RESEARCHERS from Scotland’s Rural College have been awarded £122,000 for a project that will help the Colombian government in its war against cocaine farming.

Professor Andrew Barnes, from SRUC’s Land Economy Research department, has been given the funding by the UK Newton Research Fund to work in collaboration with the Centre of International Tropical Agriculture, and the universities of Reading, Leeds and Bristol, to help Colombian farmers move into clean and sustainable alternatives to the coca plant.

Coca, the raw material used in cocaine, has long been the major source of employment and cash payments for rural farmers who would otherwise struggle to support their families and sustain life in rural Colombia. It is a problem that has plagued the South American country’s rural community for decades.

In particular, Prof Barnes is involved in projects developing heat-tolerance in bean varieties that can replace the coca plant: “This is a great opportunity to help inform and reshape Colombian agricultural systems which are currently restructuring. This work will directly support households out of poverty and engage in income-generating technologies that will allow Colombian agriculture to finally sustain itself.”

But the initiative is not without its challenges – the farmers face the issue of trying to get new crops to the market over difficult terrain with less accessible roads, without the established relationship that the farmers have with cocaine dealers who are willing to come directly to their farms to collect the coca.

The Colombian government has put initiatives in place to support legal agriculture schemes, offering farmers training and support for alternative crop growing options as well as paying them a subsidy as a reward for not producing coca plants.

Prof Barnes’s project and research will work to support these incentives, which will include field work in Colombia, and will be carried out as a one-year pilot, which could be extended by a further two years if it proves successful.