Peace Science Digest

Decolonial Environmental Peacebuilding in Colombia

This analysis summarizes and reflects on the following research: Valencia, O. E., & Courtheyn, C. (2023). Peace through coca? Decolonial peacebuilding ecologies and rural development in the Territory of Conviviality and Peace of Lerma, Colombia. Third World Quarterly, 44(5), 1077-1097.

Talking Points

In the context of a campesino community in southwestern Colombia:

  • The coca leaf, widely known as the primary ingredient for cocaine, is commonly associated with illicit markets and violence but can be a source of environmental peacebuilding.
  • Beset by armed actors interested in profiting off the illicit drug trade, a campesino community in Lerma, Colombia, worked to resist violence and exploitation by reasserting ancestral/Indigenous communal and agricultural practices, including coca leaf farming.
  • Women’s participation and leadership in communal and agricultural projects were particularly important to countering the patriarchal culture and violent masculinities produced by armed actors and illicit markets.
  • While the community sought to profit from ancestral/Indigenous coca leaf farming, this desire for profit was distinguished from the endless and exploitative drive for profit typical of corporations under capitalism due to the nature of campesinos’ “productions, market interactions, and subjective orientation.”

Key Insight for Informing Practice

  • Working with Indigenous communities and integrating Indigenous knowledge and values into environmental peacebuilding is of utmost importance. However, a successful relationship with Indigenous communities requires a deep acknowledgement of power structures that disadvantage Indigenous groups and an openness to embracing Indigenous worldviews.


The coca leaf, widely known as the primary ingredient for cocaine, has been linked to illicit markets and has served as an income source for armed groups during violent conflict. Coca’s association with violence overshadows its other purposes, including its nutritional and cultural value to Indigenous communities in the Andes. Óscar E. Valencia and Christopher Courtheyn examine coca as a source of environmental peacebuilding in Colombia. They look to the efforts of a rural campesino community in southwestern Colombia to disavow violence and overcome exploitation through agroecological coca. They observe a process where the coloniality of power is dismantled through decolonial peace, “whereby the community breaks from oppressions tied to the rule of armed groups and capitalist markets” by re-asserting ancestral agricultural practices and community relationships.

Agroecology: “the application of ecological concepts and princip[les] in farming.”

Soil Association. (n.d.). What is agroecology? Retrieved November 22, 2023, from

Coloniality of power:

“relations of oppression and domination rooted in colonialism that persist after the end of formal imperialism.”  

Decolonial peace

The process by which “communities delink from the coloniality of power by recovering previous practices or forging new relations of conviviality.”  

This research is centered on an Indigenous campesino community located in Lerma, Colombia—an area also recognized as the Territorio de Convivencia y Paz (Territory of Conviviality and Peace). The research team conducted focus groups and interviews with key stakeholders from 2017 to 2022 to study the relationship between coca, ecology, and peace in Lerma. The authors’ observations in addition to a review of existing literature upends assumptions about the coca leaf’s association with violence and reveals opportunities for environmental peacebuilding.

Coca is a native crop to the Andes and has long been cultivated by Indigenous communities for a variety of purposes, most notably as an organic fertilizer, alongside a diverse array of fruits, vegetables, and other native plants. However, the coca leaf also contains an alkaloid that produces cocaine when chemically processed. Beginning in the early 1980s, Colombian drug traffickers entered Lerma seeking to expand cocaine production for the illicit drug trade. This led to a population influx where guerilla and paramilitary groups sought to participate in and profit from cocaine production. These events dramatically damaged the local culture and natural environment in Lerma. For instance, it created a “patriarchal culture of strong men” and produced violent masculinities where social status was determined by who could display the greatest capacity for violence—which local residents described as “he who had the best horse, biggest gun, most women, and drank the most liquor.” Community-level violence increased and armed guerrilla or paramilitary groups intervened to settle disputes. Women in the community stopped many of their daily practices (like harvesting crops) for fear of direct and sexual violence.

Ecological destruction also resulted from cocaine production in Lerma. Coca monoculture (or, the cultivation of a single crop over a particular area) overtook previous agricultural practices that emphasized polyculture (or, the cultivation of many crops over a particular area), affecting soil quality and ecosystem diversity. Further, the materials needed to chemically process coca leaf into cocaine pollute adjacent land and water during production. Pollution and ecological destruction are further exacerbated by government efforts to combat cocaine production—aerial pesticide spraying that, ironically, did more damage to other plants than to coca.

In the late 1980s, a group of community leaders in Lerma organized as Fuerzas Vivas (Life Forces). This group worked to resist violence and exploitation, and to reassert ancestral practices and community self-determination. They defined their activities as “coca for life”—a phrase coined by community elder Célimo Hoyos, encapsulating the idea that coca, when “integrated within a diverse campesino economy[,] fostered dignity, empowerment and sustainability.” Rather than allow coca to be defined by its relationship with violence, these community leaders determined that “illicit crop production coupled with a lack of secondary education undermined dignified economic options for youth, eroded community identity and induced displacement.” In response, they started a community festival, prohibited alcohol and closed bars (identified as a source of violence), and opened a high school. Women’s leadership in these activities was significant in resisting oppression and dehumanization, moving “towards a more participatory and dignified community organization.”

Lerma opened an agroecology school, Arriago, in 2006, founded on the principles of “political organizing and dignity in the biosphere.” This school became the center of efforts to pursue alternative uses of coca leaf “rooted in ancestral traditions” that would help to “guarantee food sovereignty and permanence in the territory.” In partnership with SENA (the Colombian national vocational training program), farmers in Lerma learned about the alternative uses of coca leaf among community elders along with its scientific properties. Uniquely, Lerma received approval in 2016 from the Colombian National Narcotics Fund to continue growing coca and to experiment with alternative uses—particularly its use in organic fertilizers. After years of degradation due to cocaine production, these locally made organic fertilizers helped to revitalize the land and support the community’s food sovereignty.  These agricultural projects were particularly important for women who participated in and led various initiatives, thus challenging their “exclusion and subjugation” and supporting their claims to equal rights and autonomy.

Lerma’s experience with the destructive practices of cocaine production followed by a reassertion of ancestral coca agriculture rooted in harmonious social-natural relationships demonstrates how communities can “delink from the coloniality of power” and practice environmental peacebuilding. Despite previous research that associates coca with violence, this research demonstrates that “coca’s role in socioecological destruction or peacebuilding is contextually contingent,”; coca leaf can be a source of peacebuilding when it is rooted in ancestral/Indigenous practices and used to transcend colonial power relations.

Informing Practice

From a Western/colonial perspective, the problem of illicit drugs can be solved in part by eliminating the source materials—as with efforts to forcibly stop coca leaf (cocaine) or poppy (opium) production.  If armed groups profit from—and if their violent activities are funded by—the illicit drug trade, then it presumably follows that eradicating these drugs would diminish the violence of such armed groups. Governments have therefore tried various methods to destroy plants like coca. A more militarized approach favors police raids, arrests, and destruction of agricultural land while a more “peaceful approach”—or at least the approach most often associated with peacebuilding—incentivizes farmers to grow alternative crops. However, alternative crop programs are often unsuccessful—not because farmers are unwilling to grow alternative crops but because the proposed alternatives are often less lucrative and subject to volatile market prices. For example, the U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction found that U.S. efforts to substitute other crops for poppy failed due to “programs [that were] too short-term, failed to provide sustainable alternatives, and sometimes even contributed to poppy production.”

Yet the existence of Indigenous knowledge and practices related to coca challenges the assertion that the source materials for drugs are inherently linked to violence, revealing how this association is often far removed from the lived experience of local communities. The coca leaf’s historical, cultural, and nutritional value to the Andean Indigenous communities that have cultivated it for centuries highlights the plant’s importance beyond cocaine production. Rather, the coca leaf can be seen as an integral part of the local ecosystem and environmental management when Indigenous knowledge and values are centered in policy discussions. For Western researchers and practitioners in environmental peacebuilding, working with Indigenous communities and integrating Indigenous knowledge and values is of utmost importance to creating conditions both for a just peace and for environmental protection. However, a successful relationship with Indigenous communities requires a deep acknowledgement of power structures that disadvantage Indigenous groups and an openness to embracing Indigenous worldviews.

Environmental peacebuilding is an emerging field that has yet to seriously contend with power. New research by Katy Davis, Laura E.R. Peters, Jamon Van Den Hoek, and Ken Conca systematically reviews literature in environmental peacebuilding and finds that about half of the literature did not discuss power or inequity, while only a few articles focused on power (the remainder only briefly discussed power). As such, these scholars argue that the field “has not gone far enough towards challenging existing exclusionary and colonial approaches.

Challenging exclusionary and colonial structures that persist even within the field of environmental peacebuilding is possible, but such a task requires a high degree of cultural sensitivity. It also requires a willingness to design, manage, and implement projects from an Indigenous point of view, deprioritizing Western/colonial standards. There is incredible potential for environmental peacebuilding to commit to respecting and elevating the roles and perspectives of Indigenous peoples. The drivers of direct or structural violence against human populations are often the same drivers of environmental harm—thus, contending with the systems of power that continue to harm Indigenous peoples could have a multiplier effect on creating the conditions for peace and environmental protection. [KC]

Continued Reading

Davis, K., Peters, L. E. R., Van Den Hoek, J., & Conca, K. (2023). Power in environmental peacebuilding. World Development Sustainability, 3.

Klemedsson, J., & Rojas, P. (2020). Colombia’s Indigenous land defenders. Al Jazeera English. Retrieved January 22, 2024, from

Luu, C. (2019, October 16) What we lose when we lose Indigenous knowledge. JSTOR Daily. Retrieved December 12, 2023, from

Jessen, T., Ban, N. C., Claxton, N. X., & Darimont, C. T. (2021, November 15). Contributions of Indigenous knowledge to ecological and evolutionary understanding. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, 20(2), 93-101.


Indigenous Climate Action:

Global Witness:

Environmental Law Alliance Worldwide:

Keywords: demilitarizing security, Colombia, Indigenous knowledge, Indigenous Peoples, environmental peacebuilding

Photo credit: Adobe Stock

This analysis is featured in our Special Issue: Decolonial and Indigenous Approaches to Environmental Peacebuilding.