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ALMA Reviews Blog: Lives and legitimacies in the coca-growing territories

Levantados de la Selva. Vidas y Legitimidades en los Territorios Cocaleros [Raised from the jungle: lives and legitimacies in the coca-growing territories]

By Estefanía Ciro Rodríguez; researcher Centro de Pensamiento AlaOrillaDelRío, Colombia

Published in 2020 by Los Andes University

Available at: http://dx.doi.org/10.30778/2019.83

Who are the people that live and grow coca in the territories of the Colombian Amazon? Whose lives are directly affected by the substitution, eradication and legalisation policies? These are some of the questions that Estefanía Ciro Rodríguez formulates in the introduction to her book, Levantados de la Selva. Departing from the predominant economical and criminological approaches, she explores the coca economy from the angle of the life trajectories and experiences of rural producers of coca in the Caquetá department in Colombia. Ciro presents a detailed account of the coca/cocaine economy and its complex entanglements with state formation processes, the agrarian question, violence and contemporary capitalism. However, more than explaining the workings of the coca economy, the author’s interest lies in better understanding the complexities of an exclusionary capitalist accumulation model and the crucial role that the prohibitionist paradigm plays in its reproduction. Ciro challenges the narratives, or, in her words, myths, upon which the “War on Drugs” is anchored. Notably, she challenges the idea that drug economies and, more generally, illegal markets exist in a parallel, unruly and lawless sphere, independent from the legal economies and far from the state’s radar, as well as the assumption that drug economies go hand in hand with violence and disorder.

Ciro’s work is based on a wealth of information collected through intensive fieldwork from 2012 to 2015 in her native Caquetá. The book is structured along two axes. First, it examines the life trajectories of the campesinos  who grow coca, in order to understand how they came to be part of the coca economy. Campesinos cocaleros could be translated as coca-growing peasants, and Ciro’s referring to this population primarily as campesinos is not by chance. Challenging the conventional portrayal of coca producers as criminals, deviants or “people without a history” (p. 8), she emphasises that coca growers are, above all, people from the land, who have found in the coca economy an alternative way to survive, avoid rural-to-urban migration and defend their way of life amid a context of widespread poverty, violent dispossession, forced displacement, state neglect and war. Cultivating coca is, thus, a way to resist. Consequently, Ciro argues that becoming a part of the coca economy as a coca producer is the result of historical and dynamic processes of accumulation of (dis)advantages rather than just an individual decision based on instrumental or cost/benefit calculations.

Exploring how campesinos cocaleros interpret and experience the law, legality/illegality and the war on drugs makes up the book’s second axis. Here, Ciro problematises the notion that illegality is, per se, illegitimate , showing how the campesinos make sense of coca production as a legitimate activity despite its illegal character. However, while the campesinos consider growing coca a legitimate activity because they do it out of need and as a result of state neglect and violence, they are also reluctant to support legalisation. Moreover, there is a firm rejection of drugs and marijuana consumption in the rural context and imaginaries.

For Ciro, these ambiguous positions reveal the complex and often contradictory ways in which the rural population in the region interprets and appropriates the narratives of prohibitionism and anti-drug policies. In their frame of meaning, the legitimacy of coca cultivation coexists with a sense of guilt and a negative perception of their involvement in this market. Caquetá’s campesinos cocaleros have not escaped the hegemonic discourse of the war on drugs. They contest the violent and uncaring character of the Colombian state and vindicate their status as citizens, yet they do not question the dominant discourses.

What I particularly appreciate in Ciro’s perspective is the centrality she gives to the history and particularities of territory in her analysis. In the process of state formation, the Caquetá region constitutes a peripheral area, part of an internal frontier. This aspect is at the core of the relationship between the central state and the region and has shaped the imaginaries of the ruling authorities. Ever since the Spanish Conquest, the region has been beset by violence. The counter-insurgency interventions and the war on drugs represent the most recent phase of violence. Historically, the region has also been a site for the development of different extractivist projects. The coca/cocaine economy is embedded in long-term state formation processes, violence and an exclusionary economic model, and all three are intertwined.

Contrary to the idea of an absent state or a state at the margins of the coca-producer region, Ciro convincingly makes the case that the Colombian state has been a critical actor in the spatial, economic and socio-political organisation of the region. The problem does not lie in the state’s absence but rather in the character of a state that has been keen to promote extractivist economies and exert violence against the region’s inhabitants while failing to recognise and protect the rights and needs of the population.

Throughout her book, Ciro questions the results and potential of policies based on crop substitution and argues for the legalisation of drugs. Likewise, she contends that the problem in coca-growing regions is not the coca economy but the broken ties between the state and the population. Hence, the priority of state interventions should be to restore and heal these ties, rather than to eradicate coca crops. With regard to legalisation, I would have been interested in a deeper reflection on how this process could be possible from a local perspective – particularly in light of the resistance the campesinos express to drug regulation and the stigma surrounding the phenomenon. However, this is a minor aspect of an overall excellent and thought-provoking work that encourages us to see the war on drugs, agrarian conflict and state–society relations from a fresh perspective.


Reviewed by: Viviana García Pinzón


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