Bloomberg via Getty Images Bloomberg via Getty Images

Prototyping a Green Transformation in Colombia

Colombian smallholders in the protected areas affected by illicit coca cultivation are teaching us they can make a living legally and at the same time respect and protect the natural environment.

In 2021, coca bushes were grown on around 204,000 hectares in Colombia, according to UNODC´s monitoring system. No less than half of the drug crops are cultivated in nature reserves or indigenous territories – with devastating consequences for the environment. Illicit cultivation is a matter of survival for the people living there – without coca cultivation, extremely poor families would not be able to sustain themselves. The families face a dilemma: how to survive without destroying the environment and with it their own livelihood?


The families whose survival is dependent on coca cultivation are marginalised in many ways - economically, politically, and socially. In the remote nature reserves, there is a lack of infrastructure, market access, schools, and health care - the state is barely present as a protective power. Dealing with local drug traffickers is often the only way to earn an income. The drug traffickers first supply the communities with resources and then buy the harvests directly. 


Illicit cultivation in protected areas does, of course, have an impact on the environment and local conditions. Primary forest is cleared to make room for farmland. Then, when coca is processed into cocaine, which usually takes place locally, harmful chemicals are released into soils and rivers. Coca cultivation also pushes the agricultural frontier into protected areas, attracting more settlers and (illicit) sectors that further exacerbate the problems. The effects on the local ecosystem are devastating.

Sustainable economy and nature conservation

The GPDPD has been combining drug and environmental policies into a green drug policy in Colombia since 2015. On behalf of the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) in collaboration with the Colombian Government, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) as well as regional and local partners, we have implemented eight Alternative Development projects in Putumayo, Caquetá, Guaviare, Nariño, Meta, and Valle del Cauca. By 2018, the partners implemented five projects under the bilateral cooperation programme on Protection of Forests and the Climate (REDD+). Coca-driven deforestation was the main issue to address.


In collaboration with UNODC, two additional projects on sustainable and legal forest management have been implemented after 2018, and the use of Payment for Environmental Services in National Parks areas is on its way. These projects are complemented by studies and policy recommendations for the Colombian government in collaboration with the Fundación Ideas para la Paz (FIP) for a green drug policy. 

All voices are brought in

The aim is to promote legal and sustainable value chains that also contribute to the regeneration and protection of the forest. In line with the Alternative Development approach, local authorities, producer associations, and smallholders are closely involved in the projects. This not only strengthens smallholders’ role in the transformation process but is also a success factor for the projects.


The small-Scale farmers are already generating more income through the projects by sustainably using and marketing local fruits such as açaí, cocoa, or coffee cultivation. The farmers have been trained in sustainable management and environmentally sustainable farming methods. 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 even sold by national companies on international markets in Europe and the USA.

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

Alternatives to agricultural use

In the protected areas and special administrative regions for Afro-Colombians and indigenous peoples, even stricter regulations apply to agriculture - up to and including a complete ban. This poses particular challenges for alternative development projects. But here, too, there are approaches that are proving their worth in practice and are being incorporated into studies and policy recommendations. Some particularly promising initiatives include ecotourism and payments to local communities for maintaining their local ecosystems.


Small-scale farmers in Alternative Development projects in Colombia teach us how green drug policies can lead to a lasting transformation in affected regions. With their experiences, they create new prototypes for contemporary drug policies.