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From Black Gold to White Powder: How Cocaine Could Eclipse Oil in Colombia’s Export Race

Colombia, historically known for its oil exports, is on the verge of a significant economic pivot. It appears the nation’s top export might soon be replaced not by coffee, emeralds, or flowers, but by something far more controversial: cocaine.

Tracing back to 2013, Colombia’s cocaine industry was a mere blip on the economic radar, garnering a modest $2.2 billion in export revenues. However, a steady upswing over the years saw this figure balloon to an estimated $18.2 billion in 2022. In comparison, oil – the long-standing heavyweight of Colombian exports – brought in $19.1 billion. Given the declining trend in oil exports, which saw a 30% dip in just the first half of this year, alongside the robust growth in the cocaine sector, projections for 2023 indicate a major shakeup. The scales are tipping, and cocaine is poised to overtake oil in the revenue race.

Colombia’s status as the world’s primary cocaine producer isn’t new, but the volume has seen a resurgence. In 2022, the nation produced a staggering 1,738 tons of the drug with a street value approximated at $193 billion. Now, one might wonder, what’s driving this uptick?

The answer lies in a policy shift. Rather than the traditional method of eradicating coca bush farms, the Colombian government has opted for a targeted approach, zeroing in on the exporters and labs that process coca leaves into its notorious powdered form. This strategic decision has inadvertently led to a boon for coca growers, who’ve experienced a surge in crop yields. With over 230,000 hectares dedicated to the plant in 2022 and advancements in farming techniques, the nation’s coca bush cultivation is thriving.

Bloomberg’s economist, Felpi Hernandez, observes this trend from a pure numbers standpoint. “More bushes are reaching their full potential,” Hernandez notes. “There’s significant investment in modern farming practices, which has increased average crop yields from 4.3 tons of coca leaves per hectare in 2013 to 7.0 in 2020.”

For investors and entrepreneurs, these figures present a dual-edged sword. On one side, the growth in the cocaine industry has buoyed Colombia’s economy, contributing to a whopping 5.3% of the country’s GDP last year. But on the flip side, ethical considerations and long-term sustainability of an illicit trade might raise eyebrows in global economic circles.

As the dynamics of Colombia’s export landscape evolve, it underscores the complexities and challenges that nations grapple with, balancing economic interests with broader societal implications.