While against a background of narcotics cartels run by super-rich criminals like Pablo Escobar, raged a five decades armed conflict between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia.
Now, however, a Scottish college is at the heart of efforts to persuade Colombia’s rural farmers to halt production of illegal coca crops and switch to growing ‘super’ beans instead.
Researchers from Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC) are involved in three major projects aimed at tackling the triple challenges of the country’s cocaine production, climate change and deforestation.
It’s hoped the SRUC work, currently focused in the southern Caquetá region – once the country’s cocaine heartland – will identify cultural and societal issues which lead to farmers opting to cultivate illegal crops, and help guide farmers across the country towards more sustainable food production.
Among the new farming practices they are being encouraged to adopt, is the cultivation of bean crops specially developed with climate change in mind to be heat-tolerant, to deter pests, and fortified with iron or zinc.
Farmers are also being encouraged to introduce new plants for livestock feed which both capture carbon and avoid the loss of precious forest.
Research into why farmers grow illegal crops has brought researchers face to face with former guerrillas now trying to return to normal farming life, along with others trying to withdraw from years of working for the country’s drugs cartels.
But despite the apparent risks of working in drug cartel-operated areas, SRUC economist Dr. Hernán Degiovanni said there appears to be an understanding among farmers and even traffickers of the need to introduce new farming methods.
“Farmers understand that if they grow coca crops they are at risk of losing that crop because it’s illegal. They are comparing the revenue from their illegal crop that can be lost, against revenue they receive from a legal crop,” he said.
“While the people in charge of the cocaine market and who make a lot of money from it, are not interested in us being there because they understand the need for the development of the area.
“They know coca is an industry that is a by-product of the lack of development of the region which they are exploiting. It’s the lack of development that leads to farmers to grow coca instead of legal crops.
“And they understand the need for legal crops – they have to eat too, and they want good beans.”
Meetings with farmers and ex-combatants carried out prior to the current pandemic which were intended to gain understanding of communities attitudes towards illegal crops and more sustainable farming, had been surprisingly open, he added.
“People are welcoming and want to talk to us. What has shocked us is how open they have been about their involvement and past involvement in guerrilla groups. They talk about that quite openly.”
Coca, the raw material used in cocaine, has long been the major source of employment and income for around 130,000 rural Colombians who might otherwise struggle to support their families.
A key issue is the country’s rural infrastructure which makes it difficult to travel to markets to sell legal crops. Because drug traffickers travel to them, an illegal crop can become a more attractive option.
In many cases, farmers and their families carry out the process of converting the coca leaves into coca paste, involving drenching the leaves in gasoline for up to 12 hours to extract the alkaloid or coca base.
A combination of sulfuric acid, pulverised limestone or ammonia and acetone is used before the substance is placed in an oven to be converted to an oil-like substance.
The coca paste is then further processed using chloride acid and more acetone.
One kilo of cocaine requires around 125 kilos of coca leaves and usually fetches farmers just $1. However, by the time a kilo of cocaine reaches the UK, its value will have soared to around £50,000.
Authorities have previously tried to curb coca cultivation by destroying plants by spraying chemicals over farmers’ fields. Around 80,000 hectares of coca were destroyed in 2018.
Last year coca cultivation was said to cover more than 154,000 hectares of land. Despite a fall of around 9% in the scale of cultivation, one recent UN report said the amount of cocaine being produced in Colombia had increased, suggesting drugs traffickers were becoming more skilled at extracting cocaine from plants and taking their drug to the open market.
The SRUC work is being carried out with the Centre of International Tropical Agriculture and the universities of Reading, Leeds and Bristol.