Noralba Galvis usually returns home to her village in the Colombian jungle with fresh supplies of rice, meat, salt and other foods stuffed into bags.
However, today, as the 40-year-old steps onboard a boat for the two-hour journey home along the Putumayo River, she carries with her just a single cardboard box.
“My mother gave me these chicks,” she says. “Chickens are great in times of emergency like these, when there is nothing else left to eat.”
Galvis’ livelihood depends on selling coca. Her means of living is like most farmers in Putumayo, a vast southern department where the Andes meets the Amazon and where Colombia borders Ecuador and Peru.
Despite many Colombian governments efforts in recent decades to destroy the green shrub used to make cocaine, it has thrived across the country’s most remote corners since the 1990s.
If families in the region do not grow coca, they are usually employed to strip coca leaves, or are working in laboratories to chemically transform the plant into a white powder. Many have abandoned growing food entirely to focus on the small green shrub, and so their income is dependent on coca buyers.
Unfortunately, no buyers have come to Galvis’ village in three months, pushing her family — and about half a million other households — deeper into poverty.
“For most of us, coca is the only income we have,” says Galvis, who is the community representative for her remote village of 50 families. “No one is buying coca, and many of us mothers are hungry.”
After three years of rising prices, the Colombian coca market has inexplicably collapsed over the past 12 months, fueling speculation from government officials and organized crime analysts as to why drug cartels have stopped buying.
While experts debate whether the collapse of the market was triggered by the US fentanyl boom, Mexican cartels muscling in on Colombia’s drug trade or a simple market glut, many rural families are struggling to afford their next bag of rice.
The Colombian government and international organizations such as the World Food Programme are concerned that the sudden price drop could cause widespread hunger.
“Coca is a lifeline for many families. For several decades it is what people have looked to in times of crisis, such as when other crops fail. So the question is, what can they look to now?” said Elizabeth Dickinson, senior analyst for Colombia at the International Crisis Group.
About 400,000 households depend on the coca crop to make a living, but the price for coca base — the first step in the production of cocaine — has almost halved from ￡0.60 ($0.74) a gram to about ￡0.35. This price drop as been seen in central Colombian departments such as Cauca.
As coca’s market value has plunged, the cost of the pesticides, gasoline and chemicals used to make cocaine base has spiked, along with food prices.
In communities like Galvis’, the coca buyer who came every week started coming monthly and then disappeared entirely, leaving families wondering anxiously when he will return.
“Things are never easy here. Coca is the uncomfortable way that we can get by, but now even that is becoming impossible,” the mother of three children says, serving a spoonful of chicken and rice onto a plate for her four-year-old son.
Coca production in the Putumayo region leapt 77 percent last year, which helped drive the national cocaine production up 24 percent to 1,738 metric tonnes — a more than 20-year high, the UN said.
Billions of dollars are made from the illicit cocaine trade, which in Colombia has perpetuated six decades of conflict between armed guerrillas, paramilitary death squads and the military.
However, very little of that wealth has been distributed to the jungle settlements where the drug’s journey begins.
There is little state presence in Galvis’ village. Residents there live hours away from the nearest town in rickety wooden shacks, have to fetch water from a well, and construct their own bridges from concrete and wooden planks.
Coca farmers live in fear of violence, but since selling the plant is the only way to make a dignified living, they continue regardless, said Meily Calderon, 50.
A kilogram of plantain fetches about 15,000 Colombian pesos (US$3.82) at a market, but by the time a farmer has paid for it to be transported through the rainforest to then be shipped upriver, only about 6,000 pesos remains.
“What are you supposed to do with 6,000 pesos?” Calderon asked as she walked through a forest filled with rows of fully grown coca plants.
These crops reached harvest maturity weeks ago, but have been left abandoned when nobody turned up to buy the harvest.
The effects of the coca crisis have also rippled out far beyond the coca fields, hitting regional capitals.
Three years of rising coca prices had caused a flurry of new restaurants and bars to pop up in the town of Puerto Asis, but as coca money dries up, the local economy is slowing down, small business owners said.
“Many of my friends studying in Puerto Asis have suddenly stopped coming to class,” said Neider Cortes, a 20-year-old university student. “Without the coca money coming in they cannot afford the semester and had to drop out.”
The Colombian government is aware of the crisis, but its response has been limited. Addressing the issue is complicated by a lack of clarity as to why armed groups have suddenly stopped buying coca.
A report by the Washington Office on Latin America listed 12 leading theories for the collapse in the price of coca, which included the deadly fentanyl boom in the US hurting demand for cocaine and the fragmentation of Colombia’s drug cartels into tiny competing businesses.
“Many of these theories do not make sense as the market in the US for cocaine is relatively stable and continues to grow in Europe and Asia,” Colombian Director of Drug Policy Gloria Miranda Espitia said while on a visit to talk with coca producers in Putumayo. “So we think this is only an issue in Colombia and only in certain regions, which is associated with the dynamics of armed groups. There are some armed groups that are managing to sell to the international market, and there are others that are not.”
The government sees the coca crisis as an opportunity to entice farmers away from the illicit coca economy and out of the orbit of armed groups.
In Galvis’ village, farmers are returning to legal crops such as plantain, yuca and sugar cane, which were sown by previous generations before coca swept the region.
Coca farmers could just as easily swap one illicit economy for the other. For instance, in areas with mineral deposits, struggling coca farmers are said to be leaving coca cultivation for illegal mining.
Successive governments have tried the carrot-and-stick approach to halt coca production and end the cocaine trade, but neither spraying herbicide from the skies nor paying farmers to grow legal alternatives has prevented the crop’s relentless expansion.
Now that rural families can no longer guarantee putting food on the table by growing coca, Galvis hopes they may be able to leave the crop behind, along with the armed conflict.
“Even though we are screwed right now, maybe this could help farmers find their way again back to their roots,” she says. “Maybe this is just the wake-up call we needed.”
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