Truth, memory and the drug war: uncovering conflict narratives of coca farmers in Colombia's Putumayo region

Lead Research Organisation: University of Bristol
Department Name: Politics


What is the impact of the global drug war on the contemporary Colombian conflict? Colombia has started a period of transition and peacebuilding. The establishment of a truth commission (TC) is a meaningful step towards reconstructing an inclusive historical memory and building a sustainable, transformative peace. I had the privilege of carrying out fieldwork at Colombia's TC for my MPhil which investigates how the drug war features in conflict narratives and historical memory. This interdisciplinary project will develop my existing research collaboration with the TC to collect and analyse testimony in regions impacted by drug war-related violence, to understand how Colombians' experiences and memories of contemporary conflict have been shaped by counter-drug and security policies.

The focus of this project is coca farmers in Putumayo. The department has long been a strategic area of control for the armed actors in Colombia's conflict due to the prevalence of natural resources (O'Shaughnessy and Branford, 2005). Farmers face multiple forms of oppression derived from i) poverty, ii) involvement in illegal industry, iii) chemical aerial fumigation, and, iv) armed conflict (GMH, 2012; Ramirez, 2017; Dejusticia, 2017). My masters research reveals that the drug war has largely been neglected by both grassroots groups and state-sanctioned reports (see the Historical Commission (2015) and the National Centre for Historical Memory (NCHM)) in memory-seeking initiatives trying to open up Colombia's recent history. Furthermore, the TC has no focus on coca farmers within its investigations to address the root causes of conflict. I hope to create opportunities for this marginalised group to be heard, formally by the commission and through wider public engagement.

- Research aim and research questions

This project seeks to answer:
1) How do drugs and drug policy feature in the conflict narratives of farmers in Putumayo?
2) Have farmers in Putumayo experienced changes in violence, or social and political conditions, due to counter-drug and security policies?
3) In what ways have counter-drug and security policies changed the pre-existing dynamics of conflict?
The overall objective is to provide a nuanced understanding of how the drug war has shaped the contemporary Colombian conflict, to contribute to advancing knowledge about root causes of conflict and feed into the 'National Dialogue for Truth' within the transitional justice process. To achieve this, I aim to collect and analyse new testimonies from coca farmers in Putumayo. These memories are at the interfaces of economic structures that caused and sustained conflict and the violence that appears as its 'symptoms', which as international transitional justice (TJ) experience from contexts such as South Africa and Cambodia demonstrate, are often overlooked. Collaboration will create dialogue and strengthen relationships between this community, the TC and local partners. The findings are intended to contribute to the TC's final report, its recommendations to the Colombian government with regards to drug policy, and implementation stages - including through education -, to stimulate long-term change.


10 25 50

Studentship Projects

Project Reference Relationship Related To Start End Student Name
ES/P000630/1 01/10/2017 30/09/2027
2220723 Studentship ES/P000630/1 01/10/2019 30/09/2022 Mary Louise Ryder