By Matthew Gibson
On 2nd October, the Colombian people rejected a peace agreement which would have ended the Colombian state’s fight against the guerrilla Marxist-Leninist group, The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). The agreement had reached consensus on six issues seen as vital to the peace process – one of which was FARC’s relationship to the illegal drugs trade. In a talk for Uppsala Association of International Affairs, Stefan Åstrom, who has worked for the demobilisation, disarmament and reintegration of combatants for the United Nations and the Folke Bernadotte Academy, was particularly critical of aspects of the peace agreement which dealt with FARC’s engagement in the drugs trade.
The peace agreement was negotiated over a five-year period, with a ceasefire operational from the end of August 2016, creating a respite in an armed conflict which has lasted for half a century. FARC has always been a rural movement, with many of its stated political goals based on improving the situation for agricultural workers. Also, the land FARC controls in Colombia is largely in the forested east and south of the country. As such, alongside topics including reparation for victims, and provision for FARC to transition into a political party, the agreement dealt with issues of rural reform and inequality- seen as key causes of the conflict.
The rural nature of FARC has shaped the organisation’s relationship to the drugs trade. FARC uses drug trafficking to raise money, acting as the middleman between those who grow coca, and those who use the plant to make cocaine. Farmers who grow coca in FARC controlled areas tend to grow the plant in small quantities on top of their core crop as a means to move beyond a subsistence level of income. As such, both the rural reform and illicit drugs section of the peace agreement needed to ensure that other organisations would not replace FARC’s role in the drugs trade, and that any loss of income from the discontinuation of coca production would not drive farmers into further poverty.
For Åstrom, the section of the agreement concerning illicit drugs fell short of providing sufficient measures to tackle these issues. The agreement focused on plans to offer farmers incentives to grow crops other than coca, an existing (and ineffectual) practice. However, Åstrom highlighted that this misses why FARC has a role in the drugs trade. For many of the farmers in Columbia a major issue is transporting their crops to markets efficiently, a service that FARC provided with coca. Åstrom suggested that instead the agreement should have focused on state-building, including the construction of infrastructure in order to bring farmers into markets where they could sell high-value crops other than coca.
Second, Åstrom argued that the disbanding of FARC would not ensure that drug trafficking, nor the violence related to the drugs trade, will end. Colombia is home to a range of armed groups, smaller than FARC, who focus exclusively on the drugs trade. The peace agreement does little to encourage FARC’s foot-soldiers, who would have little role in the organisation’s future as a political party, to lay down their arms when they could earn better money working with these armed groups than as an urban labourer or farmer.
At the time of writing, there remains a deep uncertainty about the future of the peace negotiations. However, there are two clear alterations that could improve a modified, or fully renegotiated deal. First, a programme focusing on state-building and the alleviation of rural poverty would disincentivise coca production among farmers. Second, safeguards must be in place to ensure that the vacuum left by FARC will not be not filled by other violent groups. While these changes do not guarantee that a revised peace agreement will be accepted by the Colombian public, they could aid in the alleviation of rural poverty, consequently reducing both a major cause of the current conflict and disrupting the trade in illicit drugs.