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LIMA, Peru – In Peruvian regions traditionally identified with the harvesting of coca leaves, the strategy to combat production of cocaine has taken a 180-degree turn in recent years.
The coca farmers, who for years fought eradication efforts of their coca crops, have changed their attitudes thanks to the Alternative Development Program (PDA), driven by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).
The premise of the PDA, which currently operates in the regions of San Martín, Huanuco, Ayacucho, and soon in Ucayali, is simple: abandon coca harvesting in exchange for technical and financial support to grow coffee and cocoa plants in addition to aid to improve the region’s infrastructure.
“Since 2002, when the program started, more than 800 communities have joined the PDA,” said Andrew Herscowitz, the acting director of USAID in Peru. “And all at an investment of only US$31 million in eight years.”
Herscowitz added: “When we come to a town, we commit to the whole community to leave the coca crops and then each farmer chooses the product he or she wants. With these conditions, these two crops are the strongest choices."
In 2009, 1,100 new hectares of coffee were planted, adding to the existing 3,885 hectares already in use by PDA beneficiaries.
But the development of cocoa in the jungle region of San Martín has outshined other areas.
In San Martín, the 6,000 hectares (14,826 acres) of coca leaf that were voluntarily destroyed are now being used by 39,000 farmers from 533 communities to grow 13,000 hectares (32,123 acres) of cocoa. In just five years, San Martín became the largest producer of cocoa in Peru, displacing Cusco, which recorded 8,000 hectares (19,768 acres) in 2008.
“We are a reference in the cocoa market, exporting quality organic beans for chocolate makers in the U.S., Canada, Switzerland and Holland,” said Iderico Bocángel, beneficiary of the PDA and the president of the Agricultural Cooperative Green Gold.
While in 2005 there were only 450 members in the cooperative, “today we have 1,200 producers,” Bocángel said. “Last year we exported 300 tons of cocoa, plus 16,000 quintals (3.527 million pounds) of coffee.”
“The coca farmer has features that have led us all to change because since the land was used to grow illegal crops, there was no culture of bank credit and it had a short-term mentality,” he said. “But after many lectures and trainings, we’ve adapted." And with that adaptation, the cooperative has created incentives for environmentally friendly and organic farming.
The farmers also are producing a great product. The cocoa that was produced by former coca growers of the PDA was named best in the world at the prestigious Salon du Chocolat in Paris, France in October 2009. The influx in revenue also caused San Martín’s poverty rate to fall from 68% in 2001 to 32% in 2008.
Wilder Díaz, a former coca grower who has since partnered with the Green Gold Cooperative, said he’s glad he switched to cultivating legal crops.
“We thirteen couples started in Pinto Recodo and we have grown over time,” he said. “It was hard at first, but we have learned to work the land again with love. But most important is that we live legally and without fear, and we could send our children to college.”