Colombia, the world’s largest cocaine producer, has been witnessing a sharp drop in coca prices for months, which is a raw material, which affects small farmers hard.
Carlos, who chose this fictitious name for fear of reprisals from armed elements operating in the region, uses two hectares of land to cultivate this precious leaf in the town of Llorente, located in the Nariño region in southern Colombia.
His workers, with their bare hands, pluck the leaves of the bushes grown as far as he can see.
“the prices are very poor”
It is then crushed, dried, mixed with several chemicals and “cooked” on a small gas burner until it turns into white pebbles. This is coca paste, which is later converted into powder in another laboratory.
Carlos, 36, says his hands are covered with scratches and his skin has been burned by the sun. In the past, he usually found many buyers for his paste. But this time, he did not find anyone buying the eight kilograms he had prepared. Of the $660 it cost to tend the fields, harvest and process, only $154 of the dough has been sold so far.
Waiting for prices to improve, he piled plastic bags full of coca paste into his wooden house. In his small laboratory, he lamented that “the prices are very poor,” noting that “the only option is to keep it.”
But he emphasized that he was worried about his family’s livelihood.
One of the hypotheses put forward to explain this collapse in prices, which ends years of “coca boom” in Colombia, is the increase in industrial drugs such as fentanyl, the overproduction of coca and the blows to drug traffickers.
In Colombia, at least 250,000 families depend on this agriculture for their income, or 1.5 percent of the country’s 50 million population, according to official figures, while the drug trade money constitutes 2 or 3 percent of Colombia’s GDP.
Two years ago, Colombia broke the record for the area of land cultivated with coca.
The crisis affects the entire Pacific coast, an impoverished region dominated by dissidents of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), who rejected the peace agreement signed in 2016.
The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime says in a 2021 report that about 44 percent of the 204,000 hectares of drug cultivation in Colombia are located in this region.
In the municipality of Olaya Herrera, farmer Nelson Solís is also feeling the difficult situation. “Currently, Coca-Cola does not yield much revenue, barely enough to survive,” he said, stressing that “prices were fairly good…but they collapsed some time ago.”
Felipe Taskon, director of the government’s voluntary program to replace this cultivation, suspects that “non-aggression agreements” between armed groups were broken, which led to the disruption of the removal of coca from the region by the cartels. He also believes that there is “overproduction”.
For his part, Julian Quintero, director of the non-governmental anti-drug organization “Echelle Cabeza”, believes that coca is becoming more “alkaline and yielding” and cocaine production requires fewer leaves.
The changing “tastes” and popularity of fentanyl pills
On May 13, left-wing President Gustavo Petro Olaya Herrera visited, where the price per kilo of pasta dropped from an average of $695 to $440 at most, according to local leaders.
The president said that “it is possible that the decrease in demand for coca paste” is related to “North Americans changing their consumption and tastes.” The president presents himself as a defender of these small farmers, whom he regards above all as victims of international trafficking and smugglers.
In the United States, where 97 percent of cocaine comes from Colombia, synthetic opioids such as the addictive fentanyl pill are now more common than white powder. Quintero said cocaine was a drug for the “rich”.
Meanwhile, Nariño is in crisis and store shelves are empty.
For some, the price drop coincided with the extradition in May 2022 of Otonell, the leader of the country’s largest cartel, the Clan del Golfo, to a US prison.
Nelson says he is looking for alternatives, such as illegal logging. “When we inventory (the crops), we have nothing left. Just enough to buy a pound of rice and a little bit of oil,” he adds.