26 June 2009

Is Drug Production Really Struggling After All?

Two days ago, we reported here on the UNODC World Drug Report 2009 assessment showing significant declines in cultivation and production in world's key grow spaces. But this new article from The Economist - "Mixed signals among the coca bushes" - questions whether their conclusions are really as encouraging as they seem.

They suggest that the figures reported by UNODC obscure the "remarkable resilience of an illegal industry."

A YEAR ago when the United Nations' annual survey showed a rise of 27% in the area planted with coca in Colombia in 2007, the government expressed "serious doubts" about the reliability of the estimate. On June 19th Colombian officials were so proud of the UN's finding of an 18% decrease last year that they rushed to announce it five days ahead of its scheduled release. Although cultivation of coca, the hardy shrub from which cocaine is refined, is reported to have increased in Peru and Bolivia (see chart), the UN claims that lower yields mean that 28% less cocaine was produced in Colombia. Taken together with an estimated fall of 19% in opium-poppy cultivation in Afghanistan, the UN's Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) calls the results "encouraging".

That is surely welcome for UNODC, especially because it comes as the agency's worldwide policy of drug prohibition, reaffirmed at a ministerial meeting in April, is being increasingly questioned in Latin America and beyond (see article). In fact, there may be less to the headline figures than meets the eye.

Two things seem to lie behind the fall in coca cultivation in Colombia. Aldo Lale-Demoz, the UNODC's man in Bogotá, says the main factor is a greater stress on manual eradication, where workers physically yank up the coca, bush by bush, often in small plots on steep Andean mountainsides. This is more effective than aerial spraying, in which planes dump weedkiller, killing a harvest (and nearby food crops) but not the shrubs. On taking office in 2002, Álvaro Uribe, Colombia's president, launched a massive programme of aerial spraying. Last year the government still sprayed 133,000 hectares (330,000 acres), though this was 13% less than in 2007. But it also manually eradicated 95,634 hectares, a rise of 43% compared with 2007.

A second factor, according to Ricardo Vargas, a drug-policy analyst, was the success of the security forces in reducing the FARC guerrillas, disrupting their control of territory and their drug-production operation. This allowed the government to get eradication teams into the eastern province of Meta, where coca has long been widely grown, and to pull up half of the crop there.
But it would be wildly premature to conclude from this year's figures that the Andean coca industry is in retreat. To sustain the fall in coca cultivation in Colombia requires the rule of law to take deeper root in rural areas, for eradication to be backed by offers of "alternative livelihoods" for coca farmers, as well as for demand for cocaine to continue to fall, says Sandeep Chawla, the UNODC's director of policy and public affairs.
The problem is that the drug industry reacts to eradication programmes by pushing into new territory. The UN says that 59% of the coca it detected in Colombia last year was in areas where the crop had never before been planted. Now coca is springing up in several far-flung parts of Peru, including some national parks in the jungle. Adam Isacson, who follows Colombia for the Center for International Policy, a think-tank in Washington, DC, says that coca cultivation could well rise this year, because the FARC has regained control of some areas and because farmers lost their life savings in the collapse of financial pyramid schemes late last year. This week seven police died in a FARC ambush.

Estimates of drug production are far from foolproof. The UN derives its data from satellite photography, taken in December each year, backed up by field visits to sample sites. This methodology is more thorough than that used by America's Central Intelligence Agency, which provides the United States' government's estimates of drug production. But coca growers adapt to eradication by switching to smaller plots that are harder to spot.
There is much anecdotal evidence pointing to rising productivity. Eradication teams in Colombia talk of finding high-density coca fields in new areas, and more use of fertiliser by growers. Yields in the Apurímac and Ene valleys, where cultivation is expanding, are among the highest in the Andes.

All this counsels against reading too much into this year's figures. Broadly speaking, the picture is one of a remarkable resilience in coca and cocaine production, despite enormous and hugely expensive efforts by governments to stamp it out.