U.S. reports an unexpectedly large increase in estimated coca cultivation (Colombia Peace Update June 26, 2021)

During at least the first half of 2021, we’re producing weekly updates in English about peace accord implementation and related topics.

On June 25 the White House Office of National Drug Policy (ONDCP, also known as the “Drug Czar”) released the U.S. government’s estimate of coca cultivation in Colombia in 2020. It found a 16 percent increase from 2019, from a record 212,000 estimated hectares of coca to an even greater record of 245,000 hectares. This coca was potentially used, ONDCP estimated, to produce 1,010 metric tons of pure cocaine, up from 936 in 2019—an 8 percent increase.

The release notes that the cultivation increase happened despite Colombia’s government reporting a record 130,000 hectares of manual eradication of coca bushes, and the seizure of nearly 580 metric tons of cocaine and cocaine base.

In 2020, the Trump administration’s ONDCP release covering 2019 had called for more forced coca eradication, including aerial spraying of the herbicide glyphosate. The government of Juan Manuel Santos had suspended this controversial U.S.-backed “fumigation” program in 2015 due to public health concerns, but the current government of Iván Duque has been working to reinstate it.

The June 25 ONDCP release barely mentions eradication. It makes no mention of the (now probably unreachable) objective of cutting coca cultivation in half by 2023, which the outgoing Santos administration had agreed with the Trump administration in 2018.

The U.S. estimate emerged about two weeks after the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) made public its estimate of 2020 cultivation. (ONDCP and UNODC are the two institutions that estimate coca cultivation in the Andes.) Unlike the White House, the UN agency found a downward cultivation trendline. The UN estimate of 143,000 hectares is a 7 percent decrease from 2019, and 102,000 hectares fewer than what the U.S. government estimates.

While the two entities’ coca estimates are rarely close, it has been unusual for their trendlines to diverge, as has now happened for two consecutive years. The Colombian government considers the UN number to be “official” but does not publicly dispute the U.S. figure.

The UN estimate of Colombia’s potential 2020 cocaine production, however, increased by 8 percent from 2019 to 2020. More cocaine from fewer hectares probably means taller coca bushes, higher-yielding crops, and more robust chemical extraction methods. The UNODC estimate of Colombian cocaine production—1,228 metric tons—is, in fact, higher than the U.S. estimate (1,010).

“Technicians from both countries and the United Nations will review [the statistics] to identify methodological criteria necessary to harmonize for the next measurement cycle,” El Espectador reported. We know more about how the UN derives its estimates than we do about the U.S. methodology. In coming weeks, we can expect UNODC to publish a full report presenting crop monitoring trends by region. That report usually includes a discussion of how the agency relies on satellite imagery and closer monitoring of selected regions. The U.S. government has been more secretive; the State Department’s International Narcotics Control Strategy Report points to much extrapolation, noting that it “conserves limited personnel and technical resources by employing sample survey methodologies to estimate illicit crop cultivation.”

Tags: Weekly update

July 3, 2021

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