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UN: Colombia coca leaf cultivation at two-decade high

October 20, 2022

Colombia saw its coca leaf cultivation and potential cocaine production rose sharply from 2020 to 2021 despite longtime anti-narcotics efforts by the government.

A field of coca plants in Colombia
In two decades of monitoring, coca leaf cultivation has never been this high in ColombiaImage: Juancho Torres/AA/picture alliance

Coca leaf cultivation in Colombia, the world's largest producer of cocaine, rose last year to its highest levels in twenty years with around 204,000 hectares planted in 2021, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) said on Thursday. Coca acts as cocaine's base ingredient. 

There had been "an increase of 43 percent in the area planted with coca... from 143,000 hectares in 2020 to 204,000 hectares in 2021," the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) said in a statement.

Potential cocaine production continues upward trend

The uptake of coca cultivation saw an increase in cocaine production from 1,010 tons in 2020 to 1,400 tons in the following year. This was the highest level since two decades of monitoring, the UNODCS reported. It was assumed that the drug was mostly destined for Europe and the United States. 

This continued an "upward trend that has been consolidating since 2014," the UNODC added.

"Coca cultivation continues to threaten the cultural potential of the country and its biodiversity," said the statement.

"About 50 percent of the coca is located in special management areas. A high percentage is concentrated on the lands of black communities and in forest reserve areas."

The report stated that more productive varieties, more advanced technical assistance and the replanting of coca bushes led to an increase in output. It also highlighted the risk that poorer communities may turn to coca cultivation in order to make money.

However, the UN report contradicts figures published by the White House which published that potential cocaine output fell in 2021 to 972 tonnes. Its estimation for the area of coca cultivation was higher to the one the UN calculated, lying at 234,000 hectares. 

Domestic measures to curb cocaine production

Colombia has been engaging in decades of anti-narcotics efforts, yet remains the world's largest producer of cocaine.

New left-leaning President Gustavo Petro has called for the regulation of narcotics and voluntary crop substitution programs. He aims to increase social funding in production areas as well as arrests of drug gang leadership. 

Petro has deliberated to offer amnesty for drug traffickers if they were willing to abandon the trade.

To him, coca growers and pickers are victims of the current legislation, as thousands of them are behind bars on trafficking charges while the state used pesticides on their land to eradicate any illegal plantations.    

"We had an increase in sown hectares and cocaine production that are without precedent in the history of the country," said Justice Minister Nestor Osuna. 

He added that 440,000 hectares of coca had been eradicated in recent years, but a peace deal with FARC rebels from 2016 wasn't being followed. 

Osuna went on to slam measures taken by the US, the world's largest cocaine consumer, saying that the numbers indicated a clear  "failure of the war on drugs."

He added that the government was concerned with a new drug policy. For now, the legalization of cocaine would not be considered. 

US to support Colombia's new approach

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken met Petro in Colombia earlier this month, highlighting that the US was supporting "the holistic approach the Petro administration" was taking.

He mentioned the two countries shared "extensive common ground". 

"On both the enforcement side but also on the comprehensive approach to the problem... I think that we're largely in sync," he added.

The US, a longtime ally of Colombia, has long put pressure on the country to limit its production.

los/es (AFP, Reuters)