For nearly two decades, the economy of Briceño, an isolated rural village in northern Colombia, was based on the cultivation of coca. While the vast majority of profits went to the drug traffickers who satisfy the demands of cocaine users around the world, coca also provided clear advantages for Briceño’s rural farmers: a harvest every two to three months, guaranteed and nearby buyers in the armed groups who controlled the territory, and prices that were high enough to support their families and offer the possibility for upward mobility. However, coca also turned the area into a war zone, as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) battled with rightwing paramilitaries (themselves often supported by the Colombian military) for control of the region and its coca economy. In 2017, a coca substitution program, negotiated as part of the state’s landmark peace agreement with the FARC, came to Briceño. Overnight, the coca economy disappeared as farmers pulled out their illicit crops based on government promises of productive projects designed to help them shift to legal agriculture. In this multi-installment photo essay, I use images to explore what this transition has meant for local families.
This first set of photos explores subsistence agricultural practices. While Briceño’s farmers were long accustomed to growing nearly all the food they ate, coca’s profits both gave them the means to buy food products and diverted their energy from subsistence farming. With the disappearance of the coca economy, many farmers have turned back to subsistence agriculture out of necessity, growing traditional crops like beans, plantains, cassava root, corn, and a variety of vegetables. While these crops ensure their family’s sustenance, Briceño’s farmers have found it increasingly difficult to sell them. Not only are their neighbors no longer buying food crops with cash from coca, but changing national economic policy regimes, beginning with Colombia’s neoliberal economic opening in 1990 and culminating with the country’s 2012 free trade agreement with the United States, have caused prices to plummet. Many farmers have even found to their dismay that market prices set by imported crops like beans and corn actually fall below their cost of production.
Coming next: Moving on from Coca in Images, Part II: Coffee