Sophia Ostler is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Political Economy at King’s College London.

The Interview

Sophia, you went into the heart of the illegal drug economy in Colombia to research your PhD. Give us a little background about the drug trade there. Why did it come about, who is at the centre, and what role has the state played in the governance of the trade?

Colombia’s illegal drug trade began with marijuana farming and trafficking in the 1930s, mainly along the Atlantic coast. In the mid-1960s, it grew and spread to other places in Colombia, in response to an increased US consumer demand and to eradication programmes in other main supplying countries, mainly Mexico and Jamaica.

When the USA stepped up its marijuana production in the 1970s, demand for Colombian marijuana began to wane, so dealers began to trade cocaine instead. Coca leaf is much more profitable than marijuana due to its higher value to weight and volume ratio. Wealthy drug traffickers began to build cocaine laboratories and to export it with the help of distribution networks made up of Colombian immigrants in the USA. They bought large amounts of land to launder their money and paid for extra-legal groups to protect the drug-producing areas and trafficking routes from law enforcement. The groups often used terrorizing violence and further expanded the drug trade, spiralling the country into over fifty years of conflict.

Throughout the years, the state’s drug policy has been committed to reducing the supply of coca-leaf and interdicting the supply-chain of cocaine. It has sought to suppress coca leaf farming in three different ways: by carrying out glyphosate aerial spraying campaigns to destroy coca leaf plantations; by sending officials, protected by the army, to manually pluck out coca leaf crops; and by offering subsidies and positive incentives to convince some farmers to give up on coca leaf farming voluntarily.

We all know that state prohibition can have unintended consequences. Has that been the case in Colombia? Where has the state succeeded and failed to stop coca leaf production?

If we look at net coca leaf production in Colombia, none of the state strategies have worked. Coca leaf crops are soaring. Having said this, the state has been able to shift drug production and trafficking routes elsewhere. This is what is called the balloon effect, which is basically a form of crime displacement. If you target crime in one place, it crops up in another. In recent years, the state has successfully suppressed illegal drug production in some parts in Putumayo and Caquetá, where it has been able to gain some territorial control. On the other hand, drug production has intensified in Nariño and North of Santander.

The resilience of the coca leaf trade is partly due to the strength of the extra-legal groups that govern it. Throughout the years, the state has attempted to confront and to dismount some of the major ones, but these have fought back or regrouped. In addition, farming techniques have been improved and the crop itself has been modified over time to produce higher yields. This is why coca leaf production is always becoming more intensive and efficient.

You’ve examined the role of informal institutions in governing the drug trade by interviewing 87 coca leaf farmers. From their perspective, what’s keeping them involved in drug production? What would it take to shift their focus to legal trades?

Coca leaf farming is usually very lucrative. For too many coca leaf farmers, their land lacks the infrastructure or the right soil to be profitable in anything else. It is almost impossible for coca leaf farmers to find another use of land that would not involve a significant income shortfall. So, the state tries to deter farmers from growing illegal crops by sanctioning them, either by destroying their illegal crops, which is costly to them, or by arresting those with larger plantations. In some places, it tries to entice them into legal trades by giving them some help, but mostly just hope and reassurance that they will still be able to overcome poverty with legal livelihoods.

My research focused on the experiences of coca leaf farming communities that opted to substitute their illegal crops with legal alternatives. I am fascinated about how this process works and how much credit the state can take for this rare phenomenon. I found that in some of these communities, something had affected the local coca leaf economy prior to the state gaining territorial control. And this something was a failure by extra-legal groups to adapt to competition and keep the peace for coca leaf farming to continue being profitable to farmers.

When they were faced with incoming rivals, extra-legal groups that had long maintained a favourable commercial environment for coca leaf farming began to change their tactics to demand farmers’ loyalty by force. They increased their fees and used more terrorizing and indiscriminate forms of violence, which made it too costly for farmers to persevere with coca leaf. The state was smart to offer their investment and protection swiftly following these changes. However, many farmers still persevered with the coca leaf trade elsewhere.

One of your more intriguing insights is that women tend to benefit from the coca leaf economy. Talk a little more about that. How would their roles change in a post-coca leaf economy?

One thing the different communities I studied had in common was that women’s economic opportunities had radically boomed during the coca leaf bonanza. Not only did they have paid work at their doorstep, but they could also combine it with their traditional housework roles. With more money circulating in the local economy, women as well as men, could save up and invest in different businesses. This was significant for many women, who were able to work in more equal business partnerships with their husbands and increase their household bargaining power.

It also enabled them to ascend into management roles and perform jobs that had conventionally been out of bounds for women. For many, this helped them live a life they valued. As soon as coca leaf disappeared from the community, women who were less flexible to migrate elsewhere, saw much of their financial independence disappear too. Their share of unpaid housework and subsistence farming increased, there were fewer service jobs around, and the paid agricultural work that was available favoured men in different ways. It’s a story of how economic development can help women acquire financial independence and thereby challenge gender-role attitudes.

Are there generalisable insights from your work for drug wars in other countries?

Yes, that informal institutions matter. State drug policies often take a simple carrot-and-stick approach, offering rewards and sanctions to persuade farmers to desist from working in the illegal trade. But any “success” they have is often transitory because they forget the complexity of farmers’ living situation and the immediacy of their needs. There are very well-developed informal institutions that make the illegal trade thrive, and policymakers need to think carefully about how the state can replace these, if at all.

For instance, Colombia is one of a handful of countries that has formalised land ownership for farmers who have stopped growing illegal drug crops to encourage them to stick with the legal trade. Officials have promoted land titles on the grounds that they are instrumental for accessing bank loans, and that bank loans provide the capital farmers need to invest in alternative legal use of their land.

However, the reality is that for most of these farmers any personal investment they make is unlikely to make their land more productive because of the low value of their land assets. Taking out a loan, therefore, comes at the price of a huge personal risk of not being able to repay it. In addition, drug farming communities already have very strong de facto property rights to land in place, so land titles do not offer them the added value of increased tenure security in other ways.

Your work touches on key social science questions across multiple disciplines. How does qualitative fieldwork like yours contribute to the field of economics?

The beauty of qualitative fieldwork is that as a researcher you can keep an open mind, even as you start finding answers to your questions. Economics often uses quantitative methods to produce precise estimates. But before we can measure things accurately, we need to know what to measure. And often we cannot know this a priori without well-designed qualitative research. There may be unexpectedly important variables you had not considered before embarking on your research and that you would only have found out about once you were able to understand the context of your research participants in more detail.

Qualitative fieldwork is important for generating theories and identifying observable causal processes. Without this kind of research, economics would be testing hypotheses that may not give the whole picture of what is going on. For instance, the influence of power and social norms is too abstract to quantify, but recognizing it in peoples’ lived experiences can throw up different hypotheses and offer an insight into factors that would be difficult to measure with traditional quantitative methods. It also helps new voices to be heard that have traditionally been excluded in standard economic thinking.

Qualitative research is by its nature interpretive, in that data is filtered by a researcher’s, and their research participants’, unique perspectives. Nevertheless, if the research is transparent about who these are, and takes measures to reduce bias, then there is huge value for it in economics.

More on Extra-Legal Governance Around the World

Podcast: Poverty, Informality, and Politics in India: In Conversation with Tariq Thachil

Podcast: The Politics of Order in Informal Markets: In Conversation with Shelby Grossman

Podcast: Self-Governing Social Orders, Economic Methods and Academic Women

Blog: Anja Shortland: Governance Under the Radar of the State

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