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Discussing and shaping drug policy and environmental issues together

In 2018, coca bushes were grown on around 169,000 hectares in Colombia. Almost half of the drug crops are now cultivated in protected areas or indigenous territories – with devastating consequences for the environment. Illegal coca growing is one of the main causes of the destruction of Colombia’s primary forest. In joint pilot projects with its partners, the GPDPD is showing that it is possible to use the forest legally and sustainably – and hence protect it.

For the families and communities in Colombia’s drug crop growing regions, coca cultivation is often the main source of income. Remote areas lack security, infrastructure, market access, schools and health care. The families that depend on coca growing are marginalised in numerous respects – economically, politically and socially. Dealing with local drug traffickers is often the only way to access markets and to generate income. These middlemen provide the communities directly with resources and buy the goods.


At the same time, large-scale cultivation is resulting in environmental damage: Rainforest is being cleared to make way for arable land. Coca cultivation often shifts the edge of farmland into protected areas and attracts further settlers, who exacerbate the problems. When coca is processed into cocaine, harmful chemicals are released into the soil and rivers. The impacts on the climate, the ecosystem and the population are devastating.

Turning away from coca cultivation as a livelihood and a driver of massive deforestation

The Global Partnership on Drug Policies and Development (GPDPD) has been operating in Colombia since 2015, combining drug policy and environmental policy. On behalf of the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) and in collaboration with the Colombian Ministry of Environment, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) and regional and local partners, pilot measures on Alternative Development have been implemented in the drug crop cultivating regions of Putumayo, Caquetá, Guaviare and Meta. Up until 2018, the partners implemented five projects under the bilateral cooperation programme on Protection of Forests and the Climate (REDD+). In collaboration with the UNODC, two pilot measures on sustainable and legal forest use are currently being prepared. These measures are being supplemented by cooperation between the GPDPD and the Fundación Ideas para la Paz (FIP).

hectares of rainforest
have been protected since 2015
have been reached by the project to protect the rainforest
timber and fruit trees
have been planted as a source of income

The project’s successes

The aim is to promote legal and sustainable value chains that also help protect the forest. In line with the Alternative Development approach, local authorities, producer associations and the civilian population are being closely involved in the projects in order to strengthen their role in the sustainable development of their communities. Thus, as part of forest protection agreements, participating communities voluntarily undertake to protect designated forest areas from deforestation on a permanent basis, for example. Since the beginning of the measures, up to 1,600 hectares of forest have already been protected. In addition, more than 18,000 new native timber and fruit trees have been planted. In the medium to long term, these trees will create a source of sustainable income.


Even now, small-scale farmers are already generating more income through the sustainable use and marketing of local fruits such as açaí or cocoa cultivation. They receive support in obtaining certification for their products and in entering into fair trade agreements with local companies. This helps them obtain higher prices, and some of the products are sold by national companies on international markets in Europe and the USA. Smallholder farmers have been trained in sustainable management and environmentally sustainable farming methods. A total of more than 200 families took part in these measures and now act as multipliers in their communities.

Prospects ecotourism and ecosystem services

More than two thirds of the illegal coca plants are grown in Colombia’s nature conservation areas and special administrative territories for Afro-Colombian and indigenous people. Stricter conditions apply to agriculture there to help conserve natural resources. In the national parks, there is a complete ban on farming. GPDPD and its partners rise to the challenge of providing alternative means of income to smallholder farmers in coca-growing regions. Together with the Fundación Ideas para la Paz and UNODC, we gather evidence and devise policy recommendations on the nexus between coca cultivation and deforestation, despite implementing pilot measures on the ground. Ecotourism and payments for local communities for ecosystem services offer particularly promising prospects in this context.