During my recent visit to Oro Verde Cooperative in Amazonian Peru, I stayed with a number of indigenous farmers who are supplying us with an incredible cocoa. It is incredible for its taste – last month our farmers took first and third place in the World Chocolate Competition in Paris!- but it is equally as incredible for the story behind the cocoa. These brave farmers have been growing cocoa beans as a replacement for the coca they have grown in the past to feed the deadly narco-traffic in cocaine.
We were the first company to import coffee from their village called Akan Shamboyaco (it was Alto Shamboyaco until my visit, when the people decided to reclaim the full name of their village from the Spanish Alto, meaning “high”). We are also the first and only company to import their sugar, paying the villagers ten times the amount they get on the local market. Yet it is the cocoa that has the most profound impact on the villagers’ lives.
Coca is an essential part of indigenous spirituality and the daily work life of many of the indigenous groups along the Peruvian Amazon and highlands. It provides energy for working at high altitudes and essential amino acids and vitamins not readily available in local foods. No problem there. But for the last two decades outsiders have come in and morphed the benign coca plant into the essential ingredient in cocaine production. In fact, by the end of the 1990’s this area accounted for more than a quarter of all cocaine production in Peru. The farmers received good money for the coca leaves that grow so easily here, but the price many paid was higher than the income gained. Farmers were harassed by Peruvian military and often arrested and jailed. Brutal narco dealers often forced farmers to grow more and more coca, kidnapping children (especially boys) to insure compliance and to gain “recruits” for the narco battles and allied extremist movements like the Shining Path, which was largely funded by cocaine. Drug dealers also set up cocaine processing sites throughout the jungles around Akan Shamboyaco and the many rivers in the Amazon basin at the foot of the area. The processing involved many hazardous chemicals, which were left to flow into water sources, poisoning fish and making water undrinkable.
“It was a bad trade for us”, said Belmar sadly. Belmar is a traditional leader in the village, although only in his late twenties. We sat around a lantern at his house one night, hearing stories of political and social struggle of the people here. But Belmar brightened when he spoke of the economics of cocoa and coffee these days. “We still have a lot of problems in our community, but the money from the cocoa and the coffee is much better. We don’t have to worry about the coca problems anymore.”
Oro Verde has done an amazing job in organizing so many isolated villages into a powerful and successful cooperative. But helping the villagers of Akan Shamboyaco to increase their income and gain independence from the cocaine trade may be the sweetest victory yet.