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Organic cocoa, not cocaine

Oliver Ristau / lbh
December 17, 2013

Where the coca plant and drug mafia once ruled, one region in Peru has introduced sustainable cocoa farming. Former drug farmers have become experts on organic production and fair trade.

Close up photo of cocoa beans Photo: Oliver Ristau
Image: O. Ristau

"This is how you harvest coca." In one quick move, Adan Rivera grips the branches of the dry plant and strips the leaves free. He laughs and lets them fall to the ground. For Rivera, harvesting coca is a thing of the past. At one point in time here - 1,000 kilometers (620 miles) east of Lima - cocaine was king when the drug mafia and Marxist guerrillas of "Sendero Luminoso" (Shining Path), dominated this hot, fertile region between the Andes and the Amazon basin.

Back then Rivera worked - like most of the people in the province of San Martin - on a coca plantation. "Coca grew from here to the horizon," Rivera recalls. But his smile fades when he talks about the past. "We were still kids," he said. "One day we were standing with our family and friends on the street when a delivery van stopped, and uniformed men jumped out." They locked a few men in the back and drove away. "A few days later, the men's bodies were found - without their hands."

Das Wunder von San Martín Bio-Kakao-Anbau in Peru Photo: Oliver Ristau / DW
Adan Rivera remembers all too well how to harvest the coca plant for cocaineImage: O. Ristau

Rivera doesn't know why the men were murdered, but he does know who was responsible: "The uniformed men were from Sendero Luminoso." The farmers distrusted the organization, which had planned a tactical march from the Peruvian Andes' eastern tropical flank to the country's capital, Lima. The group always made a bloody example of alleged "counter-revolutionaries." Back then, Rivera was always scared to go outside.

Today things are different. Rivera's children attend school in neighboring San Jose de Sisa, about an hour by car from the provincial capital, Tarapoto. Rivera is a foreman on a plantation that grows organic cocoa. It belongs to the German firm Forest Finance, which invests in sustainable cocoa. "High-quality cocoa has always grown in Peru," said company president, Harry Assenmacher. "We want to continue this tradition."

Nature photo of landscape of San Martín in Peru Photo: Oliver Ristau / DW
The town of Tingo Maria was once a cocaine strongholdImage: O. Ristau

Poverty rate slashed

In the more recent past, however, the country neglected its legendary cocoa production. "From the 1980s until the middle of the 1990s, Peru was the world's largest cocoa producer," said Fernando Rey, director of Peruvian anti-drug commission Devida. The commission's goal is to discourage cocaine production in Peru. Soldiers guard the entrance of the organization's office, which is located in a nondescript high-rise in Lima's business district, Surco.

Rey knows he's got a difficult job, although Columbia has since dethroned Peru of its dubious ranking as number one cocaine producer in the world. Together with neighbor Bolivia, the three countries round out the "golden triangle" of the international cocaine mafia. Although cocaine production in remote southeastern Peru continues to flourish, the change in the province of San Martin has been a model of success.

Rey speaks of the "Miracle of San Martin." "Today the region provides 12,000 tons - or one-third of the Peruvian cocoa supply." Peru is the 12th-largest producer of cocoa in the world, number two after the Dominican Republic, when it comes to organic cocoa production. "In the last 10 years the poverty rate has dropped from 70 percent to 31 percent." Business has boomed here, above and beyond every other region in this Andean nation.

Portrait of Francisco Rodriguez, cocoa farmer in San Martín, Peru Photo: Oliver Ristau / DW
Former coca farmer Francisco Rodriguez is now an expert on organic cocoa plantsImage: O. Ristau

In addition to government investment in schools, streets and security, the success is a result of the booming agricultural production. The land used for agricultural purposes has doubled. Today farmers plant coffee, cocoa, rice and palms and reap benefits from higher world market prices. In recent years the EU has pumped 36 million euros ($49 million) into the region. But the drug problem is far from solved.

"The drug routes are changing," said the director of Devida. "Peruvian cocaine that was previously destined for the United States is now being channeled through Brazil and Africa to Europe."

New schools

Beyond San Martin's borders, the neighboring province Huanuco has also ushered in a new era. Tingo Maria, the provincial capital of 55,000, is home to El Naranjillo, one of the largest organic cocoa cooperatives in Latin America.

The city is a former cocaine-stronghold. Farmers in the area were not only planters, recalls Franciso Rodriguez. "Many used to have their own laboratories. With chlorine and benzene they created a white cocaine paste from the coca leaves."

Rodriguez hails from the village Huayhuantillo, whose seven families have shifted production over the years from coca to organic cocoa. Many of the cooperative's 2000 members have followed this path. "The transition was tough," said Francisco Rodriguez. "It took a few years. Cocoa is more demanding and earns less than coca. But the business is legal and safe."

In Huayhuantillo the new primary school and the manicured lawn of the village square, with its new wooden stage, are evidence of the transition's success. There's no garbage in the streets, the homes are connected to septic tanks for wastewater; there's no comparison to the other villages with their miserable huts on stilts. "They still farm coca," Rodriguez said. The cooperative not only pays the farmers an allowance of 50 cents per kilogram of the regular world market price. It also provides free health care and helps children attend school.

Customers of the cooperative include the Fair Trade organization GEPA and organic food chain Naturland in Germany. The two now purchase about a quarter of their chocolate supply from Peru's former drug producers. The farmers are proud to have survived the transition and to have escaped the constant trouble with coca buyers, terrorists and the military, which had dominated their daily lives. It hasn't been that long ago: They remember all too well how to harvest the coca plant.

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