Cocoa Not Coca, Peru’s President Tells Growers In World’s Cocaine Capital

After decades of aborted attempts, Peru is backtracking from a fractious policy of coca-leaf eradication by promoting its growers to plant alternative crops in its turbulent top-producing region.

The U.S. has strong-armed the Andean nation, now the world’s top producer of the coca-leaf – the raw ingredient in cocaine – for over three decades in its trillion-dollar ‘war on drugs’.

Though fumigating the land of local coca-leaf growers (cocaleros) has increased social conflict and is deemed largely a failure by experts.

This month President Ollanta Humala announced a “productive restructuring” strategy, that plans to convert 5,000 hectares (about 12,000 acres) of coca leaves to alternatives such as coffee and cocoa in the restive  Apurimac and Ene River Valley (VRAE).

It aims to incentivise the voluntary take-up of licit crops, quashing the drug traffickers, and develop the local economy.

“These policies are adapting to the realities that confront us,” said a high-ranking politician, Vladimiro Huaroc to the state news agency, Andina, last week.

Cocaine Capital

The troubled VRAE is considered the epicentre of world’s coca production, occupying about 20,500 hectares, or 54 percent of Peru’s coca output according to the government.

The Apurimac river which travels through the VRAE region. Vertiginous valleys and thick vegetation characterise the area. (CC)
The Apurimac river which travels through the VRAE region. Vertiginous valleys and thick vegetation characterise the area. (CC)

That’s equivalent to almost of Bolivia, or half of Colombia’s production, following the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime’s latest figures.

It too is the refuge of Peru’s largely neutered, though lingering terrorist insurgency, Shining Path that roiled the country in the 1980s and 1990s.

The valley still sees regular violent clashes – over 100 soldiers and policemen have been killed since 2008 – and until 2006 was out of government control.

But in a step change in policy, President Humala, a former army officer, fired his anti-drug czar this month and put the agriculture ministry in charge to rebuild relations with the embattled growers.

Humala confidante Luis Alberto Otarola has replaced Carmen Masias, who planned a militarised eradication effort for later this year and was considered in Washington’s pocket.

It has earmarked at least 100 million soles ($35.7 million) to help the estimated 10,000 smallholders in the VRAE.

Though it’s been economical on the details of its rolling out.

Crop development

“We want to create a legion of businesspeople capable of marketing lawful crops for export”, said Mr Otarola, the new head of the National Commission for Development of Life and Drugs (Devida) last week.

At best, it may break the poor farmers’ long dependency on drug traffickers.

Economically it’s a tough sell, however.

Coca plantings are lucrative and can be harvested four times a year, whereas coffee and cocoa are farmed just once a year.

Consecutive years of poor harvests blighted by the coffee rust plant disease, puts pressure on a return to coca moreover.

Up to 70 percent of the 15,000 hectares of coffee cultivated by 8,000 producers were wrecked by rust last year, said the ex-president of the River Apurimac Valley Coffee Producers Agrarian Cooperative (CACVRA, in its Spanish initials), Adrian Arestegui. Growers can’t meet orders.

“Atarola needs to put money to promote intermediate markets in Huancayo, Huamanga and Cuzco, the three most important regional markets for VRAE products,” said Ricardo Soberon, Peru’s former antinarcotics chief and founder of the Center for the Investigation of Drugs and Human Rights (CIDDH), by phone in Lima.

Humala said $214 million would be made available to build roads in the remote valley to help farmers get alternative crops to market.

President Humala (centre) visiting the village of Yuveni in the coca-growing region of Cuzco near to the VRAE, in April 2012.  (CC)
President Humala (centre) visiting the village of Yuveni in the coca-growing region of Cuzco near to the VRAE, in April 2012. (CC)

“The second generation of people whose relatives were caught up in the violence between Shining Path and government forces have very little trust in what is coming from the state. They are still waiting on economic measures in the form of loans, good crop prices, markets,” he added, offering his support for the move away from eradication.

The official figures say about 70,000 people died in the violence between government forces and the Shining Path insurgency who espoused an extreme version of Maoist ideology.

Replacing a culture

But eradication won’t be going away just yet.

Peru plans to destroy 30,000 hectares in total this year to comply with funds it receives from the U.S. It destroyed 23,947 in 2013, in turn a 17.5 percent reduction on a year earlier.

A shift to a policy of collaboration rather than conflict will heal wounds within these hard-to-reach communities that feel little affinity with policymakers in its imperious capital, Lima, far away on the Pacific coast.

Coca leaves are grown legally in Peru, and can help with ailments from altitude sickness to menstrual pains. They are the key component of cocaine. (CC)
Coca leaves are grown legally in Peru, and can help with ailments from altitude sickness to menstrual pains. They are the key component of cocaine. (CC)

“The issue is not just to replace one crop with another crop, but replace an economy and culture for another economy and culture, that makes it sustainable over time,” said Hugo Cabieses, an agro-economist and boardmember of the CIDDH.

The government has been too myopic in its headline grabbing focus on coca-leaf production, Cabieses added. “It’s not only about drugs, but illegal mining, logging or the trafficking of persons in these difficult to access areas. Full developmental integration is needed.”

Peru’s reforming strategy needs to be fleshed out and has to overcome the tough economic logic of the coca-leaf, though the mood is of cautious optimism, Mr Soberon adds.

“Let’s see how they take the first steps to create good conditions for change.”

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