USAID's Alternative Development Strategy: A Critical Review of Initiatives in Colombia

By Arielle K. Eirienne
2009, Vol. 1 No. 10 | pg. 2/2 |

Is "Alternative Development" Possible?

In describing alternative development programs in Bolivia, Farthing and Kohl (2005) advocate a development approach that allows locals to keep cultivating coca while establishing new economic avenues. The authors also stress that aid agencies must institute programs that coincide with locals’ desires, i.e., must include locals’ opinions as they plan their initiatives. If applied to Colombia, could such an approach stimulate alternative development? In other words, is a non-drug economy possible in Colombia’s remote regions, given the economic and socio-political conditions present?

Because these areas’ soils remain scarcely conducive to most plant growth, cultivating non-drug crops would be difficult, even impossible in some areas. Thus, in searching for profitable futures, Colombian peasants may prefer to relocate to more fertile grounds. Ramírez confirms that a portion of the coca-growers would like to leave the hinterlands, perhaps to “return to their places of origin” (2005b:58). ‘Returning,’ however, would constitute a mammoth task in a country where hundreds upon thousands of peasants have been displaced over a 150-year period, especially because these peasants have fled so far that they can scarcely access roads. Moreover, if the peasants did move to more prosperous regions, they might face even direr poverty than they do today. The campesinos originally left Colombia’s more fertile lands because elites co-opted the peasants’ properties for themselves, and without legal reform to facilitate the transfer of some lands back to the peasants, small-scale farmers that returned could find themselves with no grounds for cultivating anything, not even coca.

Even towns and cities might afford peasants few opportunities; Isacson writes of hundreds of Putumayan campesinos that flocked to the town of Orito in search of financial security but that instead, at least temporarily, were forced to live in tents (2006:8). Finally, as long as Colombia’s conflict continues, armed guerrillas would be likely to resist mass migration out of the isolated coca-producing regions they control; the guerrillas want peasants to produce drugs so that they can tax the illicit trade and thereby fund their war efforts. If the country’s war were to end, however, and if land reform policies were to open economic opportunities in the regions recently under elite domain, some peasants might begin the trek away from their isolated coca and opium fields. Nonetheless, despite the potential economic benefits of migration, others (especially those who currently live in drug-producing regions not because of displacement but because they consider those regions to be their indigenous communities’ ‘ancestral lands’) want to remain where they are, and policy-makers must reject anything that even resembles forcible relocation (Isacson 2006:10).

While the war persists and elite landowners maintain control of key farmlands, and while select communities remain devoted to their homes, exploring development initiatives that could bolster economic prospects within Colombia’s isolated territories appears more practical. This too is a difficult task. Some agricultural initiatives might prove possible, even profitable, in select regions. According to Isacson, for example, Putumayo’s soils can support ‘Amazon-basin fruits,’ such as chontaduro, lulo, manzana de agua, tomate de árbol, arazá, and uchuva, and Putumayans might agree to plant them so long as they knew the products would sell. Noting that such fruits would yield no profits if sold in Colombia because they are in high supply, Isacson suggests that the United States could begin importing them if it eschewed the non-tariff barriers that it currently applies (2006:10). Again, however, Colombians would not immediately cease to cultivate drugs in favour of fruit crops of unproven profitability; they might agree to test fruit cultivation and abandon drugs if and when they could see that fruits would sustain them financially.

Unfortunately, Thoumi points out that though non-drug crops might appear lucrative one season, farmers might be unable to reap consistent benefits from them, since international competition for the sale of legal crops can unexpectedly force prices downward (2005:21-22). Thus, if they advocate crop substitution at all, program designers must consider not only local soil conditions and not only Colombians’ previous experiences with trying to grow and sell particular products, but also those crops’ prospects in a global context.

USAID has also sought to provide Colombians with additional local markets. As in Farthing and Kohl’s (2005) argument, however, to be successful, such alternative initiatives must accord with Colombian peasants’ desires. Echoing this point, Isacson tells of an ‘animal-food concentrates processing plant,’ erected in Putumayo at a cost of approximately 2.5 million dollars to USAID, that could not even remain operational for two years because its designers failed to incorporate peasants’ views and ignored locals’ economic incentive structure:

The main reason the concentrates plant failed was a lack of inputs. Nobody [from Putumayo] wanted to sell it yuca or corn because it offered to buy … [them] at prices considered to be ridiculously low.

The plant offered to pay … 5 U.S. cents per kilo [of yuca] … . The same kilo of yuca could be sold in local produce markets for about eight times as much money. We were told that the cost of renting a vehicle and transporting that ton of yuca through roadless Putumayo to the processing plant would eat up more than one-third of … [the price paid per ton of yuca]. (2006:4)

Emphasizing the need for planners to consider the Putumayan context, he adds that according to many locals, the town in which USAID placed the plant is relatively distant, approximately an hour away by car, from areas more suited to yuca and corn cultivation (p. 4).

Furthermore, Isacson reports that USAID’s crop substitution program has disturbed many Putumayans because “outside experts unfamiliar with the region told them what crops to produce, and were often wrong,” but he then cautions that Putumayo’s residents could not themselves name more appropriate plants for their region given its current lack of “decent roads” and “reliable security,” among other concerns (2006:9). If farmers are to remain where they are but to delve into new economic projects – if they are, for example, to sell manzana de agua and uchuva to the U.S. – much supplementary development must occur first. Road-building is essential, for farmers that grow cash crops without being able to transport them anywhere fare no better than those that cultivate nothing at all.

If locals were supportive, USAID could even hire them to construct the roads and thus provide some Colombians with non-drug income. Nonetheless, campesinos would still not abandon their drug crops immediately; reluctant to trust that the roads would actually get built, they would maintain illicit cultivation until the roads had been completed and until those roads had brought them alternative forms of productivity. Furthermore, ruling guerrillas might resist road-building initiatives. These fighters have fled to remote regions because they are remote; they strive to hide from state authorities (LeGrand 2003). Opening these areas to legal trade and travel would not only undermine the guerrillas’ ability to profit from the drug trade but also threaten their safety, and they therefore might attempt to destroy any roads erected.

As Isacson suggests, security then emerges as a paramount concern. If warring parties control drug-producing regions and if drug cultivation helps fund their fighting, then they are unlikely to support their areas’ inhabitants in alternative activities. Because guerrillas and paramilitaries have the power and unscrupulousness to kill disobedient peasants, the peasants are likely to do as their warring patrons desire. Thus, Colombia’s war may need to end, and its combatants to cede control to local civil authorities, before sustainable development can occur. Indeed, in early 2006, USAID halted its alternative development program in the Caquetá region, in part because of concerns about its employees’ safety (Otis 2006). If Colombia’s violence puts aid workers at risk, then by deterring human activity and physically endangering infrastructure, it thwarts development.


Many Colombian peasants harbour a guarded willingness to forego drug production. Isacson has claimed that the campesinos detest coca because it embroils them in the country’s conflict, forcing them to finance their local warlords (2001). Also, during a 1996 campesino protest against aerial fumigation in Caquetá, one peasant declared, “The majority, maybe all of us, agree that coca should be stopped; we say so. … [but] what we are demanding … is that there be guarantees of other work for people in the country …” (quoted in Ramírez 2005b:63). Thus, as many analysts have asserted, and as USAID itself has acknowledged (2000), if Colombians are to stop growing coca and poppies, then alternative development is essential. Alternative economic activities, however, and the infrastructure to support them, must fully develop and must demonstrate themselves to be reasonably profitable before drug cultivation ceases.

Ramírez presents a useful framework for shifting the policy focus from destruction of the drug industry to development of alternatives: to stop conceptualizing small-scale drug cultivators as “criminals,” despite their crops’ illegality, and to begin to conceptualize them “as citizens in social and economic distress” (2005b:67). Her remarks urge a recognition of the history that LeGrand and others have laid out, a history of oppression and violence, of chaos, of displacement, and ultimately of relocation to regions so remote that they have offered peasants few choices other than to sow drugs.

Acknowledging the historical political economy of drug production, as well as the ensuing economic and socio-political conditions that today characterize peasant life, policy-makers must focus first on resolving Colombia’s conflict so that the guerrillas that have hidden in remote regions no longer coerce those areas’ campesinos into cultivating drugs. In conjunction with the campesinos, agencies may then begin to build alterative opportunities. The Colombian government might enact land reform policies or stimulate urban economies so that displaced peasants eager to escape the isolated areas have opportunities toward which they can migrate. USAID could also provide peasants with the means to build roads and could help them identify lucrative markets, both domestic and international. Finally, after carefully studying soil and market conditions, with much input from Colombian locals, the agency could help campesinos begin to cultivate viable licit crops.

Alternative development is thus an extraordinarily complex task, one that will require years or even decades of work. USAID’s current alternative development program promises speedy improvements in peasants’ non-drug economic opportunities while ignoring the political and economic circumstances that hinder the emergence of said opportunities. USAID thus asks peasants to stop producing drugs within a year of acquiescing to aid workers’ plans. Peasants, however, will not relinquish their illicit crops so long as they doubt that alternative development will actually occur and believe that abandoning drug cultivation will bring them destitution, starvation, and guerrilla retaliation. Thus, instead of pursuing both simultaneously, the United States may need to predicate achievement of one of its goals, destroying Colombia’s drug industry, upon development and also upon its second goal of ending Colombia’s war.


Farthing, Linda, and Benjamin Kohl. 2005. Conflicting Agendas: The Politics of Development Aid in Drug-Producing Areas. Development Policy Review 23 (2): 183-198.

Gill, Lesley. 2002. Colombia: Unveiling U.S. Policy. Foreign Policy in Focus, April 19.

González, Fernán. 2004. The Colombian Conflict in Historical Perspective. Conciliation Resources.

Grossman, Marc. 2002. U.S. Support for Colombia. Roundtable Discussion with Reporters. August 21, 2002.

Hagen, Jason Thor. 2001. Alternative Development Won’t End Colombia’s War. Foreign Policy in Focus, May.

Interamerican Association for Environmental Defense. 2006a. Alternative Development Strategies in Colombia: The Need to Move Beyond Illicit Crop Spraying. Executive Summary. Oakland, CA: Interamerican Association for Environmental Defense. EX_SUMM_ALT_DEVT_06-08.pdf.

Interamerican Association for Environmental Defense. 2006b. Estrategias de Desarrollo Alternativo en Colombia: La Necesidad de Acciones más allá de las Fumigaciones a Cultivos Ilícitos. Oakland, CA: Interamerican Association for Environmental Defense. INFORME_DESARROLLO_ALTERNATIVO_06-08.pdf.

Isacson, Adam. 2001. The Tragedy of Alternative Development in Colombia. Colombia Journal On-Line.

---. 2004. The State Department’s Data on Drug-Crop Cultivation. Memorandum. Center for International Policy.

---. 2006. Plan Colombia – Six Years Later: Report of a CIP Staff Visit to Putumayo and Medellín, Colombia. Washington, D.C.: Center for International Policy.

LeGrand, Catherine. 1986a. Agrarian Antecedents of the Violence. In Violence in Colombia: The Contemporary Crisis in Historical Perspective, ed. Charles Bergquist, Ricardo Peñaranda, Gonzalo Sánchez, 31-50. Repr., Wilmington, DE: SR Books, 1992.

---. 1986b. Frontier Expansion and Peasant Protest in Colombia, 1830-1936. Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press.

---. 2003. The Colombian Crisis in Historical Perspective. Canadian Journal of Latin American and Caribbean Studies 28 (55/6): 165-209.

Miller, T. Christian. 2002. Colombia’s Drug War Attracts Dubious Ally. Los Angeles Times, August 19.

Molano, Alfredo. 2000. The Evolution of the FARC: A Guerrilla Group’s Long History. North American Congress on Latin America Report on the Americas 34 (2): 23-31, 48.

Otis, John. 2006. USAID Pulls out of Colombia’s South. Houston Chronicle, Sept. 10.

Ramírez, María Clemencia. 2004. The Construction of Citizenship in the Context of Armed Conflict, Anti-drug Policy and Illegality in Putumayo (Colombia). Trans. Andy Klatt. The MacMillan Center Program on Order, Conflict and Violence, Yale University.

---. 2005a. Aerial Spraying and Alternative Development in Plan Colombia: Two Sides of the Same Coin or Two Contested Policies? Revista: Harvard Review of Latin America, Spring.

---. 2005b. Construction and Contestation of Criminal Identities: The Case of the “Cocaleros” in the Colombian Western Amazon. Trans. Andy Klatt. Journal of Drug Issues 35 (1): 57- 82.

Roldán, Mary. 2004. Citizenship in a Contested State. WideAngle: An Honest Citizen Briefing. Public Broadcasting Service.

Thoumi, Francisco E. 2002. Illegal Drugs in Colombia: From Illegal Economic Boom to Social Crisis. Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 582: 102-116.

---. 2005. The Colombian Competitive Advantage in Illegal Drugs: The Role of Policies and Institutional Changes. Journal of Drug Issues 35 (1): 7-25.

Vargas Meza, Ricardo, and Martin Jelsma. 2000. Drug Crops and Peace Process in Colombia: A Proposal for Peace. Executive Summary. Andina/Bogota: Transnational Institute.

Wilson, Scott. 2003. Colombian Fighters’ Drug Trade is Detailed: Report Complicates Efforts to End War. Washington Post, June 26.

United States Agency for International Development. 2000. USAID Alternative Development Design Document. United States Embassy in Bogotá, Colombia.

[i] The following incentive structure applies strictly to small-scale farmers, who as of 2000 tilled about one-quarter to one-third of the country’s total coca-producing area (USAID 2000). Different motives may prompt large-scale farmers and drug traffickers to engage in the illegal drug industry.

[ii] The U.S. government reserves its alternative development programs for those farmers growing no more than three hectares of coca and no more than one of opium. Large-scale drug farmers receive different treatment, including aerial fumigation of their fields.

[iii] In this context, “spray” implies aerial fumigation.

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