Peru farmers drop cocaine in favor of cocoa
Tapping into a niche market for organic cocoa, some Peruvian farmers have turned away from cocaine in favor of growing beans for high-end chocolate retailers in Europe and the US.
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In the late 1990s, various foreign aid groups ushered in programs that taught San Martin coca farmers how to grow alternative crops, but didn't do much to connect them with the niche markets that brought the best prices, and rarely coordinated with one another. The result was a damaging lack of trust that led many communities to kick out the groups, says Darwin Aguila Solano, the San Martin regional director for Chemonics, a Washington-based firm contracted by the US Agency for International Development to help the region develop its cocoa and coffee industries.Skip to next paragraph
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"When we started, people didn't like us," says Mr. Solano, explaining that peasant farmers thought they would be taught to grow crops that weren't profitable. Farmers often turn to growing coca to pull themselves out of poverty, he notes.
So in 2003, Solano just listened. His group organized events where local civic groups and leaders could gather and list their top concerns and needs. "We're facilitators, not bosses," says Solano. "We focused on getting the active participation of the people and their organizations, and we had to get agreement with the local government."
Another key was synergy. Solano's group brought all major stakeholders – heads of local government, Peruvian and US drug enforcement and development officials, and foreign aid groups – into one room. The goal was to avoid duplicating efforts or working at cross purposes. "It wasn't easy," says Solano, noting that USAID at one point threatened to pull money out of the effort if nongovernmental groups didn't cooperate.
Market fundamentals were also crucial. "NGOs often promote welfare-ism or paternalism," says Solano. Farmers are asked to produce something "without knowing if there's really a market for it. We needed to start with the market demand in order to [know what to] produce."
Today, the approach is paying off. One cocoa cooperative in the Juanjui area of San Martin, for example, exported 2,000 metric tons of top-quality organic cocoa last year, up from 190 metric tons in 2003.
"The Organization of American States came here for 10 days and said: 'We have a model,' " says Solano.
Similar principles have been applied to coffee, with equally impressive results. Coffee farmers in the village of Alto Shamboyaku now make more than double what they made for a bag of coffee in the 1980s, selling it to the Oro Verde (Green Gold) fair trade cooperative.
"We don't care about coca now," says Tercero Salas, the mayor of the small community. "We know we can get a good price growing coffee."
The Oro Verde cooperative exports 10 times as much top-rate coffee as it did in 2000 and nearly 100 times as much cocoa, says manager Hiderico Bocangel Cabala.
"The highlands are happy about coffee. The lowlands are happy about cocoa. I'm happy about both," says Mr. Cabala.
"The miracle of Oro Verde is the people who want to be their own boss, to be entrepreneurs," he says. "Poverty is not in the land, it's in people's minds."
• Matthew Clark traveled to Peru on a Gatekeepers trip organized by the International Reporting Project.