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Colombia Is Testing Drones to Drop Herbicide on Crops Used for Cocaine

Illustration for article titled Colombia Is Testing Drones to Drop Herbicide on Crops Used for Cocaine
Photo: AP

Under newly elected President Iván Duque, Colombia is testing remote-controlled drones designed to track and destroy coca, the crop used in cocaine production. The government has reportedly tested ten drones so far.

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The drones carry payloads of glyphosate, a powerful herbicide. During early tests they’ve destroyed “hundreds of acres of coca,” the Wall Street Journal reports. Duque’s government hopes the drones will offer more precision than traditional crop-dusting methods, which rely on small planes and often harm legitimate nearby crops.

President Duque said in an interview that the drones, furnished to Colombian police by Fumi Drone SAS, “permit total precision at low altitude above the plants and additionally minimize the damage and implications for third parties.” Contrasting traditional crop dusting, drones can hover about two feet above coca plants, spraying a much lower concentration of the glyphosate.

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As the WSJ reports, Colombia saw dramatic reductions in the production of known coca plants between 2001 and 2012, thanks in part to aggressive aerial policing. In 2012, however, the practice was slowed after the World Health Organization warned that glyphosate might be cancerous. Former president, Juan Manuel Santos, banned the practice entirely in 2016, calming health concerns, but reversing the gains made in destroying the crop. WSJ reports there were 470,000 acres of coca in Colombia in 2001 and 193,000 in 2012. The White House, however, claims that coca fields swelled to 516,000 acres by 2017.

Counterintuitively, the report mentions that Duque is wary that drone usage will lead to more on-the-ground clashes between police and farmers. An individual drone can only handle a payload of 1/80th the amount of herbicide of a traditional plane. The low altitude and need to replenish the herbicide means more on-the-ground officers and drone operators, potentially leading to clashes—particularly as many farmers have found that, economically, a coca field cannot be easily replaced by legalized crops.

“If they come with forced fumigation, there will be confrontations with the police,” Leider Valencia, a spokesman for an organization representing coca farmers, told WSJ. “I can promise that.”

[WSJ]

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DISCUSSION

Look, this is not only sort of a dumb idea, but the overall strategy doesn’t work. I did a research project in undergrad about coca cultivation in Colombia, and trying to take out the farms just does not work. For every 1% of coca farm destroyed, >1% is grown. Trying to spray down coca plantations will never stop the production of cocaine. There are a lot of reasons why, especially having to do with lack of infrastructure for farmers and the fact that traffickers will pay much more per acre than traditional crops and also provide social services to rural farmers that the government does not.

The primary result of this is that it displaces whole regions of farmers, because all of their crops (coca or not) get sprayed with RoundUp. I guess spraying “at low altitude” might somehow help that, but I really doubt it will be effective towards any end. What’s more, cocaine prices in the US since the 80s have dropped dramatically and consistently (in real dollars), showing that the supply-side interdiction doesn’t work.

The main result of the American-funded war against coca cultivation is arms/tech sales, which is probably why this is going to happen, too.