Obsessed with Numbers

A Critical Analysis of the United Nations’ Crop Monitoring Programme in Peru, Colombia and Bolivia

Nicolas Martínez and Pien Metaal. Translator: Analia Penchaszadeh

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For decades, the war on drugs has been waged in much of the world through a prohibitionist approach that seeks to eliminate the production, sale and consumption of a range of plant-based psychoactive substances, restricting them to medicinal and scientific uses. Since then, states and international institutions have invested huge sums of money and mobilised resources and human capital to achieve this ideal of a ‘drug-free world’.

The Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs is an international treaty signed in New York in 1961 that establishes a legal framework for global drug control; it was later complemented by the 1971 and 1988 Conventions. These three international treaties guide drug policy-making and contain measures to define all aspects of production, trade and possession of certain substances.

Among the strategies set out in the treaties are the identification and eradication of illicit crops that provide the raw material for cannabis, cocaine and heroin. To this end, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) set up the Global Illicit Crop Monitoring Programme (ICMP) in 1999. ICMP’s task is to monitor and analyse the surface areas, dynamics and impact of illicit crops, as well as productivity, yields and prices. ICMP has been implemented in Bolivia, Colombia and Peru regarding coca cultivation (as well as Ecuador for only two years); in Laos, Afghanistan, Mexico and Myanmar regarding opium poppy cultivation; and in Morocco and Nigeria regarding cannabis.1

Since the instrument was launched two decades ago, fundamental criticisms and reservations have been voiced about the surveys and their use as a political input. These monitoring reports became the most important source of information for the design of supply control policies, particularly forced eradication, reasoning that identifying and eradicating the source of production will lead to an increase in drug prices in the illegal market and – therefore – discourage consumption. To this end, UNODC works together with governmental entities in the monitored countries to prepare annual reports about illicit crops in their jurisdictions.

However, little progress has been made in the reduction of supply, nor in drug use. On the contrary, drugs have become more available and drugs consumption is on the rise. Moreover, the various kinds of crop destruction operations have led to the displacement of communities, clashes between growers and law enforcement, mass incarceration and human rights violations. Clearly, questioning the effectiveness of the monitoring system is legitimate: Are the data and interpretations provided in the reports sufficient to explain the complex and specific phenomena and contexts that lead certain countries or regions to grow or produce these substances? Is it possible to deal with these phenomena from a purely quantitative and one-dimensional approach? Are there better uses for this kind of survey system?

This longread presents a critical analysis of the UN Illicit Crop Monitoring Programme, regarding their approach and purpose, in order to examine this survey mechanism and take stock of the effectiveness of its direction and the factors it takes into account. The paper explores ICMP’s impacts and results – both in relation to its own goals and objectives, and in relation to its relevance and influence in public drug policy design and decision-making. For this analysis, the paper focuses on the cases of Peru, Colombia and Bolivia, based on three separate studies, the main coca-producing countries in the world, which (in addition to their proximity) allows us to compare how ICMP functions in the region.

The paper begins with a brief review of ICMP’s origins and the reasons behind the development of the instrument. Then, an analysis of each country is presented, summerizing the work of Hugo Cabieses (Perú); Diego Giacoman,  (Bolivia); and Ricardo Vargas,  (Colombia).2 In conclusion, a set of recommendations are made for the monitoring reports to include the particular contexts of each region and the structural factors in each country that have led peasant farmers to cultivate these plants. The inclusion of these elements would contribute to offering real development alternatives that meet the needs of the growers and/or communities that depend on these crops for their livelihoods.

  1. Monitor to control

Since the signing of the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs in 1961, the international community created a full international legal framework for global drug control. Over the years, a number of conventions and protocols have further developed the global substance control regime through the 1971 Convention on Psychotropic Substances, and the 1988 Convention against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances.3

The 1998 United Nations General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) further reinforced the global approach to eliminating illicit crops and set a 10-year target to destroy or significantly reduce the cultivation of coca, cannabis and opium.4 From that moment, various international institutions set out to accomplish the goal. In its Resolution 42/3, the Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) requested that UNODC design mechanisms for monitoring and verifying information regarding illicit crop cultivation, to work with governments and eliminate these crops..5

This led to the creation of the Global Illicit Crop Monitoring Programme (ICMP), whose objective is to‘establish methodologies for data collection and analysis, aiming to increase the capacity of governments to monitor illicit crops in their territories. In addition, the program seeks to assist the international community in monitoring the extent and evolution of illicit crops, within the context of the elimination strategy adopted by Member States.’.6 Since then, UNODC publishes annual reports in the monitored countries that provide information on the number of hectares planted, the crops destroyed, the yield and their market value.

The strategy of crop elimination has been implemented for decades in Latin America, especially but not exclusively in the Andean region. The United States (US) intensified its promotion of aggressive anti-crop policies by funding and accompanying military and logistical operations to eradicate coca crops in order to prevent drugs from reaching the streets of its cities.7 Regarding coca crops, ICMP has been implemented exclusively in Peru, Colombia and Bolivia, except two reports on Ecuador. The three countries grow virtually all of the world’s coca leaf due to the climate and soil conditions, as well as the region’s ecosystems that provide fertile ground for the plant. Moreover, these countries have grown coca for centuries, to provide for its traditional uses, so a percentage of the crop is meant for local consumption, especially in Peru and Bolivia. Although Bolivia and Peru were originally the largest producers of coca (since its traditional use is more widespread than in Colombia), cultivation of the crop expanded significantly in Colombia in the late 1980s, and it is currently the country with the highest production. The World Drug Report 2021 8 estimates that Colombia produces 64 per cent of the world’s cocaine, mainly destined for the United States and Europe (see graph on coca cultivation).

Source: World Drug Report, 2021

1.2 Pressure from Uncle Sam

Several years before UNODC launched ICMP, the US government declared a war on drugs at home and abroad. Operations included forced eradication and crop substitution programmes as well as the detection and seizure of drug shipments, with the aim of preventing drugs from reaching the country. On 18 June 1971, US President Richard Nixon addressed a press conference accompanied by members of his cabinet, frowning, he told the audience categorically: ‘America’s public enemy number one in the United States is drug abuse’.9 The speech had a clear purpose – to launch a policy aimed at combating illegal drug use by attacking the supply of substances not only in the United States but also beyond its own borders. US rhetoric gained dominance and exerted considerable influence on the international drug control regime, which intensified its struggle to combat drug supply10

In 1989, the US began offering military assistance to Andean countries through the Andean Initiative, with a logic of dependency whereby the northern government provided economic assistance in exchange for positive results in coca crop reduction. Since then, each country must meet a minimum set of demands and achievements in order to receive US certification, which then allows them to access resources and ensure the continuity of economic and military aid.11

For example, under the auspices of the US government (which provided training for the Bolivian armed forces), in the 1990s Bolivia implemented Plan Dignidad [Dignity Plan] with the aim of destroying all crops in the Chapare region.12 In recent years, Colombia has possibly become the country most dependent on the US in the race to destroy crops, since the South American country is the biggest cocaine producer. The US instituted a strategy to reduce supply through manual eradication and aerial spraying, which materialised in Plan Colombia, a programme that began in 1999 through which the US government invested close to $5 billion in military and logistical assistance to control cocaine production.13

This pressure persists in the three countries studied in this briefing paper – Peru, Colombia and Bolivia. The ICMP monitoring reports are used as a source of information to evaluate the success and/or failure of policies, and are therefore carry a lot of weight in the decision to certify the countries. Each year, when the reports are published, governments use the opportunity to reinforce coercive measures – when cultivation numbers increase in comparison with the previous period – or to demonstrate satisfaction when the opposite is shown.

The US has its own monitoring system through the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), which, together with ICMP, gives permission not only for continued aid but also for access to free trade benefits. Since 1991, several Latin American countries have been tied to US certification through the Andean Trade Preference Act (ATPA), which grants benefits and preferential access to the US market for different products, based on compliance with crop reduction demands. 14

1.2 Eradication: The costs outweigh the benefits

Despite the efforts and resources invested, ICMP’s results after two decades are far from its aims. Partly due to foreign pressure but also to their own conviction, Latin American governments insist on continuing with this control and forced erradication policy, despite evidence of its ineffectiveness. The number of people who use drugs around the world has increased by 22 per cent over the last decade, as has the supply of substances, their production methods and trafficking.15  In the case of coca, despite a reduction in the number of hectares dedicated to the crop, producers have perfected processing methods and they cross, select and treat plants to amplify the potential cultivation areas, with the aim of achieving higher yields and increasing productivity with the same inputs.16  For example, the last ICMP report on Colombia shows that while there was a 7 per cent reduction in the surface area planted with coca in the country, coca paste production increased from 1,137 metric tonnes in 2019 to 1,228 metric tonnes in 2020.17

Meanwhile, the collateral damage from forced eradication sometimes outweighs the policy’s gains. Eradicated crops are often replanted in the same place or in other regions or natural parks protected for their environmental value (known as the balloon effect), resulting in environmental damage and public health problems, especially in Colombia where aerial herbicide spraying campaigns have been carried out.18 Furthermore, crop eradication and destruction policies have created political instability and cycles of violence between affected communities, organised traffickers and governments. Finally, but no less serious, in their eagerness to demonstrate good results, eradication campaigns have led to clashes with communities, indiscriminate use of violence, imprisonment, torture and extrajudicial executions. This reduction in supply also means a head-on battle against the weakest link in the drug trafficking chain – vulnerable communities and families who, due to state neglect, depend on these crops for their livelihoods.19 Crop control, therefore, has led to repeated human rights violations including torture, extrajudicial executions, arbitrary detention and displacement.

2. Monitor to eradicate: ICMP in Peru, Colombia and Bolivia

The deployment of unsuccessful measures to enforce crop reduction has continued, despite the failure to attain the 1998 UNGASS target and the extension of the deadline for a further 10 years.20 The drug market has resisted efforts to eradicate crops; consumption and production rates are on the rise, and human rights violations persist. The following section explores the specific cases of Peru, Colombia and Bolivia, countries where the UN monitoring system continues to operate, and explores how this tool has helped governments evaluate the effectiveness or otherwise of their drug policies.

2.1 Peru

Peru has carried out coca cultivation monitoring with UNODC’s technical support since 2001. However, the country has been part of the Global Illicit Crop Monitoring Programme (ICMP) since 1999, when an agreement signed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the National Commission for Development and Life without Drugs (DEVIDA for its acronym in Spanish) and UNODC ratified Project AD/PER/02/G34 ‘Illicit Crop Monitoring System in Peru’. Eighteen reports have been published to date, including the 2018 and 2019 reports that were submitted in November 2020. DEVIDA has carried out ICMP since monitoring began, along with other institutions including the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), the European Union (EU) and the German Agency for International Cooperation (GIZ for its acronym in German).

According to DEVIDA, the main drug policy indicator has been the amount and volume of coca production and its derivatives, estimated from annual monitoring. A large part of the drug policy that Peru implements through DEVIDA and other relevant public bodies is based on this measurement or monitoring. For the Peruvian agency, coca crop monitoring ‘is a management tool that aims to integrate and standardise the gathering, recording, management and consultation of data, databases and statistics, by interacting with other systems that manage information in the institutional and multisectoral sphere of the fight against drugs, to facilitate the tracking, monitoring and evaluation of the anti-drug policy.’.21

This idea was ratified in Legislative Decree 1241 enacted on 25 September 2015, which strengthens the fight against illicit drug trafficking. The decree insists on the need for‘periodic and methodical monitoring of coca bush cultivation to measure its surface area, define its geographical distribution, estimate its density and yield per hectare, observe and compile data on its historical evolution to optimise public decision-making within the Anti-Drug Policy framework.22

In 2004, the Special Multistakeholder Commission responsible for evaluating the situation in the Peruvian coca-growing basins23,concluded that, ‘the national institutions directly linked to the coca-growing problem, including DEVIDA, ENACO and the Ministry of the Interior (through the CORAH Special Programme) do not have their own methodology for measuring coca-growing areas, nor do they have their own homogeneous statistical data on the total hectares of coca crops. They rely on information from international organisations such as the International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Assistance Office and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, which use modern technology and scientific methods to provide baseline data on coca cultivation areas as of 2003.24

This same 2004 report reflects that ‘…the country’s lack of own methodologies for evaluating surfaces cultivated with coca is a technical gap. The relevant state institutions should be encouraged to develop a methodology whose data will serve as the basis for designing plans and programmes as well as the national anti-drugs strategy. Until this is in place, UN methodology should be used, as it is the most appropriate and it is mentioned in a bilateral agreement. Thus, until the country’s own methodology is developed, the results provided by the UN should be considered official.’25

Peruvian institutions and the Peruvian government have therefore kept track of the areas with coca cultivation using the UN monitoring system. According to former DEVIDA Executive Director Fidel Pintado, the reports ‘analyse and interpret all the coca-growing areas of the country (14 coca-growing areas) and identify the crops in production (10 to 12 months after their planting). The identified cultivations are reviewed, verified and adjusted based on information collected in the field and/or with higher resolution images, such as PERUSAT, PLEIADES, KOMPSAT and overlays of other map sources.’26

Furthermore, Pintado adds that verification takes place at the third stage of the methodology for the report in two ways: cross-checking by experts and cross-checking with complementary tools. The former refers to complementary verification by another specialist, while the latter is carried out through field observation, cross-checking with higher resolution satellite images or cross-checking with aerial photographic images.

Although most monitoring reports generally describe the areas where coca is cultivated, recent documents have added other variables, such as the demand for coca leaf for traditional and industrial purposes, and they have included detail on the methodology used. This new methodology – implemented for the 2018 and 2019 crop monitoring – was carried out in 14 coca-growing areas or basins and 13 departments or regions of the country. It drew on the knowledge and experiences developed by UNODC and eight other public institutions that form part of the Multistakeholder Working Group (GTM for its acronym in Spanish) led by DEVIDA.

The public institutions participating in the working group are: DEVIDA’s Technical Affairs Directorate (DAT for its acronym in Spanish); the Ministry of Interior’s General Directorate Against Organised Crime; the Ministry of Interior’s Directorate for the Control and Reduction of Coca Cultivation in Alto Huallaga (CORAH for its acronym in Spanish); the Peruvian National Police’s Anti-Drugs Directorate; the Peruvian National Police’s Criminalistics Directorate; the Peruvian Air Force’s Aerospace Control Command (COMCA/FAP for its acronym in Spanish); the Ministry of Defence’s National Commission for Aerospace Research and Development (CONIDA for its acronym in Spanish); and the National Coca Company (ENACO for its acronym in Spanish).

It is worth noting that this group also includes private sector institutions such as companies, producer organisations, grassroots organisations, academic centres and non-governmental organisations.

According to DEVIDA, the crop estimation methodology used for 2018 and 2019 is ‘the first of its kind at the national level’ and has UNODC’s endorsement, which, ‘based on its expertise, guarantees compliance with international methodological standards and the requirements of the international community’ regarding the monitoring of coca crops in production, ‘thus officialising the results of the monitoring’. The methodology consists of six main steps: 1) acquiring digital satellite images; 2) image processing; 3) visual interpretation of the images; 4) systematisation and analysis of the results; 5) approving the analysis of the area of coca leaf cultivation; and 6) disseminating the results.  DEVIDA asserts that ‘the practical implementation of this methodology will make it possible to officially recognise the results obtained during monitoring’. It adds that it is a ‘pioneering national methodology … that guarantees rigour in the production of information, systematisation, analysis, presentation and official recognition of the results of monitoring coca leaf production.’

2.1.1 Devida and UNODC

DEVIDA and UNODC have worked closely since the beginning of the monitoring programme in Peru. Thanks to UNODC’s international support, DEVIDA receives funds enabling it to operate. Each year, agencies obtain funds from their governments by demonstrating ‘achievements’ in crop reduction or ‘numbers of producers benefiting’ from the ‘alternative development’ programmes they promote. Since Romulo Pizarro’s entry as Director of DEVIDA in 2002, the agency received a higher commitment of public funding for the fight against illicit drug trafficking, a situation that created various inter-institutional discussions and conflicts.

Tensions have especially emerged in relation to the Alternative Development programmes, due to competition with USAID – whose idea is ‘eradicate first, then develop’ – but also with the German, Canadian and EU aid programmes that promote ‘development first, then concerted crop reduction’.

Regarding the estimation of coca crops, both the Peruvian State (through DEVIDA) and the different international aid agencies have been obliged to demonstrate ‘achievements’ in the reduction of illicit crops, seen as the ‘silver bullet’ of good behaviour. To this end, the annual estimates provided by the highly technical and sophisticated DEVIDA-UNODC reports on the presence of the crop have been used to justify new funding.

2.1.2 Conclusions from nearly 20 years of monitoring

Over the past two decades, estimation has made it possible to design or correct public policies aimed at reducing supply, as well as to confirm Peru’s commitments with international conventions. However, crop eradication efforts have not resulted in a general reduction of cultivated areas. On the contrary, a number of flaws in the system were made apparent during this time, leading to the following conclusions:

  • Coca leaf production has increased or remained steady.
  • Some planting areas have moved to other river basins (‘balloon effect’), dispersed in the same basins (‘mercury effect’) or moved to the border regions with Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia and Ecuador (‘membrane effect’).
  • There have been growing linkages and synergies with other criminal activities such as illegal logging, informal-illegal mining, human trafficking, smuggling, land trafficking, illegal animal and plant trade, contract killings and money and asset laundering. Campaigns to reduce supply have had significant impacts on society, natural resources, the economy and the culture of indigenous and non-indigenous peoples in production areas.
  • The so-called Alternative Development efforts, policies and strategies have failed.
  • The coercive approach has proven a major obstacle to promoting the beneficial traditional and industrial use of coca leaf as a natural resource, a valuable practice and a symbol of the identity of Andean-Amazonian peoples. The National Coca Company (ENACO for its acronym in Spanish) also needs it to properly function as a public entity that legally collects and markets coca and its legal derivatives.
  • More recently, with the COVID-19 health emergency, coca cultivation destined for the illicit drug trade has soared, along with associated crimes. This highlights the failures of a policy based on supply, national security and the criminalisation of its production and use.

The reflections above call for a review of the results and an analysis of the methodology used to prepare the reports, not only with regard to crop eradication, but also in relation to the impact of this policy on the criminalisation of coca growers, the stigmatisation of traditional coca leaf consumers and its beneficial industrialisation. An assessment must also be made of the limited results of the Alternative Development programmes, which seek to replace crops with other sources of income.

2.2 Colombia

The Colombian crop monitoring programme began in 1999 with logistics support from the Anti-Narcotics Police of the time (DIRAN for its acronym in Spanish) and in coordination with the National Narcotics Department (DNE for its acronym in Spanish). However, a monitoring programme with 100 per cent official coverage was only set up starting 1 November 2001. According to UNODC, full coverage of the entire national territory was achieved using Landsat and SPOT satellite imagery taken over a period of time. For example, images used in 2002 were taken between August 2002 and January 2003. These images were later corroborated through field research. The images, however, were not useful in calculating opium poppy, due to persistent cloud cover in the production areas.

In accordance with the Illicit Crop Monitoring Programme (ICMP), the data obtained is handed over to the relevant authorities in order to develop actions and projects to preserve the ecosystems that are of strategic importance for the country. As stated in the 2002 Report, ICMP’s objectives are to:

  • to establish methodologies for data collection and analysis,
  • to increase the governments’ capacity to monitor illicit crops on their territories,
  • to assist the international community in monitoring the extent and evolution of illicit crops in the context of the elimination strategy adopted by the Member States at the General Assembly Special Session on Drugs in June 1998.27At the time, monitoring was neither neutral nor an autonomous activity; rather it was embedded in the 1998 UNGASS global strategy to eradicate crops deemed illicit in 10 years, i.e. by 2008. This goal coincided with the implementation of Plan Colombia, which sought the reduction of illicit crops as a form of attacking one of the guerrillas’ main sources of funds. Then President Álvaro Uribe promoted aerial herbicide spraying with two strategic objectives: to destroy the guerrillas’ war economy – especially that of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC for its acronym in Spanish), and to fulfil the UNGASS 1998 mandate for the total elimination of illicit crops.Over time, ICMP in Colombia has undergone transformations and methodological adjustments to improve the quality of the data. However, the reports have generally maintained a quantitative focus. For example, specific department-level baselines were set regarding the number of hectares and density of cultivation starting in 2002, which facilitated the identification of trends such as decreases, increases, and changes in density based on calculating the number of hectares per square kilometre. Other variables included eradication (aerial spraying), fallowing (resting of used land), abandonment or voluntary eradication. Additionally, departments were grouped into ‘regions’ in order to present the measurements. The reports provided information about the varieties of coca (although without further detail on their characteristics and yields); the correlation between hectares of coca, plants per hectare, and the potential for cocaine hydrochloride production; and the price structure of coca paste. The sequence of aerial eradications in relation to cultivated areas was also included to show the effectiveness of spraying. Finally, differentiated information about the presence of illicit crops in national parks and indigenous territories was provided since 2001, due to the legal limitations and challenges that these areas pose when it comes to eradication.Over the years, reports have included other variables in an attempt to find a correlation between the presence of illicit crops and socio-economic conditions, armed conflict and the political environment. For example, information was provided on rural poverty and the presence of illicit crops, as well as the relation between rural poverty and Unsatisfied Basic Needs (UBN) in the monitored regions. Other variables relevant to the Colombian case were also inserted, such as crop cultivation areas and the presence of armed groups, as well as forced displacement due to the conflict. Significantly, the reports recognise aerial spraying as a factor driving the exodus of people from their territories.Political influences are apparent in the reports, as many of the variables originally included became more nuanced. At that time, President Álvaro Uribe’s government embarked on a rhetorical denial of the armed conflict, and the reports – although they continue to mention variables such as the presence of armed groups and forced displacement – limit themselves to providing numbers without any in-depth analysis while increasingly focusing on reporting on the reduction of supply. (See the detailed table with the evolution of the reports in Ricardo Vargas’ full report, Spanish only).

2.2.1 Incomplete measurements

During the 20 years’ implementation of ICMP in Colombia, one can observe the governments’ emphases and perspectives on the management of illicit crops, and how these are adapted to the ICMP reports. For example, the 2017 report speaks more clearly about the relationship between multidimensional poverty and illicit crops. It states, ‘municipalities affected by illicit crops recorded a rural multidimensional poverty index (RMPI) of 54.72 per cent. This is 15.7 per cent higher than the average for non-coca producing municipalities.’28 This statement is an example of the type of narrative that was made possible by the December 2016 signing of Peace Accord.

Despite the introduction of new categories and data collection methodologies, the technical fine-tuning primarily focuses on improving the precision of quantitative data regarding the crops. Although the first reports (especially the 2002 report) sought an all-encompassing approach bringing in elements of sociology, political economy and recognising the impact of the armed conflict, this perspective was abandoned in favour of a highly technical information-gathering structure.

Meanwhile, none of the reports mention the legal or traditionally use of coca, instead focusing on the presence of illegal coca in indigenous territories without any distinction whatsoever. Additionally, there are very few mentions of other types of illegal economies. It is worth noting that in 2003, UNODC signed an agreement with the Colombian government that – although contributing to its financial stability – allows for the interference of governmental interests based on the confluence of common objectives; from the very beginning, the 1998 UNGASS mandate enabled this situation. This is clear across all reports.

Alternative Development seems to be primarily a supply reduction policy; mentions of the programme provide a predominantly governmental perspective, without critical perspectives from the communities. This is very common throughout the reports, where communities are treated as an object or a means to obtain information about coca (yield, processing, agricultural management); at no time are local voices from affected people included.

2.2.2 General conclusions

It is striking that over the decades, illicit crops are not addressed as a symptom of the imbalances in access to land and the recurrent marginality of rural areas – an issue regarding the agrarian model in general, and particularly in areas where the crops are grown. Instead, illicit crops are seen as a threatening external factor, an evil that requires their detailed and anticipated discovery. Today, this is embodied in the narratives about the risks that these crops represent in the territories, a situation that must be measured by means of a mechanism known as risk analysis. Accordingly, UNODC’s narrative makes the case for the risk posed by coca cultivation and offers solutions to addressing it. This risk analysis is defined as ‘a geographical tool that allows for the provision of support for the planning and management of institutional programmes or projects designed to consolidate zones that are free from illicit crops.’29> The analysis stems from the need to have information on the future probability of an area being cultivated with coca.

This allows UNODC to focus efforts on reducing illicit cultivation and supporting Alternative Development projects in areas that demonstrate the need to provide growers’ communities with economic alternatives. The study proposes a comprehensive understanding of socio-spatial transformations, focusing on current and future risk due to the presence of coca cultivation. The risk model is the calculation of a probability that combines the real threat of coca cultivation with the consequences on the vulnerability of the territory. Assessments of threat due to vulnerability have led to the development of a quantitative scale with degrees of risk, from very high to very low. The assumption of risk uses a morbid language for territories (an external disease that attacks them), promoting and legitimising the concept of impact, or affected, in places where illicit crops are already grown.

Accordingly, as of 2015, the title of the report is ‘Survey of territories affected by illicit crops. There is an entire mechanism involved in the knowledge of the impact, its quantification and the policy to eliminate it. Inscribing the presence of coca in a binary biological discourse of illness/health seeks to naturalise decisions made on behalf of the health of society as a whole. The underlying problems in the territories where coca production takes place in Colombia are approached from a drug policy that focuses on eradication – be it voluntary, forced manual eradication or aerial spraying. These problems are acknowledged insofar as addressing them will determine the ‘sustainability’ of eradication efforts. It is a complete inversion of priorities and the value given to what is important based on the naturalised strategic objective of ‘zero illicit crops’, an achievement that is celebrated by exalting the redemptive condition similar to the Christian notion of being ‘free from sin’, that is, a territory free from illicit crops.

The annual presentation of the reports makes headlines in mainstream media, promoting a rhetoric that glorifies and condemns territories that decrease or increase illicit crop cultivation, respectively. Furthermore, governments generally appropriate the results when it is convenient for them to do so, always with ‘area reduction’ as the indicator of success.

Finally, the reports make no reference to the other parts of the drug chain associated with drug trafficking, such as the involvement of the country’s legal infrastructure (ports, airports and border crossings), asset laundering, the participation of security agencies in drug smuggling, the financing of political campaigns with these resources, money laundering and corruption.  All of this contributes to the blurring of the lines between the legal and the illegal. This absence stimulates grey areas where business and exchanges take place among actors that have gained great political power and social legitimacy. The legal/illegal combination, which the UNODC ICMP methodological and technical structure is incapable of grasping, is the main instrument of the large-scale illegal drug economy.

2.3 Bolivia

Coca crop monitoring carried out by UNODC in coordination with the Bolivian government began in October 2001. The project at that time was called ‘Land Use Management and Monitoring System in the Yungas of La Paz’, focusing only on the department of La Paz. This first phase included various aspects of production, in addition to the number hectares of coca under cultivation. Two years later, the monitoring system expanded its geographic scope to include the department of Cochabamba and thereby develop national estimates.30 Up until that time, the only source of data on coca growing in Bolivia was the United States government; an urgency was felt for the monitoring system to have access to a source of information in which the Bolivian State had an active participation.

NIño recogiendo plantas de coca arrancadas en zona de Caranavi. Fotografía Diego Giacoman

From the beginning, the Bolivian government has participated in and endorsed each annual report, with some differences in the funding structure and approaches across the years.31 The following chart shows the evolution of the monitoring reports through time.

In the early years (between 2001 and 2003), the US Embassy in Bolivia provided satellite imagery to develop a land use map in order to analyse existing activities and development potentials in the Yungas of La Paz. This map was then used by the Vice-Ministry of Alternative Development (VDA for its acronym in Spanish) as the main source of information for sectoral policy planning.  Similarly, the first published report included a map of Unsatisfied Basic Needs (UBN), which suggested the relevance of analysing the presence of these crops in the Yungas of La Paz region from a comprehensive socio-economic perspective.

Milestones in the approach and funding of Coca Crop Monitoring Reports in Bolivia

Source: UNODC Coca Monitoring Reports 2004 – 2020.

In the early years (between 2001 and 2003), the US Embassy in Bolivia provided satellite imagery to develop a land use map in order to analyse existing activities and development potentials in the Yungas of La Paz. This map was then used by the Vice-Ministry of Alternative Development (VDA for its acronym in Spanish) as the main source of information for sectoral policy planning.  Similarly, the first published report included a map of Unsatisfied Basic Needs (UBN), which suggested the relevance of analysing the presence of these crops in the Yungas of La Paz region from a comprehensive socio-economic perspective.

The first national report on coca cultivation was released in 2004, providing information on the estimated area under coca cultivation for 2003 in the departments of Cochabamba and La Paz. The monitoring programme received funding from the UK, Spain, France and Italy, while the US Embassy’s Narcotics Affairs Section (NAS) in Bolivia provided satellite imagery and logistical assistance.  It is worth noting that the early crop monitoring reports in Bolivia make no reference to the Vice-Ministry of Social Defence and Controlled Substances (VDS SC for its acronym in Spanish), which has played an important role since 2006.

The VDA and the VDS SC belong to two different ministries and sectors, although they have ended up sharing responsibilities for the control and reduction of coca cultivation. Broadly speaking, there are 17 reports whose contents, with some adjustments, are structured around five variables:

– Cultivated surface. Estimated at 25,000 hectares in 2019. This is the most expected and widely disseminated information from the reports. Based on photographic interpretation of satellite images, it serves to assess the effectiveness of the coca control policy and is the highlight of the report.

– Potential production. Estimated between 37,000 and 46,100 metric tonnes of sun-dried coca leaf, according to yield studies carried out by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) in 1993, by UNODC in 2005 and by the Plurinational State of Bolivia’s National Council against Illicit Drug Trafficking (CONALTID for its acronym in Spanish) in 2010.

– Estimated value of trading and seizures. Data from the latest report estimate the approximate annual value of coca leaf in Bolivia to be between $375 million and $461 million. The amount of coca leaf in legal markets is also estimated at 24,178 metric tonnes. Alongside this, the seizure of coca leaf is reported to have reached 331 metric tonnes.

– Several reports between 2004 and 2014 mention the flow of coca leaf to Argentina and the trade that exists in the north of that country. However, the reports add no specific information, nor do they include any analyses geared towards formalising and regulating this market.

– Rationalisation/eradication. Estimated at 9,205 hectares in 2019. It is worth noting that the report does not define the methodology for rationalisation; there is only a mention that the Government of Bolivia reported 5,070 hectares of coca cultivation as voluntarily eradicated in 2006.

As for the information-gathering methodology, the reports are based on the visual interpretation of satellite images, with both aerial and ground validation. The quantification the area under coca cultivation mainly relies on satellite images with a spatial resolution that has ranged – throughout the history of the reports – between 10 and 0.50 metres. Photogrammetry is undertaken at different times of the year, seeking the least cloudy dates, as observed in each report. The analysis to quantify coca cultivation is based on the images obtained using visual interpretation techniques with specialised software and photo-interpretation specialists.

Overall, the data collection and validation techniques were not substantially changed. The reports have consistently prioritised providing quantitative information to demonstrate compliance with crop reduction policy; modifications to the work methodology have been due to factors that are more circumstantial. This has remained as such, even though during President Evo Morales’ first term (2006-2011), there was a suggestion for a more comprehensive approach towards coca control policies.

At the time, UNODC Executive Director Antonio Maria Costa stated, ‘Bolivia is one of the poorest countries of the world. In my meeting with President Morales a few weeks ago, I was impressed by the emphasis that he put on his commitment to reducing poverty and the need for alternative development. Sustainable reduction of Bolivia’s supply of coca must go hand in hand with reducing poverty and improving infrastructure, health and education. Farmers need a viable and long-term alternative to coca cultivation. Crop replacement without an effective alternative development strategy will not work. It is therefore incumbent on the international community – particularly cocaine consuming countries – to more generously assist Bolivia to help its farmers achieve sustainable licit livelihoods and to provide greater market access to make agricultural and forest products attractive to farmers.’32 Despite these statements, none of the above-mentioned elements were included in the monitoring of coca cultivation, nor did they open up new methodological or conceptual avenues for reporting.

Meanwhile, the technical coordination between the Bolivian government and the UNODC programme that currently prepares the report (BOL/Z68) is conducted by the Vice Ministry of Social Defence and Controlled Substances (VDS SC for its acronym in Spanish) and its General Directorate for Social Defence (DIGEDES for its acronym in Spanish). The Vice Ministry of Coca and Comprehensive Development (VCDI for its acronym in Spanish), through its General Directorate for the Comprehensive Development of Coca Leaf Producing Regions (DIGPROCOCA for its acronym in Spanish), also plays a coordinating role for the eradication/rationalisation report. The report on data regarding trade and market values is coordinated with DIGEDES as well as with VCDI’s General Directorate for Coca Leaf and Industrialisation (DIGCOIN for its acronym in Spanish). Earlier observations found that the institutional framework poses difficulties for smooth exchanges of technical information, a factor that hinders the use of monitoring information for a comprehensive social and productive analysis of the territories.

A biased perspective

The considerations above show how the report has been used as part of the Fight against Drug Trafficking/ War on Drugs, which prioritises compliance with international agreements regarding the reduction of coca cultivation, and not to further the comprehensive sustainable development of the producing areas. This bias is evident in the fact that the information contained in the report does not guide investments and efforts to promote social and productive development, nor does it support the consolidation and formalisation of a legal coca economy in accordance with the provisions set out in Law No. 906.

On this point, Sabino Mendoza, former coordinator of the Coordination Secretariat of the National Council for the Fight against Drug Trafficking, stated, ‘crop monitoring reports could be used in a better way if they informed comprehensive development actions and not only crop reduction.’ The indicators’ emphasis on the ‘fight against drug trafficking’ has not been useful in guiding development policies, since the information gathered in the monitoring reports is not shared with FONADIN and does not contribute to comprehensive sustainable development planning in the coca producing areas.

It can also be inferred that the lack of information exchanges and the missing perspective on development in the report make it difficult to develop a regulatory model for legal coca markets that could be based on social control or community self-control. Such an approach for market regulation could include protocols, high standards, market promotion and other actions aimed at strengthening legal trade channels for coca leaf, thereby promoting economic development and reducing the flow of coca leaf towards illegal markets.

It is also worth noting that the 2007 report presented by the 2008 administration includes a definition of rationalisation. The Bolivian government uses this concept to explain a policy change from forced eradication towards concerted reduction of coca leaf cultivation through agreements and joint programming between government institutions and farmers’ organisations. None of the reports, however, use rationalisation as an actual variable.

In relation to the conventions and instruments to control coca leaf, is striking that none of the monitoring reports refer to the reservation that the Bolivian State made in 2013 regarding the mandate in the 1961 Convention to abolish coca leaf chewing. This important aspect of coca leaf has not been acknowledged or analysed in any of the reports.

As in the Colombian case, the reports are presented to the public as a reflection of policy successes or failures based solely on the number of crops eradicated, thereby validating the effectiveness of supply control policies. Thus, opposition sectors have at times used the reports as a political tool to disqualify the efforts of the Movement for Socialism (MAS) government, which they have labelled a ‘narco-government’.

Views on the monitoring reports generally remain broad, due to a lack of strategic and technical debate on market regulation for legal coca leaf and strengthening participatory mechanisms for the stabilisation of coca cultivation areas. Thus, government authorities and opposition members regularly celebrate or bemoan each year’s trends without further explanation of the causes.

The reports do not address the problem of reseeding and/or replanting, nor do they include alternative or complementary crops as part of an economic analysis that would enable the reality of families to be taken into account in decision-making and in the expansion of coca cultivation areas. This simplistic approach considers only one variable and seems to further stigmatise peasant communities, with a superficial view of their identity based only on these crops.

Another important element is the viability and potential of an analysis that would include the results of the comprehensive study on coca leaf consumption financed by the European Union, which is not mentioned in the monitoring reports. Instead, reviews of the report tend to focus on results and compliance with international commitments. As such, reviewers end up recommending equipment and resources to carry out the eradication or rationalisation of coca crops, exemplified by the former Vice-Minister of Social Defence, Felipe Cáceres, who asked the international community to contribute equipment, especially for the transport of anti-drug personnel.33


This brief has summarised the three case studies that analyse the monitoring reports (Peru, Colombia and Bolivia) and reflected on ICMP’s involvement in the design of drug policies in these countries. The information presented points to a series of recommendations that go beyond the one-dimensional view of the monitoring reports, and the mere collection of data that lacks an in-depth analysis of the causes and structural factors of each territory.

The monitoring reports must incorporate a human rights approach, not only discussing the human rights violations that occur during eradication campaigns, but also recognising the health and ecosystem damage caused by spraying herbicides such as glyphosate. It is striking – to say the least – that UNODC remains completely silent on these issues, as if they were not part of the problem in the territories, nor a matter of concern for the international body.

The reports must reflect each country’s policies on illicit crops, and avoid uniform models. Regarding Colombia, compliance with the 2016 Peace Accord – endorsed by the UN Secretary General and integrated into the National Constitution – should be enforced, particularly in relation to the points associated with the issue, such as Item 4 [regarding illicit crops] and the subsequent crop substitution programme.34

The reports must address the policies that have resulted from them, and not just verify manual eradications. With regard to Bolivia, it is important to note that under the slogan ‘Coca yes, Cocaine no’, the government made a commitment to promoting an industry of coca leaf-based products35 as a strategy to reduce the cultivation of illicit crops, although it has had limited success.

At present, reports are limited to counting the number of hectares cultivated with illicit crops, with a cold and exclusively statistical approach when it comes to monitoring and reporting on what is happening in these territories. Instead, ICMP should take into account the specific policies for special areas (protected areas, indigenous reserves and afro-descendent territories), and include a differentiated gender perspective.

A chapter on ethnicity is needed to reflect the realities of indigenous and afro-descendent territories, including the obstacles and disparities that these communities face. Recognition of traditional use, and the right to this use, must also be reflected in the reports. To this end, the reports should capture the voices of the communities, so as to not infringe on their autonomy nor reduce them to mere providers of data to calculate outputs. This requires an approach that enables communities to participate both in crop substitution and in alternative development projects.

Since the reports are UNODC’s only tool to control illicit crops, these cannot be used as input for development projects. Using alternative development or crop substitution as a tool to reduce illicit crop cultivation is an approach that limits the understanding of environmental problems and ignores structural factors that have lead certain communities to depend on illicit crops as their only source of livelihood. Therefore, acknowledgement of the underlying socioeconomic problems related to the agrarian model is important. UNODC monitoring should focus on key social indicators such as territorial and environmental planning; resolution of land use conflicts; access to education, healthcare, road conditions, markets, credit; public policies for the agricultural sector in areas dependent on illicit crops; technical research; and improvements in the quality of life. Continuing to obsess over the numbers, as has been the case up to now, on the rise and fall of illicit crop cultivation areas, is an absurdity that shows the serious limitations of the supply reduction strategy.

Finally, it is crucial to recall the commitments to alternative development and a comprehensive approach adopted in the political declaration of the 1998 UN General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) for the elimination of illicit crops36 – from which the monitoring system emerged. Returning to the initial UNGASS goal and implementing the commitments outlined therein is essential not only for reducing supply but also for safeguarding ecosystems and vulnerable communities that have suffered under the burden of prohibitionism and the war on drugs.


Author Nicolas Martínez Rivera, is a Colombian journalist. He makes regular contributions to the Drugs and Democracy programme, particularly on issues related to Colombia

Pien Metaal, is a Dutch political scientist. She currently works as a senior project officer at the Drugs and Democracy programme of the Transnational Institute

1 See https://www.unodc.org/unodc/en/crop-monitoring/index.html

For the full country reports, please see: www.tni.org ( https://www.tni.org/en/files/documents/colombiapdf , https://www.tni.org/en/files/documents/bolivia1pdf , https://www.tni.org/en/files/documents/perupdf )

Para ver los distintos convenios y cómo funciona el régimen internacional de control de drogas, ver:

1998. UNGASS. Political Declaration. Disponible:


UNODC, Monitoreo de Cultivos de Coca, Colombia. Censo de cultivos de coca 2006. Disponible:

7 Grisaffi, T. (2016). Social control in Bolivia: A humane alternative to the forced eradication of coca
crops. Pag 149.

World Drug Report 2021 https://wdr.unodc.org/

Ver: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y8TGLLQlD9M

10  Uprimny, R., & Guzmán, D. E. (2016). Seeking Alternatives to Repression: Drug Policies and the Rule of
Law in Colombia. Pag 89.

11  Ponce, A. F. (2016). From freedom to repression and violence: the evolution of drug policy in Peru.
In Drug Policies and the Politics of Drugs in the Americas (pp. 123-148). Springer, Cham

12  Grisaffi, T. (2016). Social control in Bolivia: A humane alternative to the forced eradication of coca
crops. In Drug Policies and the Politics of Drugs in the Americas. Pag 154

13  Dávalos, E. (2016). New answers to an old problem: Social investment and coca crops in
Colombia. International Journal of Drug Policy, 31. Pag 121, 123.

14  4 Ponce, A. F. (2016). From freedom to repression and violence: the evolution of drug policy in Peru.
In Drug Policies and the Politics of Drugs in the Americas (pp. 123-148). Springer, Cham.

15 World Drug Report 2021 https://wdr.unodc.org/

16  See: https://www.eltiempo.com/justicia/conflicto-y-narcotrafico/matas-de-coca-gigantes-asi-los-narcos-han-incrementado-la-produccion-622544

17  See: Colombia Coca Survey 2020 Fact Sheet. Available at https://www.unodc.org/documents/crop-monitoring/Colombia/Colombia_2020_Coca_Survey_FactSheet_ExSum.pdf

18  Ibanez, M., & Klasen, S. (2017). Is the war on drugs working? Examining the Colombian case using
micro data. The Journal of Development Studies. Pag 1651

19  Jelsma, M. (2018). Connecting the Dots… Human Rights, Illicit Cultivation and Alternative
Development. Amsterdam, The Netherlands: Transnational Institute (TNI). Pag 15.

20  0 Jelsma, M. (2015). Jelsma, M. (2015). UNGASS 2016: Prospects for Treaty Reform and UN System-Wide Coherence on Drug Policy. Available at https://www.tni.org/files/download/treaty_reform_drug_policy_ungass2016.pdf P. 13.

21 Ver: Own Translation. See: DEVIDA: ‘Metodología para el monitoreo de la superficie cultivada con el arbusto de hoja de coca en producción, en Perú’; DEVIDA-SISCOD-OPD, Lima, November 2020.

22 Own Translation. See: ‘Decreto Legislativo que fortalece la lucha contra el tráfico ilícito de drogas’, in:

23  The Commission was chaired by Major General Marciano Rengifo Ruiz (from former President Alejandro Toledo’s party, Peru Posible) and 10 other Congressmembers from different political parties.

24  Own Translation. See: http://www.mamacoca.org/Octubre2004/doc/Comision_Multipartidaria.htm

25  Own translation. Ibid.

26  Own Translation. These statements are part of a series of questions posed to then DEVIDA Executive Director Fidel Pintado.

27  UNODC, Colombia: Coca Survey for December 2002. P.9. https://www.unodc.org/pdf/publications/colombia_report_2003-09-25.pdf

28  Own translation. UNODC, Monitoreo de Territorios Afectados por Cultivos de uso Ilícito, p.116

29  See: https://www.unodc.org/colombia/en/simci2013/simci.html

30  See: https://www.unodc.org/pdf/bolivia/bolivia_coca_survey_2003.pdf

31  See: https://www.unodc.org/bolivia/es/Monitoreo_de_cultivos_de_coca.html

32  UNODC. Bolivia: Coca Cultivation Survey, June 2006. P.1

33  See https://www.la-razon.com/lr-article/el-59-de-la-coca-producida-no-pasa-por-mercados-legales-2/

34 The official (UN) English translation of the Peace Accord can be found at: https://colombia.unmissions.org/sites/default/files/s-2017-272_e.pdf

35  See the report by the Transnational Institute on Alternative Development Opportunities in the Legal Cannabis Market: https://www.tni.org/files/publication-downloads/2021_sustainablefuture_web.pdf

36  See Declaration: www.unodc.org/documents/commissions/CND/Political_Declaration/Political_Declaration_1998/1998-Political-Declaration_A-RES-S-20-2.pdf