Colombia: The Farmers Who Abandoned Coca for Cocoa
Corresponsal en Colombia para Inter Press Service.
Chocaguán Amazónico, a small peasant-run alternative crop company that emerged in the midst of Colombia’s cocaine boom and civil war, will celebrate its 15th birthday in September.
Chocaguán produces chocolate from cocoa beans grown in the Amazon by 115 members in the southern Colombian province of Caquetá. One-fifth of its members are women heads of households.
Catholic priest Giacinto Franzoi launched a crusade in this area 20 years ago: "No a la droga, sí al caucho y al cacao" (No to drugs, yes to rubber and cocoa).
The Italian missionary had arrived in 1978 in Remolino del Caguán, a jungle village on the Caguán river around 100 km southeast of Florencia, the provincial capital of Caquetá.
Coca arrived at around the same time. A few men, including a Vietnam War veteran from the U.S., brought the new type of seed, telling local residents that it would lift them out of poverty.
The promoters of the illicit crop jealously guarded the information on how to turn coca into cocaine. But the growers themselves eventually figured out how to process the leaves into coca paste, the intermediary step towards producing cocaine.
For years, coca paste was the main product of the village of Remolino del Caguán. The numbers of buyers multiplied and they competed among themselves, offering sums never before imagined by the local villagers.
"Those were crazy years. The farmers who had been left out of the bonanza asked us for coca seeds," local farmer Simeón Pérez tells Franzoi in the book "God and Cocaine: How a Missionary Survived in El Caguán", written by the priest and published this month in Bogotá.
In his book, Franzoi describes those times of boutiques and jewellery shops, the latest home appliances run on diesel generators, prostitution, clandestine airstrips and piles of cash that disappeared as easily as they had appeared.
The communist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), which in May celebrated its 45th anniversary and whose central demand was agrarian reform, had first arrived in Caquetá in 1964.
Beginning in 1962, the growing concentration of the best lands in the hands of a few was compounded by government incentives for settlers to clear forests in exchange for land titles and an expansion of the agricultural frontier.
One of the consequences was the rise of coca in the 1980s as the most profitable crop in remote areas, far from traditional crop transport hubs.
The Amazon jungle has paid a steep price for the drug trade and Colombia’s 45-year armed conflict.
During the coca boom years, money flowed freely in the area, said Rubén Darío Montes, the Chocaguán company’s legal representative and former president of the Committee of Cocoa Growers of Remolino del Caguán and Suncillas, the latter a tributary of the Caguán river.
"There was no control by the authorities," he recalled in an interview for this article.
But the first incursion by the anti-narcotics forces, in 1988, destroyed one of the 20 drug labs operating in the area at the time.
As the government began to crack down on drug crops, many people fled. But "Father Jacinto (as Franzoi is known in the area), the Remolino parish priest, began to think about what to do to keep local people from being displaced to the slums surrounding the cities," said Montes.
Eight people attended the first meeting held by the priest to discuss a switch to alternative crops, and in 1994 the Committee of Cocoa Growers and the Chocaguán company were officially registered. More farmers joined the effort over time.
Rubber, or natural latex, was ruled out because it takes eight years for the trees to start to produce, but improved varieties of cocoa can be harvested after a year and a half. The first bars of 500 grams of raw chocolate were manufactured in 1993.
The new chocolate factory defied the logic of the market.
In 1993, one ton of coca paste was sold every Sunday in Remolino, at 1,350 dollars a kilo, according to the exchange rate at the time. Meanwhile, the local cocoa growers sold a combined 20 to 50 kilos of cocoa beans a week to the recently-created Chocaguán, which paid them just 2.70 dollars a kilo.
At first, Chocaguán manufactured 50 small packets a week of nine little chocolate balls, with cinnamon or clove flavours.
Everyone bought them, even the guerrillas and the drug dealers. The business flourished. "Thanks to God, and the coca economy, we were able to sell everything we produced," commented Rodrigo Velaidez, an agronomist who specialises in cocoa and is an adviser to Chocaguán.
In 1996, the rural crisis caused by the liberalisation of trade devastated at least one-fifth of the area in Colombia planted with traditional crops and led to the loss of more than 300,000 rural jobs, according to Darío Fajardo, a former consultant to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO).
The crisis proved a boon to the coca industry, which continued to destroy Colombia’s jungles.
But the resulting oversupply of coca paste drove down prices, leading to marches in 1996 by coca growers who demanded action from the government to compensate their losses.
Initially, the FARC rejected coca. But when drug trafficking money began to finance the far-right paramilitary groups that were allied with the army in the counterinsurgency effort, the guerrillas began to take an active part in the business, to throw a wrench into the gears.
The U.S.-financed "Plan Colombia", launched in 2000, sought to cut the FARC’s drug revenues by destroying coca crops using aerial spraying with glyphosate, an herbicide.
Meanwhile, the members of Chocaguán gradually expanded their cocoa crops and acquired machinery to set up their factory in Remolino, using their own resources, aid from national and local governments, and international support drummed up by Franzoi.
Today, the company’s chocolate products are sold in Caquetá and neighbouring provinces, as well as the French international hypermarket chain Carrefour, through U.N. efforts, and health food shops.
Of the 200 hectares planted with cocoa bean, 70 are in production, belonging to half of the members, which supply Chocaguán with between three and 200 kilos of beans per week. Seven operators work at a time, of which three or four are women, to process the chocolate.
Now the company is planning to move part of the processing to the nearby town of Cartagena del Chairá, which will cut costs, reduce the risks of transporting the product by river through a war zone, and facilitate commercial expansion.
Every six months, Chocaguán holds "field days" to catch up with the latest environmentally friendly techniques. "At least 70 percent of the members apply the ideas and knowledge acquired," said Valeidez.
The leaders of Chocaguán attribute the company’s survival to the fact that it belongs to four national alternative production and anti-war networks, supported by development aid from countries like Switzerland and the Netherlands.
"We are not eradicators (of coca crops). We are promoters of gradual and voluntary replacement of illicit crops... The people have never been forced into anything," Velaidez said.
Montes himself has just one hectare of cocoa. "It’s very little. The minimum to ensure profitability is three hectares per family. It is due to lack of money, because I do have the land. And that one hectare I planted at my own risk," he said.
The war creates uncertainty. "If I plant, it means taking out three million pesos (1,350 dollars) to cultivate. But then they come and spray (the coca crops). And there is no guarantee that they won’t spray the cocoa as well," said Montes.
In El Caguán, aerial fumigation with glyphosate has been carried out in 1996, 1999, 2002 and 2005.
The last spraying was most painful to the cocoa farmers because it came after they had won the prestigious National Peace Prize in 2004, in recognition of their work in civil resistance based on security and food sovereignty at the time of a massive military offensive.
"Caquetá has been one of the target areas of U.S. military and anti-drug assistance," said Adam Isacson, a leading expert on Plan Colombia and the director of the Latin American Security Programme at the U.S.-based Centre for International Policy.
Since 2004, 17,000 soldiers have been deployed to Caquetá, but information is unavailable about the proportion of Plan Colombia’s military and intelligence resources that go to this province.
In what he described as a "very conservative" personal estimate, Isacson told this reporter that "U.S. support for operations in Caquetá has totalled at least five million dollars per year, or almost 50 million dollars since 2000."
"They could have spent that money on projects for the region, to improve housing or access roads, or on programmes for health and education," lamented Montes.
In 1995, the organised communities drew up a proposal for the complete substitution of coca in El Caguán, at a cost of 19 million dollars (based on the exchange rate at the time).
San Vicente del Caguán, near Remolino del Caguán, and local residents were left stigmatised as a result of the failed peace talks that were held here from 1998 to 2002 between the government of Andrés Pastrana and the FARC.
With the FARC there have been "moments of tension" and "friction," according to a member of the chocolate company, who said "the key is to stay on the sidelines."
But the members of Chocaguán have not escaped persecution and prison. Even Franzoi was accused of handing over 68,000 dollars to the FARC and of keeping weapons for the guerrillas. But in June 2008 the government prosecutor excluded him from the investigation, and soon after, the priest returned to Italy.
"If they don’t respect the priest, they’re even less likely to respect one of us," commented Montes.
The Italian priest, who is now 66, patiently guided this reporter in 2005 through a garden of cocoa, two kilometres from the village, planted with different cocoa varieties in order to produce seeds and to preserve genetic types, which stand as a testimony to the search for alternative crops in this corner of the Amazon.
"What matters is neither he who plants nor he who irrigates, but God who makes it grow," said the wooden sign at the garden entrance at the time. In 2007 it was replaced with a new sign: "Chocaguán, a life choice for a solidarity economy."
This story is part of a series of features on sustainable development by Inter Press Service (IPS) and the International Federation of Environmental Journalists (IFEJ) for the Alliance of Communicators for Sustainable Development (www.complusalliance.org).