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The limbo from which the replacement program has been unable to emerge

For the vast majority of families who voluntarily joined the program, the PNIS became an acronym associated with deepening poverty, abandonment, neglect and corruption.

*Column by Fredy Chaverra

One of the biggest challenges currently facing the national government is to give direction to the National Integral Program for the Substitution of Illicit Crops (PNIS), a commitment derived from the Peace Accord that has become a headache, not only because it represents the most expensive alternative development policy ever implemented in the country's main coca-growing areas - with 2.3 billion invested until March 2023 ( Defensoria del Pueblo, 2023) - but also because of its precarious results: six years after its implementation less than 1% of the 99,097 linked families had "graduated" from the substitution route. 

There is no doubt in my mind that the thunderous failure of the PNIS is already over-diagnosed. It began a few months after its launching in the last stretch of the second Santos administration, as a result of the eagerness of the then High Counselor for the Post-Conflict - headed by Rafael Pardo - to show immediate eradication results, which led to the uncoordinated signing of hundreds of thousands of collective bargaining agreements without any precautionary principle in communities that for the first time believed the State in its commitment to implement a voluntary substitution program. 

For Santos, the PNIS was only a necessary photograph to satisfy the expectations of his allies in the international community; however, for the vast majority of families who voluntarily took advantage of a program that was sold as the greatest promise of rural transformation in forgotten areas,the PNIS, in the midst of an unstoppable spiral of non-compliance, became an acronym associated with deepening poverty, abandonment, neglect and corruption. 

And all credit to whom it is due: it is not possible to understand the failure of the PNIS without highlighting Santos' responsibility. 

However, with Petro, the program has not emerged from the limbo left by the Duque government. It is not easy to administer such a failed policy and the president, with a certain air of frustration, has only limited himself to describing it as a "den of corruption". His expectations are focused on giving it "closure" and implementing a new substitution program, one designed on two principles: gradual eradication and associativity in productive projects.  

Personally, I believe that the PNIS was built on two naive premises: first, it was believed that the beneficiary families would enter an accelerated process of economic reconversion just by uprooting the "bush", that is, that in a matter of months they would make the transition to a legal economy (as if the Colombian State were not characterized by its excessive bureaucracy and slowness); and second, that individualized small-scale productive projects would be enough to compete with the transnational and globalized drug trafficking economyAbsurdity. 

I believe that the sustainability of a substitution program lies in: one, productive reconversion (not only replacing one bush for another); two, the expansion of the supply of public goods and services; three, the industrialization of the countryside with the creation of incentives for associativity, commercialization and formalization; four, the integration of differential attention approaches in the Special Management Zones (ZME); and five, the generation of security and permanence conditions in the territory. Without security conditions, any substitution program is doomed to absolute failure. 

At the moment, it is not clear how the government intends to get the PNIS out of limbo or how it will move forward with its "closure". With this issue, so important, but at the same time so forgotten by public opinion, there is always more uncertainty than certainty.