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Peruvian Farmers Swap Coca for Cocoa

By Douglas J. Gillert
American Forces Press Service

LIMA, Peru, Jan. 13, 1998 – Before it was the United States' biggest supplier of illegal cocaine, Peru was a major exporter of chocolate. Thanks to increasingly successful interdiction of narcotraffickers and an alternative crop plan, some coca farmers here once more produce candy for the mouth instead of the nose.

While Peru remains the largest cultivator of coca processed into cocaine and smuggled into the United States, the numbers are down, said Peter Deinken of the U.S. Agency for International Development. "As of the end of 1996, total coca production was 94,400 hectares [one hectare equals 2.47 acres]," Deinken said. "We think this is a tremendous success story, because it represents an 18 percent drop from 1995. This is due to a successful interdiction effort that has caused the price of coca leaf to collapse."

CIA estimates that $17.50 per bushel is the break-even point for coca farmers. Since 1995, however, Peruvian coca has sold for less than $15 a bushel.

"As long as interdiction is successful, coca production will continue to decline," Deinken said. "Farmers will grow something else or simply not tend coca crops anymore."

This is where USAID comes into play.

While DoD provides the principal U.S. support to interdiction, USAID complements these successful efforts with an alternative development program that encourages coca farmers to cultivate cacao, coffee and other legal crops. The plan also provides financial support for various community improvements the mostly poor coca farmers have never enjoyed -- new roads, electrical power, schools and clinics, for example. Deinken coordinates the program from Lima.

Congress funded $107 million for alternative development in Peru through 2001, and has to date obligated $45 million. USAID serves as the financing agent but works closely with the Peruvian government to design the program. "We monitor it constantly and modify and change it as necessary," Deinken said. "Only communities that aggressively turn away from coca production will accrue these benefits."

Here's some of what the plan has accomplished:

  • Basic services and local government assistance -- Includes construction of 70 schools, 25 potable water systems, 20 health posts and 24 other community activities. Thousands of elected municipal officials, community leaders and employees received training in basic government and community services. And more than 230 communities signed agreements to reduce coca production by 16,300 hectares by 2001.
  • Economic activities -- Several U.S. and international contract agencies received USAID grants to support agricultural production and marketing of alternative crops. For example, one program provides $10 million to help 11,000 farmers produce and market 26,000 hectares of coffee, cacao, rice, corn and other farm products.
  • Improved economic infrastructure -- More than 380 kilometers of roads have been rehabilitated, 12 bridges built, two flood control structures built, two irrigation systems installed and a hydroelectric system constructed, benefiting more than 25,000 families.
  • Social communication -- Radio announcements and posters highlight the USAID-backed, Peruvian government-administered effort to inform people about the full range of projects. "We want people to be aware of the problems coca cultivation brings into a community, and the benefits they'll gain by taking advantage of the alternative development program," Deinken said.

Environmental issues also loom large in USAID's anti-coca efforts. Coca prospers at higher altitudes along eastern Andean slopes. With no crop rotation and coca's severe soil drainage requirements, erosion is rampant, Deinken said.

Unfortunately, coca's cultivation zone also is where Peru's ancient hardwood rain forests thrive. "A lot of those forests have been devastated because the poor people from the Andean highlands moved down there when the price of coca leaf was very high," Deinken said. "Colombian traffickers would come down and give them satchels full of cash to get them started, then buy all their product. So they were madly chopping down that jungle as much as they could."

Whether widening and repairing roads or funding new crops, USAID planners follow strict environmental guidelines to protect and, where possible, repair the Peruvian ecology. "As part of our legislation and AID regulations, we do environmental impact studies on things that have a potential of causing problems," Deinken said. "We don't build new roads, and even when improving existing roads, we have to take into account whether it's going to create greater traffic and easier access to fragile forest areas."

If ecological balance is slowly returning the fragile rain forests, so is community life becoming more balanced and "normal" in those places where coca is no longer king. "At the height of coca production, many of these communities resembled the Wild West," Deinken said. "Where they have curtailed illicit coca production, there now are fewer nightclubs and more family-type activities you'd expect in a small rural village."

As long as interdictions succeed in keeping the cost of coca down, Deinken added, farmers will willingly grow other crops. "Our programs are complementary," he said. "The interdiction effort changes the set of incentives for farmers, and the alternative development program gives them a better way to make a living."

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