Jessica: Coca growing, stigmatization, violence and development in Colombia

Jessica is a social leader from Putumayo on Colombia’s southern border with Ecuador. Jessica’s story spotlights the stigmatisation and violence associated with coca farming, as well as the welfare benefits and development it brings to families, communities and whole regions – it’s a story of resilience, violence and tough trade-offs. The comic was created by Inty Grillos, Colorbia in partnerships with PositiveNegatives.

Jessica: Coca growing, violence and development in Colombia

By Louise Ball and Andrei Gomez Suarez

Jessica is a social leader from Putumayo on Colombia’s southern border with Ecuador. Her story spotlights the stigmatisation and violence associated with coca farming, as well as the welfare benefits and development it brings to families and communities – it’s a story of hardship, resilience and tough trade-offs.

Four years after Colombia signed a peace deal with the FARC and violence is still part of everyday life in the country’s borderlands. Killings of women engaged in community organising and human rights defence in Colombia increased nearly 50% in 2019. This escalation  of conflict has halted structural transformation that social leaders, like Jessica, have been working for decades to build.

We’re publishing Jessica’s story today – International Peace Day 2020 – to create awareness about the urgent need to find comprehensive solutions to the entanglement of violence and development in Colombia. 

Jessica’s story

In the 1980s, Jessica’s first coca harvest gave her family enough money to pay its electricity bill and buy a TV. 

There was little government presence in the region. Different guerrilla groups arrived. Among them, the Movement 19 April (M-19) and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), who took a tax on coca profits. Some of this was used to organise community workdays to fix roads and build schools. 

Jessica was elected community police inspector under FARC approval. As she raised her two children and served her community, she saw people suffer the hardships of poverty. She also rejoiced when money earned through coca farming helped them send their children to university, or maintain their homes. 

But life was hard, and money earned by coca brought with it risk and violence, dealing with those involved in the illicit drug trade.

In the 1990s, coca production increased and Putumayo developed quickly. Then the state started aerial spraying farms with glyphosate, destroying not only coca but also all other crops. Jessica protested alongside coca farming communities. 

Extract from Jessica: Coca growing, violence and development in Colombia’s borderlands.

Violent conflict continued in the region. Right-wing paramilitaries arrived to fulfill their plan of national expansion that had started in northern Colombia in the mid 1990s.

Killings increased. Many coca growers, social leaders and community members died. Jessica was afraid to even go to the shops. She had to temporarily flee the region to survive. 

In 2000, Jessica was part of a movement to create a Peasant Reserve Zone – a legal land designation set up by the state to protect  the collective use of farms by campesino families in colonisation regions. 

When the FARC found out, they held Jessica at gunpoint, believing that she was betraying them and bringing the army to the region. But one of the armed men was from her community and knew that Jessica was only trying to help. Her life was spared.

In 2002 the Peasant Reserve Zone was declared. Coca production decreased, but it didn’t completely disappear. That same year, Jessica gave up her role as a community policy inspector, after receiving yet more death threats. 

In 2009, oil companies arrived in Putumayo promising jobs and economic development. But the communities didn’t want this. They wanted to keep their land.

In 2012, talks of peace negotiations between the FARC and the government started. Jessica represented the Peasant Reserve Zone in negotiations, asking for better roads to allow farmers to sell their (non-coca) produce.

In 2016, the peace deal was signed. It included a voluntary illicit crop substitution programme. Jessica has encouraged families and communities to sign up. But most have not received the support promised by the government in exchange for agreeing to stop cultivating coca. And more forced eradication, often violent, is taking place.

Jessica is now in hiding as she continues to receive death threats by illegal armed groups who are competing to take control of drug trafficking routes and social affairs in Putumayo.

Three things Jessica’s story tells us

1. Coca has brought risks and violence to communities, but it’s also allowed people to overcome the hardships of poverty.

Jessica’s story highlights how the daily lives of coca growing communities are hugely impacted by the presence, actions and interests of different actors coming in and out of the region – each with their own interests and bringing different forms of violence.

The violence and risk associated with illicit crops is probably no surprise. Farmers are vulnerable to assaults by armed groups, with little or no access to institutional recourse. Especially in regions – like Jessica’s – that have experienced years of long and violent conflict between and among different state and non-state groups.

But violence has come from less expected actors too, like the government. 96 incidents of violent clashes between rural communities and state forces linked to forced eradication of coca crop were documented between 2016-2020.

Another unexpected reality highlighted by Jessica’s story is how coca has helped people to overcome the hardships of poverty and actually developed whole regions – creating jobs, boosting local economies, or allowing families to send their children to university. This reality challenges more common narratives of illicit drug economies as always being barriers to development. 

2. Coca producers are organised and active citizens who are willing to engage in alternatives to coca production, but they feel let down by the state.

Despite being hugely impacted by the interests of different actors, coca farmers also have strong agency. Jessica’s story shows how community action groups built roads and schools. They protested against the government’s forced eradication policies. And they lobbied for the creation of a Peasant Reserve Zone to protect their land rights.

The National Illicit Crop Substitution Programme (PNIS) – part of the 2016 peace agreement – was designed to counter exclusion of peasant coca producing families. It is also supposed to be tied to local and regional development plans to improve rural infrastructure and access to public services.

Many coca farming families signed up to the agreement. But, so far, the government has not delivered its side of the deal. Nor is it doing anything to protect social leaders, like Jessica, who are working for its implementation within communities.

3. Coca growers and pickers are ‘campesinos’ (peasant farmers), not rich narco-criminals.

The Colombian government treats coca farmers like criminals. Counter-narcotics policies are still tied to the narratives of the war on drugs, used to justify a war on peasant farmers who cultivate coca.

The reality is that most coca growing communities don’t have access to basic public services, like drinking water or sanitation systems. Growing coca is not a particularly fast or easy way to make money. It is a hard, labour-intensive agricultural job. Farmers cultivate coca because it offers them a reliable income and modest social advancements, in contrast to other crops, where demand is unreliable, prices fluctuate and transport costs are high.

Coca farmers typically spend the income earned through coca crops on their children’s education, productive equipment, and running their household – as Jessica’s story shows.

And so, Colombia’s coca farmers face multiple forms of exclusion – from lack of access to basic services and infrastructure, to high levels of informal land tenure. They are also excluded from public debate – including on counter-narcotics policies. Treated as criminals, the government and civil society don’t recognise them as valid interlocutors. 

The comic Jessica: coca growing, stigmatization, violence and development in Colombia was produced in partnership with PositiveNegatives and illustrated by the Putumayo-based art collective Inty Grillos. The three messages here also reflect, and have been adapted from, findings of research conducted by the Universidad Nacional de Colombia in three borderland regions – Tumaco, La Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, and Puerto Asis, published in Voices from the borderlands 2020: illicit drugs, development and peacebuilding and El PNIS en terreno: voices del campesinado cocalero.

In the world’s forgotten borderlands, the drug trade helps people survive – but at a cost

This article was first published by The Conversation on 14 August 2020. Read original article.

When Jangul’s* village on the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan was bombed in the war between the Soviet communist regime and the Mujahedeen in the 1980s, it was some opium buried under his house that enabled him to build a new home.

Then, in the 1990s, when he was jobless and without means to feed his family, a friend’s cousin offered him a good sum of money to smuggle heroin from Afghanistan to Moscow. It was a treacherous and risky journey, but one with a good pay out that allowed him to open a small shop at the bazaar.

Jangul’s story is one of many gathered during our research in border regions of Afghanistan, Colombia and Myanmar. These testimonies demonstrate how illicit drugs and conflict have become deeply embedded in the daily lives and livelihoods of borderland communities.

A comic illustration of Jangul’s story by Positive Negatives. Kruttika Susarla via Positive Negatives

They also show how deeply flawed conventional assumptions are that illicit drugs are always counter to development and peacebuilding, or that economic and social development will automatically dismantle illegal drug economies and provide a foundation for peace.

In reality, illicit drugs can actually contribute to coping, survival and even social advancement. Meanwhile, government and international development efforts may push people into a closer engagement with the drug trade. Counter-narcotics programmes in some of these border regions may also actually undermine progress towards the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.

In Colombia’s borderlands with Ecuador, we heard stories of coca farmers and pickers using their coca income to access basic services, and to invest in education and community projects such as road or bridge building. As one farmer told us: “The state has abandoned us, and we survive with the coca bush because we have to.”

In Myanmar’s Kachin and Shan states on the country’s borders with China and Thailand, we heard how drug consumption has grown in the wake of ceasefires and amid forms of state economic development. An elderly man in Kachin state pointed out:

After the ceasefire … road construction started, then the logging started in the area. The heroin started coming in when the area became more populated. Then the local youth started using different kinds of drugs.

Borderland blindness

The borderlands – which straddle two or more countries – are often the first areas into and the last out of protracted armed conflict. They’re also transnational hubs for illicit drugs and activities, with relatively easy access to lucrative foreign markets. And they are home to some of the poorest and most vulnerable communities in each area we studied.

Yet development donors are often constrained by thinking that focuses their efforts on individual countries rather than those that border it too. Such approaches lead to what my colleagues and I call borderland blindness – a failure to sufficiently understand, appreciate and engage with borderland regions and the communities living there.

This can also lead to a failure to take into account the multiple forms of violence experienced in borderlands after peace accords have been signed. These range from continued large-scale violence involving government forces and non-state armed groups as in Afghanistan, to the violence associated with counter-narcotics policies and interventions in Colombia, to exploitative labour practices and extensive drug abuse in Myanmar.

Drug use is rife in Myanmar’s northern Kachin state. Nyein Chan Haing/EPA

Meanwhile, government efforts to rebuild states after war and boost economic development frequently find it hard to gain a foothold in the borderlands. And when they do, they can work to the disadvantage of borderland communities. For example, we found the insertion of oil companies in Colombia’s borderlands and commercial agriculture in Myanmar’s has been associated with land grabs and displacement of borderland communities.

Nonetheless, governments continue to frame better political and economic integration of borderlands as key to addressing illicit drug economies. But our research suggests that the drivers of the illicit economies in the borderlands are less about a lack of integration between the centres and the margins. Instead, the drivers are more about the ways forms of integration – through for example investments in infrastructure or border management – are imposed on the areas.

Win-win solutions are an illusion

The relationship between counter-narcotics, development aimed at moving people out of poverty, and peace-building initiatives is neither straightforward nor necessarily complementary. There are trade-offs between policy objectives and it may not be possible to design interventions that do no harm. A more realistic approach may involve mitigating harms and avoiding policies that directly lead to violence and poverty.

This can only be done by actively engaging with people living in the borderlands to understand why they engage in the drug trade. This could be done by building partnerships with social and political groups that represent or are composed of marginal groups – including those involved in the drug trade.

Like Jangul, many people involved in illicit economies in borderlands affected by drugs and conflict make really tough decisions every day. They make Faustian bargains in which short-term survival may come at the cost of long-term health and security. We must avoid policies and programmes that make these trade-offs even more difficult to manage.

* Names in this article have been changed to protect the anonymity of the research participants.

Colombia faces a second deadly threat

By Diana Ximena Machuca, Margarita Marin Jaramillo and Karen Brock

This article was first published by the Latin America Bureau on 13 August 2020. Read original article.

‘It is not just the pandemic of COVID-19 that strikes and ends the lives of peasants, but another pandemic that is far worse. This is the forced and violent eradication [of illicit crops] by the Army.’

Community member from Cύcuta, Norte de Santander, May 2020

These words come from a video that describes the fatal shooting of a community member during an incident of forced eradication of coca crops during the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Colombia’s Peace Agreement, signed in 2016, made provision for a programme for the substitution of illicit crops (PNIS in Spanish), intended as a replacement for the government’s long-standing practice of forced eradication.

Under the Agreement, farming communities were to enrol in the PNIS and sign collective agreements to voluntarily substitute their coca with other crops; and the state committed to provide resources and productive projects to compensate them and enable them to establish alternative livelihoods.

But the implementation of the PNIS has been partial and patchy at best. And at the same time, forced – and often violent – manual eradication of coca crops has not halted. It has continued and even accelerated since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic. And it is often accompanied with deadly confrontations.

Documenting violent forced eradication

Last week, the Observatorio de Tierras launched a multimedia report documenting incidents of violent confrontations between public forces and rural populations during forced manual eradication of illicit crops.

Behind the report lies a database of records of violent incidents of forced eradication between 2016 and 2020. It draws on information provided by peasant organizations and human rights defenders, including the Coordinating Committee of Coca, Poppy and Marijuana Growers (COCCAM), and press reports.

So far, the database includes 95incidents, which document confrontations between rural communities and state forces during forced eradication.

An interactive map allows users to view the details of each forced eradication incident, including which social organisations and state actors were involved, and what kind of violence happened.

Most of the incidents recorded in the database occurred in 2020, and42% are concentrated in the period since March 2020 when the Covid-19 pandemic lockdown began.

About 20% of the incidents involved the use of firearms by state forces or an unspecified third party. In 19%of the incidents at least one person was injured, and in six cases at least one person was killed.

The power of video testimony

The report also links to a database of videos of forced eradication. Most were recorded by peasants, to use in formal complaints against the perpetrators of violence. As well as showing the violence of eradication – in the form of tear gas, helicopters and guns – the videos also document the actions taken by farmers and their organisations to demand that the government uphold the Peace Agreement and implement the PNIS.

Lack of coordination and excessive use of force

The report illustrates the lack of coordination between two policies for dealing with illicit crops: the PNIS, and forced manual eradication. Some of the violent incidents in the database show confrontations taking place between the public forces and peasant communities where people were waiting to enrol in the PNIS, and others where people had already signed collective agreements and were waiting for the state to fulfil its commitments.

It also graphically illustrates the excessive use of violence by public forces.

In the face of this violence, communities have consistently asked to be included in the PNIS, and have added calls for the manual forced eradication campaign be put on hold during the pandemic. They also ask that the Office of the Ombudsman monitor human rights violations taking place in this context. This database of violent confrontations is an important source of evidence to support the defence of human rights that they are calling for.

Voices from the borderlands 2020

Voices from the borderlands 2020: illicit drugs, development and peacebuilding gives light to some of the voices of people involved in illicit drug economies in sever borderland communities of Afghanistan, Colombia, and Myanmar. Together these are three of the world’s largest drug producing countries, all with years of violence conflict and in the midst of some form of peace process.

These testimonies offer valuable insights into how illicit drugs – and drug policies – impact the dynamics of violence and peace, poverty and development, and insecurity and resilience.

Jangul: conflict and drug trafficking in Afghanistan’s borderlands

This comic tells the story of Jangul, a man from Nangarhar province in Afghanistan. From helping his father in the poppy fields as a child, to smuggling heroin all the way to Moscow as an adult, opium has been a part of Jangul’s life – through conflict and desperation, and relative peace and security. The comic was illustrated by Kruttika Sursala and produced by PositiveNegatives.

Una conversación sobre erradicación forzada, PNIS y los acuerdos con campesinos cultivadores de cultivos de uso ilícito

Maria Alejandra Vélez, conversó sobre erradicación forzada, PNIS y los acuerdos con campesinos cultivadores de cultivos de uso ilícito con Pedro Arenas, investigador de la Corporación Viso Mutop, ex Alcalde de San José del Guaviare, miembro del Civil Society Task Force ante la Comisión de Drogas de ONU y coautor de ‘vicios penales’ y de ‘entradas y salidas, estado del arte de la sustitución de cultivos’.

Afghanistan: about the borderlands

Afghanistan is a land-locked mountainous country with a population of some 38 million. It is classified as ‘low income’ and ranks 168 out of 188 according to the HDI. As of 2016, an estimated 54.5% of Afghanistan’s population lived below the poverty line.

Located along the historic Silk Road, Afghanistan has long been integrated into trans-regional networks and different forms of economic, religious and cultural exchange. Its strategic location has exposed the country to many military campaigns throughout its history, from Alexander the Great, to Persian and Mongol invasions, to incursions by European colonial powers, all of which produced lasting cultural and demographic footprints. Established as a buffer state separating the Russian and British Empires in the 19th century, Afghanistan gained independence in 1919, under King Amanullah Khan.

The country entered a period of relative peace and stability from the 1930s, until the outbreak of war in 1978. During the Cold War period, Afghan rulers pursued a programme of gradual modernization and political neutrality, securing foreign aid from both superpowers. This strategy reinforced the country’s long-standing dependence on external funding, and also reduced the incentive for Afghan rulers to build a fiscal and social contract with their population.  

State penetration and service provision were limited in rural areas and a growing contradiction emerged between a foreign-funded enclave state and a rural population that received few of the benefits of this funding.  Ultimately these contradictions exploded in the Saur Revolution of 1978 leading to a communist government, wide-spread civil unrest, then the Soviet Union invasion in 1979 to prop up the regime. This led to the decade-long Soviet-Afghan War that killed and displaced millions of Afghans.

Since then, Afghanistan has experienced different phases of armed conflict, interspersed with phases of relative stability. After the withdrawal of the Soviets in 1989, a regionalised civil war soon followed which involved the collapse of the state, the destruction of much of the remaining infrastructure and the integration of the country into an extremely volatile regional war economy and conflict system.

The emergence of the Taliban from the mid-1990s brought a measure of stability but reinforced the country’s international isolation.  This was to change radically with the US-led intervention of 2001, which removed the Taliban regime.

The government that emerged following the Bonn Agreement, headed by President Karzai, brought initial hopes of a sustainable transition to peace. But instead, it marked a new phase of armed conflict that has intensified and spread over time, displacing some 3.5 million Afghans. The country has been in the ‘high alert’ category of the Fragile States Index throughout the 2000s and 2010s.

Although there is a long history of poppy cultivation and opium use in Afghanistan, it was only during the war years that there was a major increase in the production and trafficking of opiates, and Afghanistan took over from Burma as the global leader in illicit opium production.

The geographical distribution and aggregate production of opium grew steadily during the 1980s and 1990s. A ban imposed by the Taliban in 2000-2001 led to a dramatic short-term drop in poppy cultivation. However, following the United States (US)-led military intervention and especially since the late 2000s, poppy production rebounded.

By 2017, opium poppy crops extended over a record 328,000 acres or 132,737 hectares. And, as of 2017, the illicit opium economy accounted for an estimated 20%–32% of Afghanistan’s GDP – more than all of the country’s licit exports of goods and services combined. In 2018, following a massive drought that resulted in a fall in production, the estimates for illicit opium economy fell, and accounted for 6%-11% of GDP.

Following several months of negotiations and a short-term reduction in violence, the US government signed a peace agreement with the Taliban on 29 February 2020, with the aim of bringing about a US withdrawal and an end to the conflict. The agreement includes a commitment to withdraw all US and coalition forces from the country by Spring 2021, in exchange for assurances from the Taliban not to provide protection or material support to terrorist groups posing a threat to the US or its allies.

Our research team is conducting research in three borderland areas of Afghanistan that were selected because of their contrasting historical and contemporary relationships with central state institutions and their differing experiences of conflict and illicit drug economies.

The province of Nangarhar has long been a politically influential economic and trade hub on Afghanistan’s eastern border. While the remote province of Nimroz has had little economic and political salience in Afghanistan for most of its history, it is currently in the process of transforming into an important trade zone on Afghanistan’s western border.

All three borderlands are impacted by the illicit drug economy and the ongoing Taliban insurgency to varying degrees. Our research in these three provinces aims to shed greater light on the relationships between drugs, development and violence in these borderlands, and how interventions by the central government and/or regional and international powers have impacted these relationships.


Nangarhar is demarcated by the Spin Ghar mountain range to the south, which descend into arable lowlands to the north. This topography is broken in the northern-most tip of the province by the peaks of the Hindu Kush. An estimated 1.5 million people live in Nangarhar; the majority are Pashtun but there are also small numbers of other ethnic groups such as Pashai, Arabs and Tajiks. The Pashtun people are themselves divided between lowland and highland tribes.

A historic resort for the Afghan monarchy and other aristocratic elites during the winter months, the province has long held importance for Afghan rulers and neighbouring powers. Today, the provincial capital of Jalalabad remains a key commercial, cultural and political hub of eastern Afghanistan.

As a key centre of resistance against the communist regime, Nangarhar was severely affected by the (1979-1989) Soviet-Afghan War. Violent struggles intensified again in the wake of the US-led offensive from 2001 onwards against the Taliban, which had controlled the province since 1994. As of 2019, the Taliban still has considerable influence in Nangarhar despite a significant number of interventions by North American Treaty Alliance (NATO)/US troops. The conflict scenario has been further complicated by the appearance of Islamic State (IS) or Daesh militant groups in the province since 2015.

Nangarhar shares a border with Pakistan to the south and east and has had a thriving transit trade and arbitrage economy since the 1970s, built upon strong cross-border tribal networks. Mining (marble, talc and gems) and illicit logging have also been a key source of income and rents for provincial business elites and political-military groups.

Nangarhar has a strong agricultural economy: its farmers grow a significant proportion of Afghanistan’s agricultural produce, including rice, wheat, various fruits and opium poppy. The province has been a major opium producer since the late 1980s; at certain points in time, it produced up to a quarter of Afghanistan’s opiates, with significant increases since 2010. The province has experienced intermittent bans on cultivation including prior to, during and after the Taliban regime – the most recent of which was implemented in territories controlled by the IS.

The Durrand line dividing Afghanistan from Pakistan has been disputed since the colonial period. On the one hand, the borderland it is a ‘sensitive space’ geopolitically, on the other there have always been close economic and social connections across the border, involving the movement of people and commodities across the formal and multiple informal crossing points.

However, post-2001, there has been a growing imperative from both sides of the border to regulate, manage and filter flows across the Durrand line, linked to concerns about security, terrorism, taxation and citizenship. Pakistan has been erecting a fence along the border to discourage unauthorized cross-border movement. As a result, several of the informal crossing points along the eastern Afghan-Pakistan border have closed in recent years, which has had significant impacts on the livelihoods of borderland communities.


Nimroz is largely comprised of flat desert terrain. It is the province with the lowest population density (approximately 2.8 people per km) in Afghanistan. As of 2015, an estimated 164,978 people lived in Nimroz – around a third of them in the provincial capital Zaranj. The population includes a mix of ethnic groups, including Baluch, Pashtun, Tajik, Barahawi, Uzbeks, and Hazaras.

Many of the province’s inhabitants have resided elsewhere at some point in their lives; a significant number are returnees from Iran, while others (especially Baluch nationalists) took refuge in Nimroz after being forced to leave Pakistan due to their political activism. A growing number of Afghans from other provinces have migrated to Zaranj in recent years, attracted by its relative security and burgeoning economic opportunities.

Although Nimroz has never been a stronghold for armed insurgents and has been comparatively less affected by the broader Taliban insurgency, a number of criminal networks and local strongmen wield a great deal of influence in the area. For centuries, disputes over access to water have periodically flared up between Nimroz and neighbouring Iran, and there are some reports that Iran is supporting Taliban forces in the province. While the capital of Zaranj remains under government control, remote districts such as Dularam and Chakansur are increasingly contested by the Taliban.

State presence in the region has historically been very limited, as indicated by the paucity of public services in the province, which has always been one of the poorest in Afghanistan. The province borders Iran and Pakistan and the region’s inhabitants have long engaged in cross-border trade, facilitated through Baluch networks that straddle the border in all three countries.

The importance of the Nimroz Afghan-Iran border was accentuated following the construction of the Delaram-Zaranj highway in 2009 and the signing of a 2016 trilateral transit agreement between Iran, India and Afghanistan. This highway is now one of Afghanistan’s busiest roads and a crucial trading route for licit and illicit commodities.

This includes drugs produced in neighbouring Helmand province, which accounts for about half of Afghanistan’s opium production. Nimroz itself cultivated about 6,200 hectares of opium poppy as of 2017, much of which was planted in the last decade following the introduction of solar-powered deep well technology. In recent years, Nimroz has also become a people-smuggling hub for Afghans migrating to Iran, Turkey and Europe.