The Palm Scribe Content Manager, Bhimanto Suwastoyo, was selected by the UNDP’s Good Growth Journalism Initiative to visit Peru with other journalists around the world to see how Peru is coping with the growth of palm oil. This long story is part of the requirement to publish under the Good Growth Partnership conference and training program.
Nestled in a valley on the bank of the mighty Huallaga river, the small district of Chazuta on the edge of the Peruvian Amazon Basin is a living example of the successful transformation of the main coca-producing area into a major quality cocoa center within just the space of less than a decade.
A confluence of several factors, such as a government drive to declare coca growing illegal and its moves to eradicate existing plantations, including by force, replacing coca with cocoa, local disenchantment with narco-traffickers and terrorists, and also the persistence and hard work of a few champions, all contributed to the relatively rapid transformation.
Although coca, indigenous to Latin America, has been planted in the area for a long time, government-promoted corn and rice crops became dominant in Chazuta, until the government could no longer continue providing the accompanying benefits in the 1980s. As prices fell to their low for the two food commodities, most farmers then switched back to sowing coca, a much more profitable crop.
“The prices of corn was much lower than the cost of production. It cost something like five Soles to produce one kilogram of corn but companies bought them for twenty to thirty cents,” recalled a former coca farmer who only identified himself as Aquilino. Speaking with two other former coca growers at the Allima Cocoa Cooperative in Chazuta town, Aquilino said ensuing farmer strikes to demand higher prices, and that claimed a few deaths, only managed to raise prices to about 50 cents a kilogram.
People, he said, then began to leave rice and corn and plant coca instead. Aquilino said that in just six months he could produce about 15 to 20 kilograms of “pasta basica” the basic coca paste that could fetch around 1,000 to 1,200 Soles per kilogram.
“It is much more profitable to cultivate coca than to cultivate corn or other products,” he said, adding that the lowest ever price received was at 800 Soles per kilogram.
But coca cultivation also brought with it, the drug mafia, narco-traffickers as well as terrorists and the consequent crimes and violence.
The Sendero Luminoso (the Shining Path) and MRTA (Movimiento Revolucionario Tupac Amaru/ the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement) revolutionary groups that were active in the area also wanted and got a piece of the pie and got involved in the drug-trafficking. The situation led to a civil war which hit hardest in rural areas such as Chazuta.
Because fewer cultivated food crops, malnutrition also increased during the coca boom.
Aquilino said that in the latter half of the 1980s and in the 1990s, the government of then-President Alan Garcia launched campaign, using violence, to try to eradicate coca production and drug trafficking and promoting alternative crops.
“Cocoa was the alternative crop,” said Aquilino, who added he began planting the alternative crop only about nine years ago. “Cultivating cacao is much more secure and calm, there is no more persecution, no deaths, no violence,” he said, adding that most small farmers there operated between three and five hectares of the cacao plantation.
But the changes did not come easy.
“Yes, there was a big problem with the (coca) mafia, with the hitmen. Chazuta was a no man’s land where there was violence by narco-traffickers and terrorists, the two went together,” Aquilino said. Fed up with the hardship and the reigning crime, prostitution, and violence, people organized themselves into militias “to destroy these social scourges.”
Darwin Del Aguila Solano, who in the early 2000s worked with USAID, was intensively involved in promoting cocoa among the coca farmers. He said that “economic failure” in the 1980s and 1990s had led to many farmers to cultivate coca.
In 2003, he began the uphill efforts to persuade coca growers to shift to cocoa cultivation. Aguila said, he patiently approached the coca growers in Chazuta, most of whom were from the Quechua ethnic group.
“The transition was not easy,” he said, saying that he personally went and stayed despite being thrown out a few times, he persevered, often bringing chicken and potatoes to the striker’s soup kitchen, before finally slowly gaining their confidence.
“I then started to interact with them, listened to them and get to know how they lived,” He said adding that he noticed that the growers were living a life of hardship and slavery, cultivating coca for the drug lords for a pittance, some even under duress.
Gradually he worked to convince the coca farmers, who were already organized, to leave a life of violence, insecurity, and terror by switching to cocoa cultivation. It was a long battle but he said he finally managed to gain the agreement of around three third of the coca growers to change the crop.
“Their main concern was the thirty to thirty-two months before cocoa could produce,” Del Aguila said, adding that the solution had been to plant banana, which also provided the shade needed by the cocoa seedlings while growing.
The transition also involved a long period of educating and training the local communities and governments to enable them to have the capacity to execute the transition, he said, adding that another strategy was to always employ local labor for any activity during the process.
Women: Impetus for change
Bibiana Melzi, a Peruvian journalist and producer, said that one of the factors that contributed to these agreements was that the women were also fed up with situations of violence, deaths, and extortion from drug trafficking and therefore pushed their men to move to cocoa farming.
“It was a mix of various events that allowed the transformation,” Melzi said.
The authorities, with the help of USAID, helped those cocoa farmers to establish a cooperative called the “Allima Cocoa Cooperative”, in 2002, especially to help small cocoa producers to grow their product under good agricultural practices, market their products and also support them including financially, through microcredits. By 2009/2010, the cooperative began exporting its high-quality cocoa and now it is one of the main successful cooperatives in the area. There are about 22 cooperatives in Chazuta, Del Aguila said.
George Flores Garazatua, a cocoa farmer and member of the Allima Cocoa cooperative, said that there was no coca grown any longer in the area. “Coca farmers have moved elsewhere and there are no more coca farmers in Chazuta,” he said.
Chazuta and the entire region of San Martin are now famous for its quality and organic cocoa. San Martin is currently Peru’s top producer of cacao with Garazatua, saying the area produces between 50 to 60 percent of the national cacao output. San Martin is also the country’s third biggest coffee producing area.
Garazatua has two patches totaling 3.5 hectares where he “clones” superior varieties of cocoa for cultivation by members of his cooperatives. He said that a specialty of the cooperative is that their cocoa is produced and processed organically under good agricultural practices.
The cooperative, according to its director, Carlos Angulo, said that there were 262 “associates”, the term used to define members. About 70 percent of the associates were female, he added. The organization provides post-harvest handling for the fermentation and drying of cacao beans and other technical support and ensure stable prices for the yield. The cooperative now exports to Italy and the United Kingdom.
He said that to join the cooperatives, farmers, mostly small producers of cocoa, need to comply with the standards of the cooperative for fine quality cacao.