Standing knee high in a field of young green palm plants, Dionisio Flores Ortiz recalls how not long ago he and the farmers with plots around his would have been up to their waists in coca - the raw material for cocaine.
"Now we're going to be trafficking something else," he says, breaking into a smile as he pulls on a palm that will eventually be harvested for hearts of palm. "The farmers here just want to support their families and get a little ahead. As long as there's a market for these new products, this change can be permanent."
Mr. Flores - and several hundred other campesinos with land on the outskirts of this former stronghold of coca production in the Peruvian jungle - are part of a "change" with potential for strong repercussions in narcotics-consuming countries like the United States.
Once, along with neighboring Bolivia (the world's premier producer of coca), Peru over the last four years has cut production by 66 percent, according to the US State Department. Over the same period Bolivia's coca acreage has tumbled by more than half.
Today, Colombian President Andrs Pastrana is lobbying legislators in Washington for a $1.6 billion aid package aimed at stifling his country's coca industry - the fastest growing in the Andes region.
Just how this has been accomplished - and how permanent the success is - remains open to debate. Proponents of alternative development say a combination of stiff drug interdiction, illicit crop eradication, and stable markets for new crops can wean farmers from growing coca.
Critics insist the reduction to date has simply been market-driven, with a combination of lower demand in the US and rising production costs in traditional growing areas.
And the big question mark for both sides is Colombia. Land dedicated to coca production there skyrocketed nearly 150 percent in the four years ending in 1999. That jump limited the overall drop in Andean coca acreage dedicated to coca production to 15 percent.
Colombia's industrial-size coca plantations and a hot guerrilla war make for new challenges that coca's slayers in Peru and Bolivia don't face.
US and Peruvian officials insist illegal coca cultivation can be wiped out of Peru and the Andes in this decade. The key, they say, is the interdiction and alternative-development combination. Interdiction must eliminate farmers' attraction to growing coca. An integrated program of substitute crops, infrastructure, and marketing know-how is needed to give farmers a stable income alternative. And this is what is starting to happen, officials say.
"We've seen that this can work, but only if you have 'carrot and stick' applied in a careful combination," says Curtis Kamman, US ambassador in Colombia, who before was ambassador to Bolivia. "What you need is law enforcement convincing the campesinos that they risk their crops being eradicated, or risk being put in jail. But they will continue growing it," he adds, "if they don't have an alternative that provides a fairly assured income."
But people like Hugo Cabiesas, a narcotics-cultivation expert in Lima, say the "substantial decline in coca acreage" has only been "a virtual success," a temporary shift in supply and demand.
Interdiction did break up the air bridge traffickers used to ferry Peruvian coca to Colombia for processing into cocaine, says Mr. Cabiesas, while higher production costs on Peru's small plots also tarnished Peruvian coca's shine. Those factors drove the price of Peruvian coca (and thus production) down.
In Aguaytia, the fall in coca prices has opened a window of opportunity for alternative development. In addition to Flores's hearts of palm, farmers are developing a banana and plantain cooperative with their own label, and planting pineapples (one of the few crops that can be planted on former coca fields).
Some are also testing camu-camu, a berry-like fruit high in vitamin C that already has found a market in Japan.
But others say the sacrifice and patience asked of campesinos is taking a toll. "While we're getting production up and our markets established we don't have money to pay our workers," says Edgar Merino Alado, president of the Aguaytia area El Dorado plantain and banana cooperative. "Between that and the price of coca leaf going back up, some people are opting to go back to the mountains to harvest the coca fields the army missed."
With funding from the US government's USAID development program and the US-based Winrock International agricultural development institute, the El Dorado cooperative has begun raising more-resistant and productive plantain and banana varieties. The integrated program also includes new farming techniques, short-term income-producing projects for both men and women like road building, and training in national and international marketing.
"The assumption has been that these farmers will always be able to make a better living off coca, but we're proving that's not true," says David Bathrick, director of Winrock's Peru projects. Winrock studies comparing incomes from coca, traditional crops, and "new" crops show the latter offering a marked advantage over the first two.
Some development experts criticize the US-funded alternative-development program for being too heavy on infrastructure. But proponents like Ambassador Kamman emphasize that roads are vital. "You can carry several thousand dollars in cocaine paste through the jungle on your back," notes "but not thousands of dollars in bananas or other fruit." For that, he adds, you need roads.
Yet even optimists see stiff challenges ahead. For one thing, coca eradication has been focused on areas where coca cultivation was the least established and where crop-substitution efforts had the best chance of success.
"Now," says ta US official in Lima "we're going to be hitting areas where resistance to eradication and alternative development could be greater."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society