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From coca to coffee in Peru

Under the cover of night, a small group of coca farmers work quickly, loading sacks into waiting lorries and small river boats. Here, in the Lower Huallaga Valley of Peru, each 50 kilogram sack of fresh coca leaves or coca paste is transferred to the infamous 'narcos'- the drug traffickers. Trucks and boats transport the cargo to cocaine laboratories outside the coca cultivation areas, usually along the Peruvian coastline near major ports and fishing villages. From here it enters the US$70 billion global cocaine market, which supplies an estimated 13 million users world-wide.

A fatal attraction

Palm oil plant in lower Huallaga, Peru, where former coca growers turned shareholders sold US$ 5.2 million worth of palm oil in 2006 (UNODC)
Palm oil plant in lower Huallaga, Peru, where former coca growers turned shareholders sold US$ 5.2 million worth of palm oil in 2006

Peru is the world's second largest producer of coca leaves and cocaine, extracted from fresh leaf tips; the country produces 180 metric tons of cocaine each year. The coca plant, from the family Erythroxylaceae, is native to Peru's Andes mountains. The leaves are part of indigenous culture, where they are chewed, made into tea, or used as a medicinal plant. Coca leaves have been praised by Peru's President, Alan Garcia Perez, for providing relief from sore throats and colds, and even for nutritional purposes - the President likened coca leaves to the herb rosemary. But there is a more destructive side to the drug's cultivation. Large-scale slash and burn agriculture reduces soil fertility and there are health implications as well. And while coca cultivation has remained relatively stable in Peru over the past five years, for the small-scale farmers that grow it, the illegal industry sparks violence, corruption, financial insecurity and the risk of arrest.

But what other options do small-scale Peruvian farmers have? Growing alternative crops is hampered with challenges: difficult market access due to poor infrastructure and low prices, combined with a lack of local agricultural services and private or government support. Given the illegal and insecure nature of the coca trade, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) has been trying to persuade farmers that, despite the drop in income of roughly US$750 per family each year, switching from coca cultivation to alternative crops has advantages. These include improved community security, increased soil fertility, higher land values and escape from exploitation by drug traffickers.

Alternative programmes introduced by UNODC have already benefited 1,300 families in the Lower Huallaga Valley, cultivating roughly 2,800 hectares of alternative crops such as organic tea, rubber, tropical fruit and oil palm. The UN office has also stressed the need to develop a broad range of products, including organic or fair-trade labels, to secure a better price in unpredictable commodity markets such as coffee. Local communities have formed co-operatives to improve their cultivation practices and their chances of supplying more lucrative export markets.

Wake up and smell the coffee

Oro Verde trademark logo (used in publicity campaigns and on coffee packets sold in Peru and abroad) (Oro Verde)
Oro Verde trademark logo (used in publicity campaigns and on coffee packets sold in Peru and abroad)
Oro Verde

The Oro Verde Coffee Co-operative, established in 1999, now has over 200 families producing high quality organic and fair-trade coffee for the export market. With advice from UNODC on sustainable cultivation, farmers are trained to manage soil fertility and plant disease, while preserving the unique characteristics of the coffee bean to make their own brand of Oro Verde coffee. Ten years ago, Hernan del Aguila Canayo, a small-scale farmer with a wife and six children, sold coca leaf to drug traffickers in the Lower Huallaga Valley, who provided him with the necessary chemicals to produce cocaine. . Now he cultivates coffee, marketed through the Oro Verde co-operative. "We receive better prices. My wife and I live without fear, and spend more time with our children," he says. For Marcelino Tapullima Pashanasi, joining the co-operative has been "the best way to continue with coffee production and to never think of coca again."

While coffee production in Peru remains small compared to neighbouring Brazil and Colombia, coffee exports from Peru are growing fast, by as much as 32 per cent between 2005 and 2006. Ten per cent of exported coffee comes from UNODC-supported enterprises, the UN office providing assistance in management practices and quality control, as well as advice on export standards and environmental protection. So far, the signs are encouraging that for Peru's coca farmers, a legal and financially rewarding alternative might have been found. Last year the Oro Verde Co-operative celebrated an annual increase in income of over 40 per cent, bringing the total to over US$1.3 million.

With contributions from: Aldo Lale-Demoz, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime

Date published: May 2007


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