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The story of the peasants of Arauca who resolved to eliminate coca in defence of life”

After eleven years, the government of Colombia has taken the unprecedented step of claiming the credit for the eradication of coca, with no acknowledgment of the manual labour freely given by the communities to pull up illicit crops in this department.

On 22 March 2018, a ceremony was held in the town of Arauquita to declare the department of Arauca free of illicit crops. Attending were Eduardo Díaz, Director of the Agency for the Substitution of Illicit Crops, and Rafael Pardo Rueda, Senior Advisor for the Post-Conflict Era, Human Rights and Security, who gave the announcement. The event also boasted an international presence consisting of UN representatives.

Other attendees at this event were departmental, military and church authorities, community members, and representatives of several civic and people’s organizations. The announcement was given at the Santa Elena experimental farm. According to the National Eradication Program (PNIS, by its Spanish acronym), this program made possible the eradication of approximately 379 hectares of coca within the framework of the peace accord between the government and FARC EP.


Despite the petroleum boom in Arauca beginning in the mid-1980s and extending until 2015[1], the government never made any social investments nor provided any protection or guarantees of safety for the communities – on the contrary, the protection went to the oil investors and multinationals that had begun exploiting the region.

The lack of a government presence in this region far from the major urban centres led to an illicit crop boom during the 1980s and 1990s.

Faced with militarization and the expropriation of natural resources by the multinationals, the communities of the department opted for coca growing as a way of bringing in some money and improving their living standards during a three-decade period of government neglect.

During that time, the country went through the two administrations of Álvaro Uribe Vélez, (2002–2006 and 2006–2010); endured the so-called “democratic security” policy, with the heightened presence of paramilitaries in public life, and suffered from a clear policy of persecuting and disappearing members of the public under the pretence of attacking the insurgency.

These phenomena were present in Arauca, with the extra problem of glyphosate spraying, even though there was no way to assess the health effects of this herbicide, or the environmental, social, economic, and human rights impacts caused by the fact that many non-target subsistence crops were killed by the coca spraying.

According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), in its Colombia: Coca Cultivation Survey 2007 [2] for the period from 2001 to 2006, the coca crop plummeted from 2749 to 1306 hectares; in the first two years of the Uribe administration, with its herbicide spraying policy, the decline in the cultivated area was 80.4%, from 2749 to 539 hectares.

Yet one year later there had been a 188% resurgence. It is unknown whether the glyphosate killed the trees or whether the sprayed area in fact consisted of subsistence crops, resulting in incalculable environmental, economic, and social harm to the communities [3][4][5].

Who did the work?

Militarization, paramilitary incursions, and glyphosate spraying led the peasants of Arauca, together with a group of social movement organizations (Asociación Departamental de Usuarios Campesinos de Arauca (ADUC), Juntas de Acción Comunal, Cooperativa Agropecuaria del Sarare (COOAGROSARARE))), to embark on a campaign to study the social, economic, environmental, political, and human rights impact of illicit crops in the department. The decision was made to shoulder the burden of conscientiously and voluntarily eradicating the remaining coca crops from the department and returning to normal agriculture, thus leaving the national government with no grounds on which to continue repressing the people and destroying their crops.

The communities came forward with a set of demands consisting of support for improved agricultural production and marketing, a debt relief plan for farmers, improved delivery of public services, improved road infrastructure, improved health and education services and broader coverage, defence of food sovereignty, human rights guarantees, and environmental conservation [6].

By the end of this campaign in 2012, according to the social movement and peasant organizations, the total area under cultivation had been reduced from 1038 to 80 hectares [7]. This statement is supported by a letter from Arauca House of Representatives members Néstor Homero Cotrina and Cesar Humberto Londoño Salgado to Brigadier General Álvaro Caro Meléndez, Director of Drug Interdiction, stating as follows: “a major manual eradication program has taken place, leading to the eradication of nearly 95% of the existing illicit crops and the implementation of a policy of substitution by manioc, banana, cacao, corn, and pasture crops” in the town of Fortul.

The effectiveness of this community-based initiative is evidenced by the UNODC report for 2013 [8], which noted a decrease in the area under illicit crops in Arauca.

As of December 2012, this report indicates the elimination of 1225 ha, leaving the department with only 81 ha still in coca, which concurs with the testimony provided by the communities and organizations.

For the period 2013–2016, the UNODC notes in its 2017 report [9] the total elimination of illicit crops from the department. This contrasts with the PNIS figures suggesting an area of 379 ha of coca that had been left to eradicate, as does the declaration of the final elimination of coca in Arauca further to the government programs and the peace process between the FARC EP and the national government.

We did the work

What with the failure of the government and the official institutions to acknowledge this grassroots campaign to eradicate coca, the organizations of the People’s Political Movement of Central-Eastern Colombia and the social movement organizations that participated in the voluntary eradication process in the years 2007–2012 embarked on a campaign to publicize grassroots involvement in coca eradication, to discuss the demands that are to be presented to departmental and national entities, and once again to demand recognition of the commitments that have been made. Eleven years later, the organizations have a message for the Colombian people: “We are eradicating coca for the defence of life.”


[1] Arauca y el Petróleo – Libardo Sarmiento, Fundación Paz y Reconciliación

[2] United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, Colombia: Coca Cultivation Survey 2007 (

[3] Las fumigaciones en Arauca sólo afectan a los campesinos, con consecuencias ambientales, en salud y los cultivos agroalimentarios

[4] Fumigaciones y política de drogas en Colombia: ¿fin del círculo vicioso o un fracaso estratégico?

[5] Acusan al operativo de fumigación “Luna Roja” de afectar a las cuencas, potreros y alimentación

[6] En Arauca los campesinos dicen NO a los cultivos de uso ilícito

[7] En el departamento de Arauca solo quedan unas ochenta hectáreas de coca

[8] Colombia, monitoreo de cultivos de Coca 2012 – Oficina de las Naciones Unidas contra la Droga y el Delito

[9] United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, Colombia: Coca Cultivation Survey 2012 (…)

by Angela Castrillón -Mauricio Reyes