Land rights and wrongs

What role does land titling play in helping coca leaf farmers switch to legal alternatives in Colombia?

Sophia Ostler

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This article focuses on the role that the Colombian state’s land titling programme has played in helping their communities substitute their illegal drug crops with legal alternatives. The author interviewed over 80 farmers in former coca leaf farming communities, in Putumayo, Caquetá, Cauca and Nariño, and carried out 30 elite interviews.


The violence that accompanies forced eradication of coca leaf in Colombia is devastating and costly. Aerial spraying of glyphosate, and the fighting between the army and armed groups that try to protect the illegal drug trade, is disastrous for everyone living in the same community as coca leaf farmers. And there is no evidence that this financially and politically expensive option even works. Cocaine production continues to soar in Colombia, despite efforts to reduce the amounts of coca leaf crops and the land area used to grow them. In 2020 cocaine output rose by 8% in Colombia despite the land area with coca leaf crops shrinking by 7%.1

Policymakers who insist the most obvious solution to illegal drug trade is to reduce the supply of coca leaf crops, should therefore consider intensifying a non-punitive approach.

Colombia spends about COP $1.3 billion (that is US $270 million) each year trying to incentivise farmers to voluntarily swap their illegal drug crops for legal alternatives. Calculating these costs is complex because there are different estimates for the price of glyphosate, its effectiveness, and some official figures include the security costs attached to eradication efforts.2 Nevertheless, this seems like a very modest sum when we compare it to the COP $8 billion spent on efforts to eradicate these illegal crops by force.

The case for increasing investment in Alternative Development programmes would be more convincing if their success rate were more impressive and undisputed. Less than half of the efforts in Colombia to encourage farmers to give up their coca leaf crops peacefully, are effective. For example, between 2006 and 2015 about a third of the land used to produce coca leaf, received some form of investment to encourage farmers to switch to legal forms of agriculture. Of this, only about 40% remained clear of coca leaf three years later. Even so, some of this land was also subject to forced eradication programmes, therefore it is hard to discern if positive incentives are the reason why coca leaf was not replanted within this three-year window.  

Another reason why Alternative Development is not favoured over the war on drugs, is that working out how best to motivate farmers to willingly replace their illegal drug crops is not a straightforward endeavour. Short-term subsidies through specific projects may appeal locally, but without investment in infrastructure, market access and public services, they do not yield enduring results. Some argue that injecting money into poor communities without tackling broader development issues can be even more problematic. It can create perverse incentives for farmers who seek to qualify for subsidies. It can sour the state’s relationship with farmers who are deemed ineligible for subsidies, and potentially drive them to grow coca leaf instead. And few farmers are prepared to forego the immediate high returns that coca leaf crops provide, while they wait for any long-term land investments to provide a realistic way out of the illegal trade. 

Admittedly, policymakers have come a long way since the nascence of Alternative Development in the 1960s, when cash was paid out to opium poppy farmers in Thailand. At best, this approach was effective in gradually shifting opium production elsewhere, in this case to Myanmar. In Colombia, there have been various attempts to introduce more advanced designs of Alternative Development programmes than simple cash transfers. Perhaps the most famous are the Programa Familias Guardabosques (which ran until 2013) and Proyectos Productivos (which ran until 2016). These were well regarded, as they combined conditional cash transfer programmes with investment in infrastructure and capacity-building projects. But given the soaring levels of coca leaf production nationwide, the success of these programmes could be regarded as fleeting, and largely ineffective in the long term.

So, policymakers continue their quest to find the best way to support coca leaf farmers to build viable and lasting livelihoods in legal agriculture. One relatively novel approach to Alternative Development is giving land titles to illegal drug crop farmers. The mechanism by which land titles are supposed to prevent farmers from growing coca leaf in the future, is still undetermined. Nevertheless, it is a policy that has been used in Afghanistan, Peru, and Bolivia, and now in Colombia. Between 2015 and 2018, Colombia spent US $4.7 million sending teams of lawyers and topographers out to coca leaf growing communities in Antioquia, Cauca, Putumayo, and Nariño, to measure farmers’ land plots, and update or issue their land registration paperwork. This Formalizar para Sustitutir programme resulted in the formal transfer land ownership to 1,300 to 7000 families in that period. In some places it was land classified as baldio i.e., state-owned land in remote wastelands, which was privatised. In other places, it was already privately owned land that had been fragmented and changed ownership informally, and gradually fallen out of sync with the land registry.

The evidence for land titling dissuading farmers from growing coca leaf in Colombia, is inconclusive. One study by Muñoz-Mora, Tobón, and d’Anjou in 2018, found a negative relationship between land titles and area of coca leaf production in Colombia. But these results are based on a sample of 192 municipalities (second level administrative subdivisions of a Colombian department), which is about 17% of the total number of municipalities nationwide (1,123), and where the rule of law and state presence was stronger because they were subject to Plan Colombia policies during that period and were therefore more exposed to surveillance and law enforcement. A correlation between informal property rights and illegal drug production in these municipalities is not very informative when about 65% of rural land in Colombia is informally owned.3 And over 40% of small rural producers, who account for 70% of legal agricultural produce in Colombia, do not hold land titles.4 So, it is possible that the importance of land titling in the success of legal agriculture is overestimated by this study.

The focus of my research was to further understand, from the perspective of former coca leaf farmers, what role land titling plays, if any, in helping them switch to legal alternatives to coca leaf. Next, I shall describe how I first devised a hypothesis of the mechanism by which land titles could support Alternative Development, and then conducted extensive fieldwork research to test this hypothesis. After presenting my findings I will conclude with some implications for Alternative Development policy.

Formalizar Para Sustituir Office in Rosas, Cauca

Discussion on how land titling may support Alternative Development

From what we know so far about property rights and how they influence economic outcomes, I deduced four ways by which land titling could, in theory, support Alternative Development. I shall next provide a brief summary of each theoretical mechanism and explain which one holds up as the most likely one.

Transferability of land

Land titles might increase farmers’ ability to rent, sell and buy land.5 This has significant implications for attracting investment.6 And having more potential buyers willing to pay more for the land, boosts the land market.7 All this puts landowners in a better position to sell or rent out their land, and to seek greater profits elsewhere if they want to, and ultimately puts land assets in the hands of those who can best invest in it.8 The idea here, is that with increased investment in land, legal alternatives to coca leaf will be more profitable, meaning Alternative Development efforts will be more effective.

The problem with this theory, however, is that it overlooks other factors that can affect the transferability of land, such as the quality of land and the social norms that can prevent people from buying and selling land. Studies in India and China have found that, like in many developing countries, land is the biggest asset for farmers because they value it as a bundle asset, i.e., it provides them with a source of income but also a home, food security, a social network, social status and a pension for the whole family.9 For example, when poor farmers in a town called Singpur, in West Bengal, were offered a large sum of money for their land by the state (in this case so that they could build a car factory), farmers were reluctant to sell. They felt they were not skilled in anything other than agriculture, and they did not feel confident about spending the lump sum of cash wisely. Their land was the only thing that gave them the guarantee of subsistence.10 Thus, similar behaviour can be expected in other developing countries like Colombia, where most rural farmers are not skilled in anything besides agriculture. Therefore, any increased transferability of land, in communities transitioning from illegal to legal crops, does not mean that farmers will want to sell their land because without a rural land asset, they would be left deskilled.

Balboa, Cauca. Some former coca leaf farmers able to move to urban areas like these to find alternative work as construction workers, cooks, shopkeepers, motorbike-taxi drivers

Increased value of land

Land titles might increase the value of land assets, as it includes the value of the resources used in the acquisition of the legal paperwork. The legal ownership of land thus works as a savings tool and provides insurance for the family.11 This can further result in a change of behaviour that adds additional value to the land asset. Firstly, farmers may allocate more resources to their land. The fewer resources you spend in protecting what is yours, the more you can spend on making a profit from it. A classic example of this is the way in which barbed wire in the 19th century American Plains increased farmers’ ability to protect their land from encroachment by land grabbers, resulting in higher levels of economic development.12 And assuring investors that your property will not be easily stolen helps reassure them that if they invest in it, they won’t risk losing it all. Therefore, the introduction of land titles may conceivably help farmers operate in a more peaceful environment, allowing them to give their full attention to their land business.

In addition, farmers may invest in more long-term crops which thereby reduces their dependence on coca leaf crops. This argument is called “assurance” by some.13 Farmers with high uncertainty about their future access to land, and who feel at risk of being forcibly displaced, do not have incentives to invest in irrigation, reforestation and long-term perennial crops such as cocoa bean, for instance.14 A study on property rights and investment in Ghana found that, although land rights were not significant for investment decisions, they are slightly associated with investment in long-term crops.15 This was also found by a study carried out in Brazil. In places where land invasions were more frequent, there was also fewer long-term crop production.16 Therefore, land titling in the context of former illegal drug farming might encourage farmers to commit more long-term resources to the asset, such as by growing perennial crops instead of quick cash crops like coca leaf.17

However, even if former coca leaf farmers have the choice of growing long-term crops for a higher profit, this theoretical mechanism does not address the various other factors that cause farmers to seek immediate returns and a steady income from coca leaf crops, which can provide up to three or four harvests a year.18

Increased agricultural innovation

Land titles might increase farmers’ freedom to choose how to use their land.19 Conceivably, this means that farmers who are forced to grow coca leaf, can feel their land rights are backed by the law if they opt out of the illegal trade. If land titles enable landowners to use their land more freely, it may make their land more productive and thereby easier to transfer to legal farming from drug production. Farmers who might have been afraid of making legal use of their land because they felt obliged to grow coca leaf by extra-legal groups, could feel reassured by a land title as it means that they cannot have their land taken away when, or if, they choose to farm legal crops.

However, this theory assumes that innovation results in more profitable forms of land use. Sometimes, collective action is required for improved economic performance.20 In other words, people may need to agree on how to use their land so that they can all reap the benefits of increased land productivity. So, if the freedom to innovate means that land is not used homogeneously, it may restrict greater land productivity. Farmers could be better off not working independently from each other, because of the potential economies of scale in land use. More to the point, many farmers are not forced to grow coca leaf, and choose coca leaf because it makes the best business sense. According to UNODC only about 2% of coca leaf farmers work under duress, so most coca leaf farmers are in the illegal business exclusively for the money.21

Remote hilly terrain where coca leaf has been grown in Nariño

Assumption of increased land tenure security

So far, the above three mechanisms presume that having a land title somehow provides greater land tenure security. There is abundant academic research that correlates secure rural land tenure with increased economic productivity.22 However, conflating land titling with increased land security is problematic in three ways. Firstly, land titling does not always increase land security in practice. There are endless examples of informal property rights systems that are enforced through social norms equally well, if not better than through the law.

Secondly, the evidence that links land security to increased land investment is patchy. Some studies suggest a possible reverse causation between land tenure security and investment because investment can strengthen the latter.23 Measuring land tenure security is also difficult for methodological reasons. And much of the research on the causal relationship between land tenure security and investment has been focused on Africa, where the property rights system is often communal, with very specific circumstances. So, the evidence that links increased tenure security to increased land productivity is still disputed.

Thirdly, and perhaps most significantly for this study, land tenure security already exists in many of the communities where coca leaf is grown. This means that, besides the specific weaknesses already discussed, the above three mechanisms also fail to hold up as valid theoretical mechanisms for how land titles can support Alternative Development because they assume that land titles increase land tenure security.

Increased access to credit

There is one last mechanism that does not assume that land titles mean greater land tenure security. This theory is that land titles enable farmers to use their land as collateral and thereby access commercial loans, through the legal banking system, which in turn helps them to invest in their land and attain greater profits in legal alternatives to coca leaf. This is an extension of economist Hernando de Soto’s famous argument, that land titling increases landowners’ access to credit because it enables people to use their land as collateral to apply for bank loans. De Soto argues that if countries are poor, it is because they lack the institutions, namely formal property rights, to unlock capital and the economic potential of assets. In his words, “it is formal property that provides the process, the forms, and the rules that fix assets in a condition that allows us to realize [assets] as active capital”.24 The logic follows that with a land title, farmers can use their land as collateral to access loans. And these provide farmers with the capital they need to invest in their land or set up a new legal business from which to profit. As with the prior three mechanisms, the underlying assumption is that if their investment is profitable, farmers will be less dependent on coca leaf production to make a living.

The drawback of this mechanism is that it assumes that with greater investment in legal alternatives to coca leaf, farmers’ land will undoubtedly yield greater profits than what coca leaf crops can offer. However, this was the most popular and recurring explanation used by the various policymakers I interviewed, who were enthusiastic about the use of land titling for Alternative Development.

Fieldwork Research

With this framework in mind, my research objective was to discover whether the offer of formal land ownership featured in farmers’ decision to abandon the illegal trade, and if so how. This is crucial for understanding whether novel approaches to Alternative Development could have any bearing on its effectiveness. Specifically, I wanted to find out whether the widely held belief that land titling increases farmers’ access to credit, and thus generates good outcomes for Alternative Development, rang true from people’s living experiences. Did former coca leaf farmers who had acquired land titles, or wanted one, find that a land title made it easier to access loans? Were they choosing to use this credit to invest in their land? If so, were they managing to make legal alternatives more profitable? Perhaps most importantly, did they feel this was making them less dependent on coca leaf farming? Assuming land titling had affected their land use behaviour, how robust was farmers’ commitment to legal alternatives to coca leaf?

Between 2017 and 2018, I carried out 35 elite interviews with senior academics, policymakers, journalists, campaigners, and public officials in Bogota. These included the director of the National Land Agency (ANT), the Country Representative of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), the director of the Comprehensive National Program for the Replacement of Illicit Use Crops (PNIS) and the director of the Observatory of Crops and Cultivators Declared Illicit (OCCDI Global). They provided a useful insight into how land titling is perceived to affect the objectives of Alternative Development and helped me to identify the places where I could conduct my fieldwork research.

I went on to interview 87 people in former coca leaf farming communities, where land titling had been offered by the state and that were accessible for safe research conditions. This took me to several veredas (rural administrative subdivisions of municipalities) in Putumayo, Cauca, and Nariño, where the Formalizar Para Sustituir programme had been rolled out since 2015. It also took me to a vereda in Caquetá, where the World Bank had offered land titles back in the 1970s to farmers who had substituted coca leaf with cattle ranching. This gave me an additional insight into the effect of land titling on former coca leaf farmers’ behaviour over a longer period than two years. The research locations were situated in municipalities where coca leaf continues to be grown in abundance, but which were, relatively closer to roads, compared to the average coca leaf growing vereda (although their accessibility varied between them).25

Location of municipalities included in the study in relation to general coca leaf farming in Colombia 2017 (Map source: Colombian Observatory of Organized Crime)

I purposely selected as interviewees, people who had been coca leaf farmers, either by growing their own crops on land they rented or owned, or by working as raspachines, i.e. people working on a coca leaf plantation by either picking coca leaves or by processing cocaine. I also interviewed people who contributed to the local coca leaf economy either by growing food crops or by providing domestic services for coca leaf farmers. Those that had owned coca leaf crops locally, had officially substituted them more than three years before the study.

These individuals gave detailed descriptions of their motivation to work with coca leaf, and how land titling had influenced the latter. Only 26% already had a land title. So, for those who were in the process of applying for a land title (31%), and those who had not yet acquired one (43%), I observed how the prospect of getting a land title had influenced their choice of occupation.

Long windy road connecting Los Andes municipality in Nariño


Three key findings stand out from this research. Firstly, land titles had significant symbolic value among farmers but were not essential for their access to loans to invest in alternative legal uses of their land. Secondly, relatively few farmers wanted land titles to obtain loans and many of those who took out official loans using their land as collateral, did not use these to invest in their land. And thirdly, in several cases where farmers accessed loans with the use of their land titles, this did not reduce their dependence on the revenues of coca leaf crops, and counterintuitively, some of them paid off their loans with profits from farming coca leaf crops elsewhere. Let us look at each one of these findings in greater detail. 

Wanting vs needing a title

There was very little resistance to land titling in these areas. When asked if they wanted a land title, most interviewees said they did. The main reason referred to was “peace of mind” and that “now no one can take it away”. They associated land titles with the guarantee that their heirs would be able to own their land problem free. The desire for land titles also came from the satisfaction of being able to transform their relationship with the state. Farmers, who once perceived the state as their enemy, wanted to feel it would be on their side and backing them up. And land titles seemed increasingly sought after from a sense of the fear of missing out on something important. As more people were applying for land titles, more people without them felt they needed to secure one.

This was not surprising. It does not take an insider to appreciate that in a context of historical conflict over agrarian reforms, land titles have become a symbol for justice. They symbolise the state’s reparation of damages to the rural landless, who have for decades tried to make a living with no state support and many have turned to FARC, among other armed groups, to pressurise the state to redistribute land more equitably. Land titles beckon state presence and signal the end of the conflict. Land titles in areas formerly controlled by FARC, invite people to be loyal to the rule of law. 

But wanting, or even meriting, a land title is not the same as needing one to access a loan. Famers still did not perceive land titles as essential for borrowing money per se. There were multiple sources of credit available to farmers without land titles. Besides private loan companies (e.g., Contactar), there were charitable organizations (e.g. Fundación Mundo Mujer) and farming associations from which farmers could borrow money to invest in their land. Perhaps most surprisingly, even the Agrarian Bank issued small loans to farmers who owned land informally. Overall, there was a sense that land titling in itself was creating a new culture of banks asking for land titles as a prerequisite in loan applications. 

Undeniably, farmers in Cauca, Nariño, and Putumayo, felt land titles were now essential to access bigger bank loans than what they could get with as informal land owners, as this farmer explained: “with a COL$12 million [about $3,775 USD] loan I took out from the Agrarian Bank I began to produce pepper. That is the maximum they will lend you without a land title. With a land title, you can re-mortgage your land to access a higher credit, up to COL$50 million [about $15,730 USD]. I did not need a land title because it wasn’t a big loan I was after” (Pedro, 42).

Land Assets not deemed fit for collateral or large investment

But farmers did not want to take out the bigger loans, just because they could. About half of the farmers that I interviewed did not intend to take out loans once they obtained their land title. They felt that becoming eligible for bigger loans was an end in itself, and possessing a land title would somehow make it easier to sell their land if ever, they wished to do so. But they were mostly uninterested in applying for large bank loans, as this farmer described: “I was offered a land title for free, among many others from around here. I’d never had any land problems or had to defend my right to land from neighbours or others. But I was happy to get the land title even if I still owed money to the owner, who lives locally…yes the title helps me access credit, but I haven’t wanted to get a loan as I’d prefer to not get into debt” (Arturo, 55).

Dry soil in a vereda in Mercaderes, Cauca

Farmers were averse to long-term debts, for various reasons. Sometimes they lived in poorer land and lacked the confidence they could turn the loans to profit, such as this farmer: “I have never taken out a loan because I do not like being in debt. We live in such uncertainty with regards to employment and water that any income we have will go towards our children’s education. We cannot afford debts… we have serious water shortage problems” (Mirta M, 42). Sometimes farmers were older, and therefore less inclined to take the risk of having to repay loans with shorter life expectancy. In some cases, they had had bad experiences from loan sharks and informal financiers and preferred to avoid being in debt. And some feared that if they used their land, often their only asset, as collateral, they might have it repossessed, as was the experience of this farmer: “I became very indebted as I used much of my credit to pay for my healthcare and for my daughters’ university education. They now live in Pasto, one of them is an accountant and the other one a businesswoman but is unemployed. Last year I sold my land to pay my debts” (Sabalon, 60).

There was an interesting revelation about the other half that did want land titles to take out bigger loans. This was that they tended to be in a good position to invest in things other than for their immediate consumption. They had accrued better and bigger land assets, often with savings from the coca leaf days. Or they lived in places that were already well adapted to legal alternatives to coca leaf. These included places that were close to road infrastructure, or in areas that were well suited.

Home of a wealthy former coca leaf farmer in Putumayo

For example, in Esperanzas del Mayo, Mercaderes, farmers had access to dry soil and were close to the road, so they were positive that loans would help them grow profitable lemon trees. In Linares, Nariño, were there had previously been large-scale investment in milling machines, farmers who were close to the road wanted loans to grow sugar cane. In Santiago de la Selva, where there had been private investment in transport and storage infrastructure, all farmers were keen to buy milk cows with their loans and felt this would earn them a living.

In other places, like in Balboa, Cauca and Los Andes, Nariño, farmers were hopeful that loans would render their coffee crops sufficiently profitable to get by, but some still had some doubts as this farmer described: “Coffee production is costly, and I am new to coffee production. One sack of fertilizer costs COL$110,000 [about $34.50 USD] and one arroba of coffee costs COL$70,000 [about $22 USD]. You need two sacks of fertilizer to yield three arrobas of coffee. I’ve taken out a loan and had to sell some parts of my land as the price of coffee is too low to pay for production supplies. If the price of coffee does not rise, I would have to find another way to repay my loan…  I am losing my morale as a coffee producer. I think the solution is for the state to increase the price of coffee” (Fernando, 48).

However, many other farmers had altogether a different set of priorities on how to spend the money. About two thirds of those who had taken out official loans using their land as collateral, or were intending to, did not want the loan to invest in their land. Instead, they wished to spend the borrowed money on home improvement, on food, on healthcare or on their children’s education. In some tragic cases, farmers had chosen to invest their disposable income, as well as loans, in fraudulent financial pyramids.

Now this raises a critical assumption we are making about the use of land titling in facilitating Alternative Development. Agriculture is not always considered the most productive form of investment in some of these former coca leaf growing communities. Farmers identified many reasons for this. There were the most obvious macro-barriers to alternative forms of trade and agriculture, such as remote geographical location and infrastructure marginalization. The climate and quality of soil was deemed inadequate for alternatives. Farmers partly explained this by climatic changes, by the erosion that had resulted from intensive coca leaf production and glyphosate spraying. Indeed, the effect of additives and surfactants on soil is well documented.26 Most of these farmers owned less than two hectares of land which had worked for growing coca leaf but not to compete with agroindustry.27

A person walking in a dirt road in a former coca leaf growing vereda in Putumayo

Farmers further complained that the production costs for anything other than subsistence farming were too high. This was partly due to the increased cost of food and of day labourers, and an increased need for pesticide to make the soil fertile. Farmers described that many people had abandoned the countryside and moved to urban areas since the coca leaf bonanza days so there were fewer farmers around. It was also interesting to learn through the interviews, how much smaller families had become in just a generation, possibly adding to an increased demand for day labourers to help work the land. And finally, farmers referred to common investment risk factors such as the uncertainty of crop prices, the effect of smuggled agricultural goods and poor health as explanations for why it was bad business to invest loans in their land.

Hence for those farmers with nothing but subsistence farming as the most realistic alternative to coca leaf crops, a loan-based land investment is pointless. Rather than freeing up money for coca leaf growers to become successful farmers in legal alternatives, title-based loans may be used for consumption. And, alarmingly, instead of increasing farmers’ income, they can expose them to debt that some cannot afford to repay.

Ongoing dependence on drug crops

This point brings me to the last finding: land titles may not reduce farmers’ reliance on coca leaf income, and in the worst scenarios they may help to perpetuate it. For fast and easy money, coca leaf remained the preferable option for many. As mentioned above, there were multiple reasons why famers felt debt averse. And coca leaf was a quick way to supplement their incomes or pay for their children’s’ education or clear their debts. As such, there were farmers, even some with land titles, who openly expressed their decision, or intention, to return to illegal drug production, as this one described: “With no agricultural opportunities at home, what other kind of work can we realistically get? [I work as a raspachin] and go for two weeks at a time and come back for a one-week break. I go to various places depending on where there is work … My monthly outgoings are about COL$800,000 [about $255 USD] including my children’s education. …. I don’t work out of greed, buy out of need…. At home, I would be paid COL$15,000 to COL$20,000 [about $4.8 to $6.3 USD] as a day labourer whereas as a raspachin I earn from around COL$100,000 to COL$120,000 [about $31.8 to $38.2 USD] a day. That’s why I have gotten used to doing this work… I’m also producing coffee and sugar cane at home, but the fertilizers are very expensive. Sugar cane earns me about COL$300,000 [about $95.6 USD] per month, for half the year. The rest of the year it makes no profit. One arroba of panela costs COL$17,000 [about $5.4 USD] to produce and is sold for COL$35,000 [about $11 USD] and it takes a whole year to process that arroba, so it’s not worth the effort when coca leaf grows even on stones (Meregildo, 38).”

Without coca leaf crops, some farmers were not able to make a living from their land alone, so they complemented their new legal local occupation with earnings from coca leaf elsewhere. This farmer described her situation: “Coca leaf crops used to be my main source of income and I am a single mother and the sole breadwinner. I spend about COL$50,000 [about $16 USD] on shopping per week. I also used to have a job in a local restaurant but as the coca production shifted, the business went broke. So, I try to earn money selling yoghurt locally but mostly I have continued working as a raspachin” (Hortencia, 45).

Farmers who chose to resume their work with coca leaf would do so either by growing their own crops elsewhere, or by working as raspachines. Growing coca leaf far from home, protected their food crops from possible aerial spraying of glyphosate, and reduced the risk of bringing violence connected to armed groups close to home. Working as raspachines was a less financially risky occupation because it offered a daily wage and did not require an investment, but it also paid less money and was harder work and involved risky journeys.

Often younger people preferred the latter option, as this farmer described: “Those that remain in the vereda feel strongly tempted to start growing coca again, about five or six already do. About 20 young people continue to work as raspachines and domestic workers in temporary placements. One of my sons took out some loans and has a small internet café. The other one works in a supermarket. Every two to three months they go to pick coca to earn some extra money to pay back their loan. People [from coca leaf plantations] sometimes come here looking for workers, it is not always people who go out looking for jobs” (Carmen, 43).

Remote areas in Nariño where farmers grow coca leaf away from their homes

It has been estimated that 0.6% of farmers in receipt of Alternative Development subsidies resume their work with coca leaf.28 I would suggest this figure underestimates the number of farmers in this position, as it is based on those “caught” working with illegal crops, and not on those who are considering returning to farming coca leaf again, or who are not “caught” doing so.

The point is that a fraction of the farmers I interviewed admitted they had repaid their land title-based loans with income from coca leaf, as this farmer explicitly described: “INCORA [former land agency] offered me a land title. They said that this would help me access loans from banks… So, I took out a loan for cattle, as this was the only thing, they would lend money for. I remember it was the World Bank that loaned me 14 beef cattle head and 1 bull. Then I started growing coca in three hectares of my land. With this I quickly paid the loan back” (Hipolito, 72).

As discussed above, the purpose of land titles for Alternative Development, is to offer farmers access to bigger loans so that they can profit from their land in legal substitutes to coca leaf. But sometimes loans do not perform as expected. So, it should not come as a surprise that if farmers who are offered land titles, use them to take out bigger loans but are still unsuccessful in their investments, they will simply accrue bigger debts. There are two outcomes for farmers in this situation. They either file for bankruptcy, or they seek a more lucrative occupation to pay off their loans. For many, the latter will be to resume their work with coca leaf crops elsewhere.


Why does this research matter? On a practical level, this study presents a flaw in the logic of land titling for Alternative Development. There is no short-cut to development. Land titles are no substitute for long-term investment in local infrastructure of the areas where coca leaf is the most profitable crop. This point has been raised in other studies that argue that eligibility for bank loans does not overcome the structural barriers to economic development.29

Land in Putumayo where coca leaf used to be grown and where there still are significant barriers for farmers to access markets

On a more theoretical level, this study raises questions about de Soto’s argument that formal property rights, and consequently the formal economy, are the panacea for poverty. On the one hand, informal property rights are very effective in keeping a local economy growing.30 On the other hand, formal debt does not wipe away poverty. This study highlights the problems of basing a policy on the idea. Commodifying land for the credit economy, and attempting to overcome poverty through private loans, means that farmers, rather than the state, assume the cost of unproductive land. Rural state subsidies or macro-investment programmes may be a more strategic way to spread that cost more equitably.

Arguably, in the context of deprived rural areas in Colombia, where it is usual for farmers to rely on loans to tide them over between harvests, making bigger bank loans available to them through land titles may even be serving the interests of mortgage lenders rather than borrowers, as has been suggested by Bromley (2008) in other contexts. The extent to which banks may profit from coca leaf farming is an area that needs further research. As this study has shown, some farmers choose to pay back their loans that way.

My findings shed light on the situation of individual coca leaf farmers who lived in veredas where farmers had not been forced to start or continue to grow coca leaf by extra-legal groups, and where land titling had been offered specifically as an Alternative Development incentive. Like all qualitative research, generalizing from the findings presented here is the task of the reader.31 This study did not set out to be statistically representative, because small-N research can never be so.32 My research does not speak for the municipalities as a whole and can certainly not be generalised to represent the experience of Afro-descendant and indigenous communities in Colombia where they have communal property rights systems.

But this study reveals that the value of land titles may be more symbolic than financial. Only about half of farmers interviewed wanted titles for bigger loans, and only a few of these turn them to profit. And counterintuitively, land titling is not mutually exclusive with farmers’ participation in the illegal drug trade. It shows that in some places in Colombia, having land titles and access to bigger loans is not a game-changer for coca leaf farmers.

What are the implications of this study for policymakers? In a country where rural farmers have, for decades, demanded a more egalitarian way of distributing agricultural land, the granting of formal land ownership by the state to the rural landless, is undeniably a triumph. It would be politically blind to dismiss land titling altogether because it is of immense symbolic value. However, land titling is not a remedy for illegal drug production, and what is more, it risks contributing to the “balloon effect” of illegal drug production. Spreading coca leaf farming know-how to new places and intensifying it in others can exacerbate the problem in the long-term. In vulnerable places, it can make it harder to wean farmers off coca leaf farming.

If the goal of land titling is to stimulate Alternative Development, then a more sophisticated approach is needed. A sensible step towards this, might be for policymakers to avoid overplaying the significance of loans in their efforts to elicit interest among coca leaf farmers in applying for land titles. Encouraging farmers to take out loans when it is unrealistic that they will improve their land productivity will only dash their hopes and lessen the credibility of Alternative Development programmes. This is a lesson we have learnt from micro-finance programmes in Africa.33 Policymakers interested in continuing with land titling for Alternative Development, may also want to consider making it clear to farmers with land titles, that their land won’t be repossessed if they fail to make a profit. This might help to reduce pressure on farmers to join the illegal drug trade elsewhere to clear their debts.

À propos des auteurs

Sophia Ostler is a UK-based researcher on issues in public policy. Her previous projects have focused on drug policy, extra-legal governance, land politics, gender equality and global development. Sophia holds a PhD in Political Economy from King’s College London. She has worked in parliamentary relations, engaging UK parliamentarians with their Latin American counterparts, with matters concerning human rights, and more recently on issues in international trade policy.

1 UNODC, 2021, pp. 13, 15

There are significant discrepancies in what the Ministry of Defence and the National Council for Economic and Social Policy report as the cost of aerial eradication of one hectare of coca leaf, the former estimating it as $540 USD (only accounting for the cost of army and police support for eradication) and the latter as $19,400 USD (Cruz Olivera, 2019). Other estimates calculate the cost of spraying one hectare of coca leaf with glyphosate in 2016, including the cost of airplanes, herbicide, protection, etc. as $2,400 USD, and given the effectiveness rate stands at 4.2%, the cost of actually eradicating one hectare of coca leaf with aerial spraying was $57,150 USD (Mejia, 2016, p. 9). There is also the separation of budgets for security and for anti-drug policies, therefore the latter will not reflect increases in the former. For example, Colombia’s defence expenditure increased from 3.6% of its GDP in 2003 to 6% in 2006 due to the vast increase in security forced over the four years (Keefer, Loayza and Soares, 2010, p. 13). Currently, the most recent figure for what has been spent on the war on drugs, including the military component of the budget, is for the period between 2000 and 2008, which was when Plan Colombia, a large anti-drug law enforcement strategy, heavily subsidized by the USA, was being implemented. During this period, each year the Colombian government spent an average sum of $812 million USD, and the USA spent $472 USD. Together, both countries spent about $1.2 billion USD per year, about 1% of Colombia’s annual GDP (Keefer, Loayza and Soares, 2010; Mejia, 2010; Mejia and Restrepo, 2014; Gaviria, Mejía and Weiskopf, 2017) There is a more recent study for what the Colombian government has spent on the war on drugs between 2008 and 2015, estimating it at about $270,000,000 USD annually. This was about 0.5% of the national budget for those years (Rico et al., 2018, p. 9). However this figure excludes the military and security costs, and Colombia’s defence budget is the highest in the region, estimated to be over $10,000 million USD and accounting for 3.1% of its GDP (Aristizabal Bedoya, 2019).

El Tiempo, 2016

4 Semana.Com, 2012

Demsetz, 1967; Mueller et al., 1994; de Soto, 2001; Brasselle, Gaspart and Platteau, 2002

Rodrik, 2003; GIZ, 2014

7 Mueller, Alston and Libecap, 1999

Besley, 1995; Deininger and Jin, 2006; Fenske, 2011

Ding, 2007; Ghatak and Ghosh, 2011

10  Ghatak and Banerji, 2009; Ghatak and Ghosh, 2011, p. 67

11  Eggertsson, 1990; Alston, Libecap and Schneider, 1996

12  Hornbeck, 2010

13  Brasselle, Gaspart and Platteau, 2002

14  Dinar and Keck, 1997; Thoumi, 2012; Godoy et al., 2018

15 Besley, 1995, pp. 920, 931

16  Orellano et al., 2015

17  Eggertsson, 1990, p. 35; Galiani and Schargrodsky, 2010

18  Freye, 2009

19  Besley, 1995; Fenske, 2011

20  Olson, 1965; Knack and Keefer, 1995

21 UNODC, 2015, p. 94

22 Alston, Libecap and Schneider, 1996; Lanjouw and Levy, 1998; de Soto, 2000; Brasselle, Gaspart and Platteau, 2002; Libecap, 2007; Besley and Ghatak, 2009

23 Besley, 1995; Fenske, 2011

24  de Soto, 2000, p. 46

25  In Nariño, Linares and Los Andes are located a three-hour drive away on an untarmacked road from Pasto, the capital of Nariño. In Cauca, Balboa is a three-hour drive from Popayan, the capital of Cauca, and Rosas is about one and a half hours drive from Popayan. Mercaderes is half an hour’s drive further south of Balboa. In Caquetá, Santiago de la Selva, is a four-hour drive away from Florencia, the capital of Caquetá, and a one-hour drive away the urban centre, Valparaiso. In Putumayo, La Carmelita is a two-hour drive away from Puerto Asis. The veredas included in Valle del Guamuez, are all a 30 – 45-minute drive away from La Hormiga, the capital of Valle del Guamuez.

26  For effects of glyphosate on soil see (Kuklinsky-Sobral et al., 2005; Ratcliff, Busse and Shestak, 2006; Lane and Dick, 2012; Sofo et al., 2012; Zabaloy et al., 2012; Sihtmäe et al., 2013). For effects of glyphosate on animals and water contamination, see Van Bruggen and Morris 2018; Howe et al. 2009; Tsui and Chu 2003; and Amoros and Carrasco 2007.

27  1 hectare (Ha) = 2.4 acres or 10,000 m²

28  UNODC, 2019, p. 1

29  Buckley, 1997; Bromley, 2008

30  Ostrom, 2009

31  Rudestam and Newton, 2007

32  Small, 2009

33  Buckley, 1997

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