In the world’s biggest cocaine producer, cultivation reportedly surged again in 2016

Colombia cocaine production
A farmer stirs a mix of mulched coca leaves and cement with gasoline, as part of the initial process to make coca paste, in Antioquia, Colombia, January 7, 2016.

AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd

Cultivation of coca — the base ingredient of cocaine — surged 39% in Colombia in 2014, which was followed by a 42% increase the next year.

In 2016, that production saw another significant increase, rising a little over 13%, from 392,897.5 acres to about 444,800 acres, or about 695 square miles, according to a report from The Wall Street Journal.

The latest cultivation estimate is derived from satellite imagery gathered by the US and indicates that farmers around the country have been growing more of the plant.

“If that’s accurate, it’s 180,000 hectares of coca, up from 159,000 in 2015,” Adam Isacson, senior associate for defense oversight at the Washington Office on Latin America, wrote on Twitter on Monday. “A 13% increase is less than I expected: it rose 42% from 2014-15.”

The 2016 figure would, however, indicate more than double the acreage planted at its lowest point in 2012, when cultivation covered 301 square miles, down from 656 square miles in 2001.

On the ground in Colombia, coca cultivation has been facilitated by reduced eradication efforts and driven by producers and traffickers who see an opportunity amid the government’s peace-deal talks with left-wing rebels of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), which concluded in November and is now in the process of being implemented.

Several indicators suggest demand for cocaine in the US is also up.

us cocaine seizure

US Coast Guard members offload bails of over 8 tons of cocaine interdicted in international waters, from the Cutter Bernard C. Webber at Coast Guard Station Miami Beach, June 13, 2016, in Miami Beach. Associated Press/Wilfredo Lee

“There are troubling early signs that cocaine use and availability is on the rise in the United States for the first time in nearly a decade,” the US State Department wrote this month in its annual International Narcotics Control Strategy Report.

“According to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, there was an increase in cocaine seizures nationwide between 2014 and 2015, and the number of overdose deaths within the United States involving cocaine in 2015 was the highest since 2007,” the report said.

In this instance however, it may be a matter of the product chasing the consumer.

“Cocaine use here is up, but not up anywhere near as much as Andean supplies. There’s a glut of coca in Colombia right now,” Isacson told Business Insider, citing reports that growers in northeast Colombia were burying coca paste because they have no one to sell it to.

“As a result, traffickers are most probably trying to find new markets for their product,” he said.

Isacson identified several factors that have made the situation in Colombia more amenable to increased cultivation.

Colombia cocaine production