Life after coca
: the experience of informal institutions in former coca leaf farming communities in Colombia

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


Do land titling efforts influence farmers’ decisions to abandon their coca leaf crops? Do farmers always replace their illegal drug crops with legal alternatives thanks to state interventions? How do women’s economic opportunities change in communities that abandon coca leaf farming? This thesis provides an analysis of how institutions change when farmers decide to stop growing illegal crops. Specifically, it examines property rights to land, extra-legal governance, and gender norms in former coca leaf farming communities. It is based on thematic analysis of 87 fieldwork interviews with former coca leaf producers in Colombia (including Putumayo, Caquetá, Nariño, and Cauca) and 35 elite interviews, conducted between August 2017 and January 2018.

Firstly, this thesis finds that in these research locations, land titles had a significant symbolic value among farmers but were not essential for their access to loans to invest in alternative legal use of their land. Relatively few farmers wanted land titles to obtain loans and many of those who took loans with land titles did not use them to invest in their land. In several cases the loans farmers accessed with the use of their land titles did not reduce their dependence on coca leaf crops and, counterintuitively, some of them paid off their loans with profits from farming coca leaf crops elsewhere. On a theoretical level, these findings present a caveat to de Soto’s (2010) theory that land titles naturally improve the land market and roll back the informal economy. They show that informal property rights can be more significant in enabling the market to function well and support Ostrom’s (2009) theory that informal institutions, as patterns of behaviour shared by most people, have more control over behaviour than do rules that are simply laid down by an authority. They also show that, in the context of former drug crop farmers, there are large potential costs to formalizing property rights to land.

Secondly, this thesis finds that some communities decide to abandon coca leaf farming not through any efforts of the state to offer more lucrative farming alternatives, but because the heightened levels of violence among competing armed groups drove farmers to grow coca leaf elsewhere. So, from the perspective of farmers in these places, it was the breakdown of extra-legal governance that caused the demise of the local drug trade, rather than pull factors from what the state could offer. This builds on Olson’s (1993; 200) theory of stationary and roving bandits and suggests that both types of bandits can mutate into each other, in face of rivalry. In addition, it presents an exception to Cheng’s (2018) theory of extra-legal governance, by illustrating how armed groups can operate against their own business interests, by failing to protect the illegal trade, when their time for extracting rents starts to run out.

And thirdly, this thesis finds that illegal drug farming in these places was positively correlated with more progressive gender-role attitudes. Coca leaf production in the neighbourhood meant that women could increasingly work as equals with their partners, they could pursue different kinds of jobs and they often felt less financially dependent on others. Likewise, the replacement of coca leaf in these communities with legal alternatives, had a regressive effect on women’s paid opportunities. The women interviewed encountered not only fewer jobs, but implicit barriers to participating in the workforce on par with men. Lower household incomes meant women experienced more labour-intensive home production including more subsistence farming, and fewer resources to buy food and pay for time-saving appliances. All this meant women had less time available for paid work. In addition, as the local coca leaf economy dropped, and local paid labour shifted back from services to agriculture, farmers perceived fewer paid jobs and lower remuneration in domestic work. Although there were no rules that restricted women from working in paid agriculture, these jobs require high levels of flexibility to work away from home and offer wage premiums for physical strength, which give men an advantage over women in the local workforce. These findings contribute to Van Staveren and Odebode’s (2007) understanding of the pervasiveness of gender norms and show that institutional changes are fragile. Without ongoing maintenance and support, gender norms return to their previous shape when economic opportunities, once created by coca leaf farming, cease to exist. This was illustrated by the way in which women found traditional gender norms to be reinforced when coca leaf crops were abandoned, and the local economy contracted.

Many policymakers believe that land titling helps farmers to invest in legal alternatives by increasing their access to credit. They also believe most farmers grow illegal crops due to pressure from armed groups and stop because of state intervention. And finally, their efforts to ensure gender equality in communities that abandon illegal drug farming have been heavily focused on improving women’s access to land and education but not on transforming the gendered segregation of work. This thesis shows that there is room for improvement in all these approaches to Alternative Development.
Date of Award1 Sept 2021
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • King's College London
SupervisorHumeira Iqtidar (Supervisor) & Anja Shortland (Supervisor)

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