When Arregocés Coronado and his clan of Kogi began reclaiming their ancestral land at the base of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta about a decade ago, they discovered that it had been turned into a vast coca farm. The plantation — which fed the appetite for cocaine in the United States — wasn’t just illegal, it was sacrilegious.
For the Kogi and other indigenous groups that live on the snow-peaked mountain in northwestern Colombia, the coca leaf has spiritual properties. Adult males chew the leaf, a mild stimulant, only after a coming of age ceremony. To mass produce and sell it is an affront to the “ancestral mother,” Coronado says.
With government help, about 1,600 Kogi families have been turning those coca fields into coffee farms. And what has been a spiritual imperative for the Kogi has become a national necessity for the government. As Colombia struggles with its cocaine problem, alternative development projects like this one have emerged as one of the few solutions.
Last month the government suspended its longtime practice of dusting coca fields with glyphosate, a powerful weed killer, amid fears that it might be carcinogenic. That’s left authorities with limited options: manual eradication, which is both slow and dangerous, or convincing farmers to swap crops.
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During a visit last week to a processing plant where the Kogi roast and package their coffee for export, the global head of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, Yury Fedotov, admitted there are few solutions.
“Alternative development is very important,” he said. “And it may be the only possibility to eradicate illicit coca cultivation.”
From 2006-2014 Colombia has pumped about $375 million (much of it in U.S. aid) into alternative development projects that have benefited 134,206 families, according to the Ministry of Justice. The programs have kept 2,100 tons of cocaine off the market.
The country has explored everything from eco-hotels to ornamental fish as alternatives to coca. Currently, almost a quarter of all the rubber tapped in the country is coming from crop-substitution programs.
President Juan Manuel Santos says the administration will double down on the strategy, making the programs more efficient and “guaranteeing better living conditions for these communities.”
But Colombia has an uphill battle. The U.S. Office on National Drug Control Policy recently reported that coca production in Colombia jumped 39 percent from 2013 to 2014 at 276,640 acres. Much of the growth is in areas that are under the control of armed groups. But the figures illustrate just how hard it is to wean farmers off the lucrative leaf.
Not only do local economies need to be retooled but entire ecosystem needs to be created for the programs to work, said Deputy Minister of Justice Javier Flórez.
“We need to transform the territory — we need roads, sewage and electricity, among other projects,” he said. “Implementing [alternative development] programs in areas where there is no access is just a waste of money.”
Examples of failed projects abound. Programs in some conflict-ridden areas have been co-opted by guerrillas and criminal gangs. Others simply collapsed due to mismanagement. A U.N. official estimated that about 75 percent of all such projects are ultimately successful.
For the communities where they do work, however, the changes can be profound.
Humberto Narvaez is the president of a 17-family cooperative that is turning 2,740 acres of sugar cane into bricks of hard brown sugar called panela. Many of the people in the program used to grow coca for the paramilitary groups that controlled the area, Narvaez said. And while panela doesn’t pay as much as the drug harvest it provides other benefits.
“Working with illicit crops is a sinister process that brings death, confrontation and the use of weapons,” he said. Everyone in his village has stories about loved ones who died or disappeared, he explained.
“Now at least we can work in peace and everything happens in the light of day,” he said. “Maybe you don’t make as much money, but you’re safe and your family’s safe.”
Even so, temptation is always present.
“There’s a resurgence of illegal groups and the first message they’ve brought us is that we need to re-plant coca and marijuana because those are the crops that work for them,” he said. “Those crops work for them, but they don’t work for us.”
For the Kogi, the program is about sustaining a traditional way of life. The village of Domingueka, a smattering of round mud huts, sits at the end of a deeply rutted dirt road without running water or electricity. On a recent weekday, white-clad Kogi were chewing coca leaves mixed with crushed seashells — which has about as much kick as a cup of coffee and can help suppress hunger and thirst — as the women tended a tiny patch of the bright green leaves. (The groups are allowed small coca plots for traditional use.)
As Coronado showed visitors around the village, he pointed to hills where industrial coca farms had been replaced with scattered coffee-plants.
“Those [coffee] plants don’t belong to us; they were brought to us by our spiritual fathers, by the spirit of the forest that we call Kalache,” Coronado said, as he shooed away dog. “He sent us those products so that we could live and sell them.”
The coffee’s spiritual origin comes with restrictions. By order of the community’s religious leaders, or mamos¸ the plants cannot be swapped for disease-resistant varieties, sprayed for insects, or even organized in rows that might make them easier to harvest.
With the help of the U.N. and the government, the Kogi recently began selling their coffee in markets — Colombia, the United States and Germany — where their reticence to change has become a marketing plus.
Coronado likes to say that their coffee isn’t just organic, “it’s wild.”
Javier Sanchez, the lead technical adviser for alternative development projects for the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, said there are multiple ways to evaluate a program’s success. Beyond economics, the programs need to be seen from “a social point of view — how they help restore the social fabric, how much peace they’ve brought to a region,” he said.
Colombia’s half-century civil conflict, which has pitted leftist guerrillas, right-wing paramilitary groups, criminal gangs and government forces against each other, has long been fueled by the drug trade.
Now, as negotiators in Havana try to strike a peace deal with the largest guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), coca is at the center of the debate.
During those negotiations the FARC have agreed to help the government eradicate the crops if a global peace deal is reached. And that initiative will largely depend on finding alternatives for farmers.
As for the Kogi, Coronado says they hope to use profits from the coffee sales to buy more ancestral land and expand their coffee farms for an audience that seems to appreciate their techniques.
“We never thought the coffee would go to another world, to another country,” Coronado said. “We never imagined that.”