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.
With the possible exception of coca, coffee is the crop most associated with rural Colombia. The image of the self-sufficient smallholding farmer who produces the best coffee in the world is a source of great pride in Colombia, and indeed a constitutive element of the national identity. However, while coffee cultivation is often invoked as an alternative to coca, it brings significant economic uncertainty. Most of Briceño’s coffee is sold at prices set by the global market—prices that are subject to huge and rapid variance. This is in fact part of the reason most Colombian coffee is produced by smallholders. Large coffee haciendas, which were common until the 1930s, proved unable to sustain themselves in the face of prices that dropped below production costs.[i] Smallholders, on the other hand, could wait out pricing busts, feeding their families with the food crops they grew alongside their coffee. From 1961 to 1989, the International Coffee Agreement (ICA) set a quota system that protected prices and allowed rural coffee farmers a measure of prosperity. In this time coffee was the driving force behind Briceño’s economy. When the ICA collapsed, however, coffee farmers were exposed to market forces, and by 2001, coffee growers’ income was only 40% of 1990 levels.
It is no coincidence that the context of the precipitous drop in coffee prices in the late 90s-early 2000s was precisely when Briceño’s farmers turned from coffee to coca. Even coffee farmers uninterested in cultivating coca say they were left with little choice—the day laborers they depended on to help pick their crops during the few month coffee harvest at the end of the year were all making more money picking coca. One ex-coffee farmer told me that his ripe coffee beans had rotted on the bushes—none of his neighbors even took him up on his offer to pick and sell the beans themselves. After harvesting what he could, he pulled up his coffee bushes and planted coca. Now that coca has essentially disappeared, many farmers seek an economic alternative in coffee. However, little has changed; coffee farmers, unless they seek alternative ways to commercialize their crops, are still dependent on the whims of the global market.
Coming Next: Moving on from Coca in Images, Part III: Livestock
Alex is a doctoral candidate in Sociology at the University of Texas at Austin. His ethnographic research follows the implementation of Colombia’s landmark peace deal, analyzing how the rural village of Briceño has experienced a broader regional transition driven by related processes of state formation, the development of mining and energy megaprojects, and a coca substitution program.