The move from coca to cocoa is starting to take root in parts of Peru. The shift from the raw material used to make the drug cocaine, to the beans from which another addictive substance - chocolate - is made, has faced resistance. Recent United Nations figures show Peru has overtaken Colombia as the world’s number one cocaine producer. But now, the alternative crop of coffee is making an impact in some Peruvian communities which once dedicated themselves to supplying the lucrative international drug trade. Coffee may now be a “sweet alternative” to cocaine.
Peru is the world’s ninth producer of coffee. But what it lacks in quantity, it makes up for in quality, winning international accolades. Although its coffee was once scorned by high-end buyers, Peru is now the first producer of organic and fair trade coffee, and these beans are the toast of the organic coffee world.
It has taken decades for coffee to take root on the lush slopes of Peru´s eastern Andes.The high jungle terrain is perfect for growing coffee. It also happens to be ideal coca growing country--the fast growing leaf used to make cocaine.
The San Martin region was once the stronghold of the Shining Path, a violent guerrilla group that, in the 1980s and 90s, fought a brutal war against the government, leaving tens of thousands dead. To fund their war, the Shining Path forced peasants to grow coca plants to make and sell the very profitable cocaine.
That reign of terrorcontinued until the capture of Artemio, one of surviving leaders of the group, earlier this year.
Jochen Wiese has headed the UN’s alternative development program in San Martin for almost three decades. He explained the hardships this area endured under the Shining Path:
“From 1985 up to 1993/94, the Shining Path was in all the areas where we worked, it was pretty difficult. Just because of these problems we had to adapt and get the right approach and the way we did it was to organize the people and work through farmer organizations. It was the only way to stay here to work, because there wasn’t any other state presence, there was just nothing.”
But little by little, remote communities entrenched in the cocaine trade are giving way to the coffee and chocolate alternatives.In Bolson Cuchara, the community’s decision to change crops seems to be like a religious conversion. Congregating in the village church, community members listened in rapt silence as community leader Leandro Ocana eulogized the new path they’ve chosen.
It’s no surprise that Leandro Ocana also doubles as the village pastor.
Once a radical coca farming leader, his transition to the alternative path is complete.Caught between the authorities who wanted to destroy their crops and the dangerous drug-traffickers who purchased them, the district shunnedthe outside world.
“We all want to be part of a legal economy, we don’t want to live looking over our shoulders anymore, because not living legally is living in fear; hiding from the authorities out there in the bush or under the bed”, Ocana said. “We want to enjoy absolute freedom, we want to sleep without having to lock the door and that’s something on which the whole community agrees. We’ve got to take care of our own security.”
But today, the farmers talk enthusiastically about growing cocoa together as a community. And they are seeing quick, concrete and tangible benefits from this transition. FlavioMirella, head of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime for Peru, noted that, whereas coca was a lucrative cash crop in the past, growing cocoa offers new services that are “coming into full bloom” in the community.
“We’re seeing the beginning of a major change here”, avers Mirella. “We’re looking at an area which was completely outside, despite the fact that it was next door to one of the major provincial centers in the country and it was a haven for drug trafficking, for terrorism. But now the prospects are quite different. I think we’re witnessing a major shift, and it is thanks to the technical assistance, it’s thanks to a communal sense that they want to move on.”
Local farmer Felipe Cachique is feeling that shift after years of growing coca on his land.But it’s no easy task to make the change to organic cocoa trees from which chocolate is made.The coca plants have drained his land of nutrients and he’s toiled to restore it with natural fertilizers. But still, Cachique says, at the end of the day, it’s worth it:
“I feel calmer working with cocoa because it’s a legal crop, not like coca which is illegal which means the authorities give you problems on the road to market, sometimes they would confiscate your harvest which was pretty annoying. With cacao life is more peaceful, I can go wherever I want and no one stops me.”
And, getting on the right side of the law has its benefits.The success of the alternative crops drive here has prompted the UNODC to call it the ‘San Martin model.’The latest UN figures show alternative crops - close to 800 sq. kilometers now cover more of Peru than coca fields. What’s more, the farmers who’ve opted for growing coffee or chocolate are beginning to feel the reward in their pockets.Household income for cooperative farmers quintupled in the last decade as international demand for Peruvian coffee and chocolate grows. The San Martin region was once a no-go zone, especially for the police. Now thanks to better law enforcement it’s more peaceful and cocoa is taking root.
Europeans were the first to turn cocoa into chocolate. But now botanists are rediscovering Peru’s original cocoa varieties which have the potential to be turned into hundreds of new exquisite chocolate flavors for the most demanding palates.German botanist, Julia Kieck thinks Peru could be to chocolate what France is to wine.Kieck is doing research for Hamburg University and Germany’s top chocolatier, Rausch.
“(Rausch) produce(s) single origin chocolate from ten different countries and one of these countries is Peru”, said Kieck. “This is very important. They are the largest producer of only fine cocoa in Europe.”
To replace the hardy coca leaf the United States Agency For International Development, USAID helped the Peruvians to introduce a type of cocoa of comparable productivity – a hybrid variety known as CCN-51. The International Cocoa Organization considers it to be a ‘bulk’ rather than ‘fine flavor’ chocolate. But increasingly scientists are looking for more than just a good yield.
The question now is whether Peru and Mother Nature can produce enough fine chocolate and coffee for the expanding worldwide demand.While the Europeans are still the biggest consumers of high-end chocolate, Jochen Wiese says Asia is catching up fast:
“This is chocolate made from 60% pure cocoa this is the newest market in Europe and growing markets in India and China directly imitate this behavior and they start with bitter, fine chocolate, they don’t start with the normal chocolate.”
Meanwhile, the emerging economic giants are also beginning to switch their morning cup of tea for coffee.Investment bank, Barclays Capital, predicts China’s coffee consumption will grow by as much as 40% annually for the next few years.That demand could provide just the push that Peru’s jungle farmers need to drop their cocaine habit.