I was watching the recent Vice episode on the Colombian cocaine production, and the situation surrounding it throughout the country. I had an idea for a possible solution – now, I realize, this solution would never ACTUALLY HAPPEN in real life, but if you mind-controlled the right people somehow to get past all of the political realities involved – would this actually be a bad idea?
The takeaway of the situation that I got from the episode was such:
[li]Colombia grows the vast, VAST majority of the world’s cocaine.[/li][li]Currently, the Colombian government is attempting to eradicate coca operations by sending in troops to uproot the plants. They leave the plants themselves behind, and allow the workers to tear the leaves off the plants, so that the communities dependent on the plants survive.[/li][li]There are many communities that are so dependent on cocaine production that they really can’t switch over to anything else without major societal upheaval. This does need to happen in these places, but it simply isn’t going to unless somebody other then the drug dealers pours money into their economy. It’s all well and good to point out that they never should have turned to cocaine production in the first place, or that they should just go back to being self-sufficient agricultural communities, but that just won’t happen without some monetary incentives driving the economy. Their dependence on coca plantations is so high that in at least one town that Vice showed, the most common form of currency was coca paste.[/li][li]Most of the everyday people Vice interviewed were just simple peasant workers. They’d be happy to work on a banana plantation instead, if they could, but there just aren’t any banana plantations hiring in that part of Colombia. Lots of coca plantations, though.[/li][/ol]
So, a few notes. Obviously, the decision made by the plantation owners (and quick sidenote – these aren’t sprawling Virginia plantations owned by rich people and worked by slaves. Mostly they look like small farms run by the peasants who live in the village.) to stop growing whatever they grew before for sustenance and switch to growing coca was a morally reprehensible one. Yes, these guys aren’t the ones actually making cocaine or selling it to children, but without what they produce, the drug dealers wouldn’t have any raw materials. But they made that decision, and it’s in the past. Unless we want to burn that part of Colombia to the ground, we need to get them to make a new decision, to go back to growing other crops. The problem is, they can make much more money growing coca then they can anything else. Based on that simple economic fact, they aren’t going to do what we want them to do on their own. So we need to incentivise them to make the right decision.
There are two ways we could go around them. We could fight a war on drugs, and that’s what Colombia tried to do; the problem is, if all you do is remove the coca, you’re taking away what these people use to make their livelihood. The coca SHOULD be taken away, but when you do that, you make those people desperate. They’ll do anything to survive – including going back and growing coca, despite the danger. The harder you press them, the more desperately they’ll cling on to the coca.
We can all agree that the coca has to go, but the harder we pull it away from these communities, the tighter they’ll grasp it.What we need to do is help them let go of the coca at the same time that we pull it away. We still end up taking it, of course – it’s way to dangerous to remain - but the Colombian government doesn’t end up at war with its own people.
So what I would suggest is, a sort of voluntary buyback program. Colombia can tell the owners of these plantations (who, again, are regular, poor people - the cartels buy the coca paste from them, but they don’t run the growing operations themselves, because there really isn’t any reason to) that instead of selling the paste to the cartel, they sell it to the government. Not only will the government pay for the coca, they’ll also help you transition your fields to growing bananas or sugarcane or coffee beans. Now the government is helping these communities – it’s a friend, instead of the enemy – but the coca still ends up going away. There would be strict rules about how long after the government starts these programs in a particular area they’ll continue buying coca – and at the same time, the government can really crack down on those who continue to grow coca, because now those people aren’t desperate, just greedy. Now that you’re providing a viable alternative, you can spray herbicides from the air on any coca fields that don’t take you up on your offer without impoverishing an entire community. For any plantation owners, this makes the equation even simpler – you’re not comparing “some money and government aid” to “more money from the cartel”, you’re comparing it to “no money from anyone at all”.
So far, we’ve got a program that could work, but we have two big issues standing in our way. First, how can Colombia afford to subsidize farmers who switch from coca to conventional crops? It’s not exactly the richest country in the world. Second, what about corruption? According to various studies and rankings, Colombia might not be the most corrupt country in the world, but it certainly has its problems. How can we be sure the cartels won’t simply bribe officials to ensure coca continues being grown?
That’s where foreign aid can come in. “But wait!” Hypothetical Objector says. “Why should a foreign country help Colombia clean up this act? They got themselves into this mess! Let them sort it out on their own! And if they can’t, let them suffer!”
Wow, Hypothetical Objector! You’re kind of an asshole! But that doesn’t mean you’re wrong. The members of these communities – or at least, those of them who made the decision to switch from growing whatever it was that they were growing before to growing coca – are at fault. They contributed to a huge amount of human suffering across the years. They’re kinda assholes, too. But unless you’re willing to commit to a scorched earth solution of burning down their crops and then following it up with their village, they will go back and grow more cocaine. Maybe the most “fair” thing to do is to dry up demand for their product by tracking down and jailing every last cartel member, but we’ve tried that for years, spent tons of money, and failed to do anything. In fact, we made the problem worse. So let’s give something else a try.
Well then, which countries might want to contribute? Well, maybe the US might want to consider it, since we spent $31 billion on fighting drugs last year. Not all of that is cocaine, of course, but there are side benefits to consider. For example, without cocaine, conflict in Central and South America eases, and maybe we deal with a few less people crossing out southern border illegally, all without having to waste a dollar on a wall. Oh, right, it was gonna be free anyways because Mexico was gonna pay for it.
Ideally, I guess this is the sort of thing the United Nations should be for? But of course, they’re useless. So this would never happen. But if it somehow did – why wouldn’t it work?