chains and domestic markets, such as coffee and cacao. But as those factors change, there is an opportunity for former coca growers to diversify their production with other high-value permanent crops.

For growers to voluntarily make use of these opportunities, supply chain and markets need to develop. Coca growers aren’t criminals – often the have other choice than to grow coca to provide for themselves and their families.

The long-term solution to this problem is to create opportunities that will allow coca growers to repurpose their land and extract more value from their cultivation. This can only be accomplished by developing agribusiness at a scale that can go beyond subsistence farming.

This change is coming. With Colombia’s infrastructure programs rapidly connected the isolated regions of the country to the major demand centers, growers of coca will be able to reach demand centers that will open up a wider range of possibilities.

An integral part of this effort will be to connect growers with global value chains. A grower’s choice of crop depends heavily on the value chains that they are connected to, and if Colombian growers can access opportunities in other sectors, their cultivation practices will change.

With a concerted effort on behalf of the government, the private sector, and growers, Colombia can move beyond its coca cultivation and into a new era of profitable, equitable agribusiness.

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