Former Coca Leaf Farmers Turn to Tourism and Crop Substitution

Flying down a dirt path in the jungle on a motor cross bike through the mountains of southern Colombia near the town of San Jose del Guaviare, we pull up to a 50 acre farm called ‘El Chontaduro‘. We are greeted by the farm’s owners – Edilson Pinto and his wife, Yolima. They invite us in for a breakfast of scrambled eggs, arepas and fruit – all made with foods produced on their farm. The open air kitchen sits on the edge of the jungle in the middle of their farm. As we eat and talk at the table, chickens and dogs saunter in and out. Domesticated parrots and macaws fly in for a visit as a tapir slinks around looking for fallen table scraps on the dirt floor.

For more than a decade, Edilson had been a coca leaf grower. He began farming as a younger man raising cows and pigs and traditional farm crops like tropical fruits, coffee, bananas, pineapples and beans. But due to low profit margins and erratic markets, he started concentrating more on growing coca plants – Colombia’s most lucrative cash crop.

Edilson Pinto on his finca near San Jose del Guaviare in Meta

In the ongoing war on illegal drugs, the Colombian government has been working with the coca growers to obliterate the production of coca – the main element in the production of cocaine. Since 2017 they have been paying farmers to voluntarily uproot their coca fields and assisting them with crop substitutions – a long term solution in the termination of coca cultivation. So far 124,000 farmers have participated in the program which has seen limited success.

With the help of government grants, Edilson and Yolima have been converting their farm back to the way it used to be – a more traditional farm. As it was before they began growing coca plants, before they had to become illegal chemists producing coca base, before the drug pickups in the middle of the night and and before the routine raids by police.

Though the couple are glad to no longer be participants in the illicit drug trade, they are not sure about the future of farming traditional Colombian crops. While the government promotes crop substitution, there’s no guarantee of markets for their crops.

Traditional crops have had slim profit margins and will never be as lucrative as coca farming.

International farming subsidies in other countries keep the price of traditional products like cocoa, bananas and coffee, very low. But the Colombian government has no such subsidy programs for their farmers. As a result, farmers often have trouble trying to eek out living from the land.

coca plants planted amongs bananas and other crops

Agricultural Tourism to Supplement Farming

To further supplement their farming activities, Edilson and Yolima have started working with the tourist offices in San Jose del Guaviare. We were introduced through the tour guide agency – Geotours del Guaviare. The jungle area of the Meta province around San Jose de Guaviare has been slowly building a tourist trade ever since 2016 when the government made a peace treaty with the FARC guerrillas. Before the peace treaty tourists had been leery of visiting the guerrilla occupied area.

But since the treaty, Colombian and foreign tourists have been steadily arriving to explore the Amazon, traveling up the rivers, visiting Cano Cristales and the the ancient rock paintings in the Cerro Azul.

(see: San Jose del Guviare – Exploring the Amazon from the Outside In)

The Colombian couple have started working with the local tourist guides and agencies who feature them as an educational stop on their tour junkets. The couple have been opening their house, serving meals to arriving guests and teaching visitors about the plant and animal life in these mountains.

But more than a straight-forward, ecological presentation, they also tell the visitors about life in the jungle. What it’s like to be a coca farmer. How coca base is made. How toxic it is. How the drugs are moved about the jungle. And how dangerous it can be.

Sra. Yolima making breakfast

After breakfast Edilson takes us for a tour of his finca showing us the tropical fruit trees like borojo, mangoes, cocoa and bananas. The parrots follow us flying tree to tree talking in scratchy, sassy Spanish.

Edilson talks about the cattle and pigs and other animals on their farm. They live amidst a small ecological zoo. They have a domestic relationship with parrots, monkeys and tapirs and a slew of other animals who live in the wild but stop by daily for a visit and a bite to eat.

“When the parrots are no longer babies they are abandoned by their mothers. So if you start feeding them they stay around the farm and don’t fly away.” Edilson said.

Coca Leaf Farming

Edilson showed us his coffee bushes and some crops of hot peppers and yucca. Over by the edge of the jungle he had a couple rows of coca plants – tiny buses with bright green leaves. On his 50 acre farm he once had a lot of coca bushes planted. The money was good and all the farmers were doing it.

In Peru and Bolivia, coca leaves are still chewed as a source of energy. And the coke extracted from the leaves used to serve as an anesthetic in World War I. It was also a primary ingredient in the original formula of the world famous soda Coca-Cola, which saw its beginnings as a temperance drink and medicine.

Coca leaves or hojas de coca have been grown in this ancestral Andean region for centuries. It takes one ton of coca leaves to make one kilo of cocaine. A ton of coca leaves can bring a farmer $400 – $500. A kilo of cocaine can bring in $150,000, But the fruits of those profit margins are reserved for the distribution organizations higher up on the food chain.

Base Production

Edilson described the job of the coca leaf farmer. He would harvest his coca leaves 4 times a year. They would bring them down the mountain to a outbuilding on the farm with a tarp roof and a dirt floor. They would spread the leaves over the dirt floor and chop up the coca leaves with a weed whacker. Then they would sprinkle the leaves with a dusting of construction cement and load them into oil drums.

Extraction

Extraction requires a more complex and toxic recipe. They they would marinate the leaves in a mixture of gasoline, sulfuric acid, battery acid, kerosene, and other chemicals for 20 minutes. This would start the extraction process. The coke would drain from the leaves into the stringent solution which was then filtered and poured into a pan where they would boil the water reducing the liquid to a white paste.

A piece of coke base extracted from coca leaves

This was coke base, basuco, or basura – which means garbage in Spanish. And the farmers would treat base production just like that – like garbage. It was extremely toxic and clandestine work.

Drug use is rare amongst the growers

If mixed with tobacco or cannabis base can be smoked. The high lasts for two minutes and continued use is very toxic and very addictive – even more addictive than crack. Edilson and the other coca growers in the area had seen men become addicted and die. They know better and have never smoked it. They also know how many harmful chemicals are used in the production of base and how toxic it is.

“I want to talk to the tourists about the cultivation of coca and the production of base to be able to show our visitors how many toxic chemicals we put in the paste. “

Distribution

Base is as good as cash in the jungle and is often used in its place. And selling base was as easy as it was lucrative. A man would come to the farm on a motor cross bike late in the night. At the farm he would weigh the paste, pay them and leave – often without lights so as not to be stopped by the police.

The base cocaine would make its way to jungle labs where it would be transformed into powdered cocaine. Later, it was transported from the jungle and flown or shipped to lucrative markets where it is sold for hard cash.

The Background of Cocaine Production in Colombia

Today, Colombia is the major cocaine producer in the world. A 2018 report said there were 422,250 acres of coca plants in Colombia. But before the 1990s, harvesting coca leaves in Colombian was a small business. Peru and Bolivia were much larger coca producers. But then, Peru was hit with a fungus wiping out their coca production.

The drug cartels started large scale purchases of land in the jungles. Jungles were cleared and coca was planted resulting in a significant increase Colombian cocaine production. By 2004, Colombia was responsible for 80% of the word’s coca production. Colombia became the #1 producer – the USA was the #1 consumer.

Government Eradication of Coca Fields

The Colombian government responded by stepping up it’s efforts to control drug production. The rural regions had become specialized in producing coca leaves. The government focused on eradicating the coca fields instead of cracking down on the laboratories, drug traffickers, contraband boats and aircraft, cartels, paramilitaries, revolutionaries and other trafficking groups. It was a strategy with its short comings.

Starting in 2000, the Colombians cooperated with the USA in a militarized eradication of the coca fields in the country. They began widespread aerial spraying of the herbicide ‘glyphosate’. The program was called ‘The Colombian Plan’ and over $10 billion was spent over the next two decades spraying 4.4 million acres of Colombian territory (1.7 million hectares) to eradicate coca fields. Colombia was the only country that allowed aerial spraying of glyphosate for counter-drug purposes.

Health, Pollution and Ecological Issues

The program had its success and failures. Between 1990 and 2010 coca production was reduced by more than 30%. But the crop dusting planes would often miss their targets and spray fields of food crops, fish ponds and houses. This would result in killing the crops, the fish in the ponds and often small children playing out in the open. This enraged the already frustrated farmers. Soon the citizens all began reporting wide spread health complaints mostly of respiratory problems. And with their coca fields and crops destroyed the farmers often faced displacement.

But the coca leaf growing by the farmers, cartels and revolutionaries also caused large ecological problems. There was deforestation and soil erosion from extensive clear cutting of forests to expand coca production. Chemicals used in extraction were poured off into rivers and on the forest floors causing widespread chemical pollution.

Colombia suffered the worst impact of international drug war in South America. For decades now, drugs have been produced in remote parts of the country where the state has long lacked control. Many areas of Colombia have become lawless regions. The drug wars have been a threat to the national security and internal stability. Fighting drugs has cost the country and it’s people great efforts and resources.

(For more on drugs in Colombia, see the article: Yage – Colombia’s Hallucinogenic Jungle Juice

Author: Jon McInnes

Jon McInnes is a journalist who has been traveling to Colombia since 1972. He travels to Colombia and other parts of South America yearly and writes for newspapers, food, wine and travel publications. He currently lives between Colombia and Detroit. You can also follow him on facebook and contact him via email at: jonmcinnesjon@gmail.com

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