Combating the Growth of Coca in Colombia

By Natalia Gomez-Botero

Coca leaf hoja colombia crista castellanos

Image Credit: "Coca Leaf Plant," by Crista Castellanos, via Wikimedia Commons

Teens in the United States often have little knowledge about Colombia other than what they have learned from watching Netflix's hit show, Narcos. Thus, when Colombia is mentioned in everyday conversation in the United States, it is often in conjunction with the cartels and the drug trade. In the past few years, cultivation of the coca plant, from which cocaine is produced, began to rise in Colombia for the first time this decade. The increase in cultivation of this crop has increased cocaine production in the mountain and jungle areas of Colombia and cocaine imports to the United States, and the United States has seen an increment in cocaine users for the first time since 2007.[1] These troubling statistics raise the question of what the Colombian government should do in order to combat the rise in coca production. One effective measure is to destroy coca crops through fumigation; however, this practice has brought about debate due to the potentially harmful effects of fumigation gases on human health and the environment. In this paper, I will argue that the best option for the Colombian government is to encourage farmers to stop farming coca by compensating them for farming a different, less profitable, crop.

What is Fumigation?

Fumigation is a method of destroying a crop by suffocating the plant with a gaseous herbicide. The herbicide is sprayed from a plane in what is called aerial fumigation. The practice of using fumigation as a means of decreasing coca growth in Colombia has been in use since 1994, and it has been raising controversy ever since. [2] In 2015, the Colombian government halted the spraying program in response to widespread fear that the chemicals used in fumigation were harmful to human health, and the ethical issues surrounding fumigation continue to be debated.

The Advantages of Fumigation

Those who emphasize the need for the Colombian government to carry out fumigation argue that it does not have harmful effects on human health and the environment. In 2015, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) concluded that there was a "lack of convincing evidence" to support the claim that glyphosate, a chemical used in fumigation, poses a cancer risk to humans. [3] Thus, the United States government felt justified in pressing the Colombian government to continue fumigation efforts in response to the increased production of coca. To stress their point, the U.S. cited a thirty-nine percent increase in the amount of land used to grow coca in Colombia from 2014 to 2015.[4]

Proponents of fumigation argue that if the spraying program is ended, there will likely be a drastic increase in cocaine production, which favors groups whose finances come largely from the drug trade. Former Colombian Minister of Defense, Juan Carlos Pinzón, a supporter of fumigation, has argued that "we cannot permit losing the benefits [of spraying] on delinquency, crime, and terrorism." [5] In his opinion, spraying is an essential part of maintaining national security. One example of a group that has threatened national security is the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia), better known by the acronym FARC.[6] This group began as a guerrilla movement, then became an established military wing of the Colombian Communist Party, then was deemed a terrorist group by several nations, and finally, in June of 2017, disarmed itself and surrendered its weapons to the United Nations. FARC has made billions of dollars through the export of cocaine, and has also traded the drug for weapons, so to allow coca production to grow poses a danger because it increases an income source for a group who was a major player in the war that consumed Colombia for the past fifty years. In short, fumigation as a manner of decreasing the production of coca is supported by those, such as Pinzón, who do not consider fumigation to be a significant danger to human health, but do find it dangerous to allow historically violent groups to have more access to the illicit drug that provides much of their income.

In addition to the increased funds provided to groups such as FARC due to the fumigation ban, the only other way to destroy crops is through manual eradication, which poses a danger to the people who must go in and manually destroy crops. More often than not, the places in which the coca crop is grown are controlled by guerrilla groups and traffickers, making it a dangerous place for eradication workers. Land mines and armed conflicts are just two examples of the many ways that these workers have been hurt or killed in the past when attempting to manually destroy the crop. [7]

Disadvantages of Fumigation

Those who oppose the use of fumigation as a means to destroy coca crops commonly cite the harmful effects that glyphosate, the herbicide used in fumigation, has on human health and the environment. Michele Colopy, a researcher in the field of honey bee pollination, has studied glyphosate extensively because it affects the plants that bees can pollinate. She explains that "glyphosate is a non-selective herbicide, meaning it will kill most plants. It prevents the plants from making certain proteins that are needed for plant growth." [8] When used to combat coca production, glyphosate has the same effect on almost every plant in the area that is fumigated. Therefore, farmers with other crops near a coca crop often lose a large proportion of their food source because their crops are killed by the fumigation intended to eradicate coca.

Glyphosate is registered in the EPA's Toxicity Category III, with Category I being the most toxic and Category IV the least. [9] Although the glyphosate in itself is not considered to be a carcinogen, what makes it dangerous is the surfactant with which it is paired in the fumigation process. The surfactant used by the Colombian government, Cosmo-Flux 411F, has not been approved for use in the United States. Additionally, when glyphosate is produced in formula, as it almost always is, the manufacturers are not required to release their exact formulation.[10] The uncertainty about the formula used is simply one more reason that people are wary of the use of glyphosate. Both of these points, in addition to reports of illnesses in areas that have been affected by fumigation, have led many people to strongly oppose the use of fumigation to decrease the growth of coca.

Due to the ongoing discussion about whether or not glyphosate is dangerous to human health, the Food Safety Commission of Japan recently assessed various studies of glyphosate and put together a risk assessment report. Negative health effects attributed to glyphosate varied depending on the concentration and amount of glyphosate used, and "were observed on reduced gain of body weight, GI tract (diarrhea, increased cecum weight, bowel dilatation, thickening of intestinal mucosa), and liver (increased alkaline phosphatase [ALP], hepatocellular hypertrophy)." [11] Despite all these evident harmful effects, however, glyphosate does lack some other health risks. The conclusion based on the many studies assessed by the commission is that glyphosate has "no neurotoxicity, carcinogenicity, reproductive toxicity, teratogenicity, and genotoxicity."[12] These findings do not provide a definitive answer as to whether glyphosate is safe enough to use because it depends on the concentration and quantity used in the gaseous spray.

The Transactional Alternative

I argue that neither fumigation nor manual eradication is the safest or best option for the Colombian government to implement in its ongoing efforts to decrease the growth of the coca crop. Although the glyphosate compound could be used in relatively low quantities to diminish the health risk posed to humans, it is not worth any risk, given that there are other options available. Likewise, the risk posed to laborers involved in manual eradication is not justifiable. The best option is what is often referred to as a transactional alternative.[13] With this, the government makes a deal with the coca farmers in order to ease them away from growing coca.

There are two main transactional incentives that the Colombian government can use to decrease the growth of coca. First, the government can pay farmers to destroy their coca and grow a different crop. In this transaction, the government payoff compensates farmers for the money that they lose from producing a crop other than coca, because coca is the most lucrative crop. Second, the government can help coca farmers to find alternative employment (away from agriculture) for equal or better pay. [14] The difficulty with this transactional alternative is that it is not always easy for the government to implement, and the people in farming communities are not always willing to participate. The obvious solution to the problem of farmers who are not willing to participate is to make the transactional program mandatory. This is not a perfect solution, but it would be safer than the alternatives of fumigation and manual eradication. The Colombian government should therefore allocate more money to the transactional alternative in order to hire more workers that will enforce and implement the laws. With the power to enforce the laws comes the power to make farmers do things that they do not want to do. This tactic could therefore lead to government officials abusing their power, which should be carefully monitored and prevented.

The key to making the transactional alternative as effective as possible is stretching the government's reach. Adam Isacson of the Washington Office on Latin America reports that "most coca-growing zones are areas where the lack of a government is nearly total: no roads, no police outside of a few town centers, no access to post-primary education, health care, or potable water, no land titling." [15] Thus, there is a strong correlation between coca growth and a diminished or non-existent government presence. In order to fix this, the Colombian government needs to allocate more money towards programs that help to expand the government's presence into these previously neglected areas. However, the government might not be able to apportion sufficient funds towards this cause; and therefore, foreign relations also come into play. The United States government has historically been a proponent of fumigation in Colombia, and has contributed up to $10 billion over the past 16 years in an effort to combat the cocaine trade.[16] However, as shown by the recent spike in coca growth, these efforts have been to little avail. I therefore argue that the United States government should take the money that it has historically used to back fumigation efforts and use it instead to facilitate the success of the transactional alternative.


The growth of coca has presented a problem for the Colombian government to tackle for decades. After years of progress demonstrated by a decrease in coca growth, a recent spike in the growth of coca and the production of cocaine has brought the debate about how the government should approach this problem back into the limelight. Some argue that the practice of fumigation is essential in order to destroy the crops and prevent a rising source of income for threatening groups like FARC. Others argue the opposite, that the threat to human health posed by the unknown formulation of glyphosate and surfactant is the most imminent threat. Rather than fumigation, some argue that the government has a responsibility to use other tactics such as manual eradication. I contend that the best solution to the problem is a transactional alternative. Although it is not a flawless plan, it is the safest means of destroying a crop that poses a grave threat to Colombia and to the United States. If the Colombian government remains committed to its efforts and does not grow impatient, it is likely that the production of coca will once again decrease. With the implementation of the transactional alternative, the possibility for government overreach arises. Government workers may force poor farmers to do something that they do not want to do, which is yet another obstacle that the Colombian government must tackle in its ongoing efforts to decrease coca growth.

[1] Adam Isacson, "Confronting Colombia's Coca Boom Requires Patience and a Commitment to the Peace Accords," Washington Office on Latin America, March 13, 2017,

[2] Arlene B. Tickner, "Colombia and the United States: From Counternarcotics to Counterterrorism," Current History 102, no. 661 (2003): 82.

[3] William Neuman, "Defying U.S., Colombia Halts Aerial Spraying of Crops Used to Make Cocaine," The New York Times, May 14, 2015,

[4] William Neuman, "Defying U.S., Colombia Halts Aerial Spraying of Crops Used to Make Cocaine," The New York Times, May 14, 2015,

[5] Adam Isacson, "Even if Glyphosate Were Safe, Fumigation in Colombia Would Be a Bad Policy: Here's Why," Washington Office on Latin America, April 29, 2015,

[6] Neuman, "Defying U.S."

[7] William Neuman, "Defying U.S., Colombia Halts Aerial Spraying of Crops Used to Make Cocaine," The New York Times, May 14, 2015,

[8] Michele Colopy, "Glyphosate," Pollinator Stewardship Council, April 1, 2015.

[9] Laurel Sherret, "Futility in Action: Coca Fumigation in Colombia," Journal of Drug Issues 35, no. 1 (2005): 155.

[10] Sherret, "Futility in Action," 156.

[11] Food Safety Commission of Japan, "Glyphosate: Summary," Food Safety 4, no. 3 (2016): 93,

[12] Food Safety Commission of Japan, "Glyphosate: Summary," 93.

[13] Adam Isacson, "As Its Coca Crop Increases, Colombia Doesn't Need to Fumigate, but It Needs to Do Something," Washington Office on Latin America, September 23, 2016,

[14] Adam Isacson, "As Its Coca Crop Increases, Colombia Doesn't Need to Fumigate, but It Needs to Do Something," Washington Office on Latin America, September 23, 2016,

[15] Isacson, "Coca Crop Increases."

[16] Megan Alpert, "15 Years and $10 Billion Later, U.S. Efforts to Curb Colombia's Cocaine Trade Have Failed," Foreign Policy, February 8, 2016,