April 10, 2016

Cross Roads from Coco to Cocoa


Many cities would welcome government support in a war on drugs. But last year on a visit to Argelia, a town of around 27,000 in southwestern Colombia, Eduardo Díaz, the leader of a presidential initiative to help farmers switch out of illegal crops, felt anything but welcome. The hotels wouldn’t even provide the government officials with rooms, Díaz says. In the end, he and his official entourage ended up sleeping in a local church — the only space, he says, left open to them.
As it turns out, making the switch from farming coca to other crops is a painful process for local farmers, who’ve grown resentful of a government trying to win the region’s drug war. Previously, planes loaded with toxins intended to destroy coca proved to be just as destructive to the farmers as the crops. Meanwhile, consumers and nongovernmental organizations are growing increasingly unwilling to buy products farmed in areas that could be considered environmentally sensitive — which are the same remote areas populated by the relatively poor farmers being encouraged or forced to stop growing coca. The result? Good news for the war on drugs, but it’s left tens of thousands of farmers dangling in the winds of change. Indeed, some are discovering it might just be easier to stick with the illicit stuff.
Now, a newer approach could be much more productive: turning to cocoa beans used to produce chocolate. Back in 2000, Colombia harvested around 163,000 hectares of coca leaves, much of which was turned into cocaine to fund the vast drug business that had been controlled by the narco-terrorist group FARC since at least 1993, when Pablo Escobar was killed. By 2012, less than 48,000 hectares of coca were harvested in the country, a historical low, thanks in part to Plan Colombia, an ambitious push against drugs conceived and jointly enforced by U.S. and Colombian authorities. Much of those coca leaves disappeared thanks to crop substitution, Díaz says. And chocolate — or rather its raw ingredient, cocoa beans — has been at the heart of Colombia’s strategy to swap crops (peppers and bananas, which require similar conditions as coca to grow, are also being substituted). Between 2010 and 2013, Colombia’s cocoa bean production jumped from 37,000 to 48,500 tonnes.
Even if more farmers are forced to give up their coca for cocoa, their long-term success will depend, in part, on whether consumers in the U.S. and Europe will shell out for their chocolate.

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