This week in the Department of Meta, one of a dozen conflict hotspots across Colombia, President Juan Manual Santos inaugurated a revamped effort by the national government to curb the growing of coca leafs—the main ingredient in cocaine production. Historically, previous government-led initiatives have focused primarily in the eradication of coca yields through the spraying of glyphosate, an herbicide proven to cause various forms of cancer and ecological degradation. While these spraying initiatives have barely decreased the total production of coca leaf, they have caused significant harm to farmers, the licit crops they grow for food and sustenance, as well as the surrounding environment in which these rural households live and work. Faced with this impending economic, health and environmental situation, many farmers have had to leave their lands altogether or have even returned to growing coca, a crop that is oftentimes more profitable than cultivating legal crops.
The initiative launched this week by President Santos in company of U.S Ambassador to Colombia, Kevin Whitaker, emphasizes the need to substitute 50,000 hectares of coca with licit, income-generating crops. In order to achieve this ambitious objective, the government has established a partnership in which 83,790 farming families voluntarily agree to halt coca production and manually eradicate coca plants without the need of herbicides. In return, the farmers will receive a monthly income of COP 1,000,000 pesos (a rate higher than the monthly minimum wage in Colombia) during the first year of the program. In addition, participating farmers will also be granted a sum of COP$1,800,000 to start and implement food security projects for their households and communities. By instituting an economic incentive, farmers no longer need to turn to illicit coca production in order to secure their livelihoods.
Interestingly, this government-led initiative in some ways parallels and complements USAID’s own crop substitution programs in Colombia. One of these programs is Chocolate Colombia, a locally run, USAID-supported chocolate collective that draws on the potential for cocoa production in many of Colombia’s war-torn municipalities. The collective constitutes a holistic support system by which rural dwellers—that once grew coca and other illicit crops—can viably transition to cultivating legitimate, income-generating cocoa. The program achieves this through an integrated approach of technical expertise and small business development. On the technical side, local farmers are collectively instructed on agro-forestry demonstration plots, where they receive training on low-impact planting techniques, plant care, and fertilizer application. The cocoa plants grown in this plot are then moved to a mid-size (15 hectares) nursery—located on communally-owned land—where farmers receive further training. On the business side, campesinos take part in entrepreneurial seminars where they learn about the economic potential of the cocoa plant as well as grasp skills necessary to run a small, cocoa bean production unit from their own private plots.
F2F Volunteer, Dean Wheeler, training cacao producers in Campoalegre, Huila
Similar to the Chocolate Colombia collective, the USAID-funded Farmer-to-Farmer (F2F) program has also made important strides to helping Colombian farmers transition into licit crop production. Managed by Partners of the Americas’ Agriculture & Food Security team, the Farmer-to-Farmer program has send numerous volunteers to help advance rural value chains in some of Colombia’s former conflict areas. In 2015, Margaret Morse—a biologist from the University of Minnesota—traveled to Boyacá where she trained dozens of smallholder strawberry and blueberry producers on various aspects of pest management and produce diversification. Later that year, Dean Wheeler—an agribusiness expert from UC-Davis—visited the community of Campoalegre, in the Huila Department, where led numerous trainings on value-added products derived from coffee and cacao. Most recently, Farmer-to-Farmer program has provided technical assistance to Zen Naturals, a small Cali-based cosmetics and skincare company which sources its ingredients (e.g. quinoa) directly from the indigenous community of Jambalo, Cauca—one of the areas most inflicted by Colombia’s armed conflict. During the last two years, a series of F2F volunteers have assisted this small enterprise with 1) branding and marketing, 2) graphic design and digital media, 3) public affairs, and even with research and development of new quinoa-based cosmetic and skincare products. In turn, Zen Naturals has been able to buy bulks of quinoa directly from producers in Jambalo, providing with an economic alternative to growing coca leaf. In addition to purchasing quinoa, ZenNaturals has also been active in training producer communities on multiple techniques related to sustainable quinoa production and extraction. Thanks to this assistance, Zen Naturals has been able to successful market and sale their new fair-trade cosmetics and skincare product line, Zue, to international markets. Zue products are now being sold across dozens of Whole Foods supermarkets in the eastern United States.
F2F Volunteer, John Talbott, assist Zen Naturals at the 2016 Health & Beauty Business Expo in Bogota, Colombia