Sembrando Vida, Illicit Crops & Rural Violence in Mexico
In February 2019, the Mexican federal government began implementing Sembrando Vida (Sowing Life). Considered one of the priority programs of the six-year term of Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO), this policy sought to address two problems detected in rural areas of the country: poverty and environmental degradation.
Sembrando Vida consists of the distribution of a direct monthly support of 5,000 pesos to people who comply with a series of requirements, including a commitment, signed in writing, not to engage in “illicit productive or commercial activities”.
This last requirement points to the fact that, in certain regions of Mexico, Sembrando Vida, in addition to fighting poverty and preserving the environment, follows another unspoken objective: the voluntary substitution of illicit crops – mainly poppy and marijuana – for legal crops and tree planting.
By December 2021, 10% of Sembrando Vida’s beneficiaries were located in 46 municipalities with a history of illicit crops distributed among Chihuahua, Sinaloa, Durango, Nayarit, Guerrero and Oaxaca.
In Mexico, the generation of legal economic alternatives and subsidies by the federal government, with a commitment not to get involved in illicit activities, is an unprecedented undertaking. After more than a century in which state policy focused exclusively on the forced eradication of crops – through aerial spraying or manual destruction – Sembrando Vida was intended as a departure from the traditional coercive policy to reduce the supply of illegal drugs.
However, three years after the program’s launch, illicit crop destruction campaigns – also operated by the federal government – are far from over. Between 2019 and 2021, the armed forces report having destroyed 35,419 hectares (ha) of poppy and 6,709 of marijuana as part of their “operations to combat drug trafficking,” which involve the deployment of around 3,500 elements throughout the year. Although these areas represent approximately half of what was destroyed during the previous three years – 74,511 ha of poppy and 12,371 of marijuana between 2016 and 2018 -, it should be noted that the proportion of the area destroyed increased after spraying with Paraquat, a non-selective herbicide banned in several countries for its potential harmfulness to health – from 15% between 2016 and 2018 to 20% between 2019 and 2021.
Since the start of program implementation in these municipalities, we observed an overall reduction in the area planted with legal crops at the same time as an increase in production value. Depending on the contexts, this trend reflects an increase in producer prices and/or an improvement in yields, but no substantial change in the types of legal crops planted is observed. On the other hand, the areas of illicit crops destroyed by the authorities decreased, as a result of a possible reduction in the areas cultivated with poppy and marijuana and/or a reduction in the efforts of the Armed Forces to destroy them. There was also a decrease in homicides in most municipalities, but an increase in the use of firearms to perpetrate them.
However, the research conducted for this report allowed us to identify information gaps that continue to hinder the understanding of the cultivation of plants declared illicit in Mexico, as well as the possible relationship of this phenomenon with the implementation of Sembrando Vida. First, the absence of open data at the municipal level on the cultivation – and not the destruction – of poppy and marijuana prevents us from monitoring the areas planted and harvested, yields or producer prices.
These are basic variables for monitoring any type of crop and are collected by SIAP in the case of legal crops in Mexico. In other countries, they are also generated for declared illicit crops from satellite images and field work. In Colombia, for example, the Ministry of Justice and Law publishes annual data at the municipal level on the areas under cocaine cultivation and even the cartographic files with which it measures crop density are detected by the “Integrated Illicit Crop Monitoring System” (SIMCI) since 1999 and with the support of UNODC (UNODC). Similarly, the project “Monitoring Opium Production in Afghanistan”, also promoted by UNODC, publishes data since 1994 on poppy production at the district level in that country. In Mexico, although there is a similar program – the project “MEXK54 Monitoring System of Illicit Cultivation in the Mexican Territory” – UNODC and the Mexican government only publish an annual report with aggregate estimates by region and no open data at the local level.
Second, it should be noted that, although the Mexican federal government presents Sembrando Vida as a program that encourages voluntary substitution of illicit crops and that beneficiaries commit in writing not to engage in “illicit activities,” the truth is that, since its launch in 2019, this component is not formally mentioned in the program’s rules of operation. Its inclusion is essential for external monitoring and evaluation of Sembrando Vida against previously established objectives and goals in the matter.
Finally, our report shows that it is essential for the Mexican federal government to be more open in accessing program data, so that external monitoring and evaluation of Sembrando Vida against previously established objectives and goals can be carried out.