Human Stories

Cocoa, Coffee, and Cocaine: A Bitter-Sweet Future for Farmers in Colombia

Coca, once used in the original Coca-Cola recipe in 1886, has impacted Colombia since the industry boomed in the 1970s. With this boom, however, came a drug war that would bind farmers in a deadlock of instability and volatility that continues to this day. But there may be a new solution for farmers looking to exit the drug war. I went to Bogotá, Colombia, to find out how alternative cash crops such as coffee and cacao may offer Colombian coca farmers a new future.

At Casa Palma Hub, Bogotá, Colombia, a traditional chocolate ceremony is about to begin. During the ceremony, we will reflect on the 260,000 lives lost during cocaine-related conflicts in Colombia. The war on cocaine in Colombia involves a complex network of drug cartels, guerrilla groups, paramilitary organisations, and government forces, all vying for control of the lucrative cocaine trade.

A collection of locals, researchers, and journalists are waiting in the gallery hub. Once a car repair garage, the space has been renovated to showcase relics of the street scene of Bogotá during the cocaine war. Among the artefacts on display are a vintage motorcycle, bullet-riddled street signs, and personal belongings from those who lived through the era. The air is filled with the earthy and fruity aroma of cacao.

At the corner of the stage, a young Piratapuyo man is slowly chewing coca leaves, a traditional practice believed to provide energy and alleviate altitude sickness in the high Andean regions. However, the coca plant is also the root of the ongoing drug war due to the extraction of its alkaloid, cocaine, for illicit drug production.

I sat among the audience, allowing another dark chocolate chip to melt on my palate, which was already occupied by a fresh cacao seed. It’s taste was unique: somewhere between a lychee and mangosteen. Soon, the nibbling sounds of food and chatting were taken over by the sound of helicopter blades coming off the projector screen, absorbing everyone’s attention.

“This is coca, coca, coca. All over the place, coca!” A Colombian paratrooper cried out over the massive fields of pale green shrubs interconnected by meanders and rainforests.1 These lands are buried deep inside the mountains of Cauca, far from the reach of the rest of the country.

The golden age of cocaine is now

In 2021, coca cultivation and cocaine production hit a record high, with 204,000 hectares cultivated and 1,400 tonnes produced, according to United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).3,4,5 To understand this rising production despite years of Colombian and international peace efforts to combat the drug war, I sat down with Toby Muse. Toby is a British-American frontline journalist reporting to CGTN, Guardian, BBC, and the New York Times. His book “Kilo: Inside the Cocaine Cartels” resulted from 15 years living in Colombia.6

“There is more cocaine than ever before,” Toby explained.

“Always you have to start with the idea: the business of cocaine is a demand-driven business. The Colombian cocaine cartels produce cocaine because rich countries consume it,” Toby continued, explaining why coca cultivation persists after years of state efforts to stop coca production, including the billions of dollars invested by the United States.7

Cocaine production may be booming, but it isn’t easy to control. The Coca plant is grown in a vast wilderness controlled by the drug cartels. The surrounding highways are saturated with hidden Guerrilla bombs and checkpoints, and the coca farmers access their isolated fields by horseback. Every day from 6 am until 4 pm, the leaf pickers will sack up the coca leaves from the fields over their shoulders, slowly marching over with their feet and crossing the creek bends via farmer-built canoes to the jungle laboratory, leaving behind the crickets and bare fields of coca under the baking sun.

These pickers are typically Colombian and come from poor rural areas with few job opportunities. They live in temporary, makeshift camps or small huts near the coca fields. Some live with their families, while others work alone.8 Women and children are frequently engaged in the drug trade, and some of them also work as leave pickers. The jungle laboratory is where the sacks of leaves are turned into coca paste. To the coca farmers, the brick-like coca paste is worth US $730 per kilogram.9 The labs, as scientific as they may sound, are makeshift structures far from any modern infrastructure or amenities. They are hidden deep in the jungle by the armed guards to prevent discovery by state authorities.

In the coca fields, it takes over ninety days, around one hectare, and one tonne of coca leaf to produce just one and a half kilograms of coca paste. To the coca pickers, that means US $250 ends up in their pockets. The remaining US $280 goes to the laboratory workers, gasoline, and other supplies, leaving US $200 for the farm owners.9 The working conditions in these labs are highly hazardous, exposing the workers to toxic chemicals and fumes.

The drug traffickers will then arrange for the coca paste to be sent to refineries for further processing. Compared to the makeshift jungle laboratories, the refineries, otherwise known as cocaine labs, are in the urban areas with more advanced equipment to convert the coca paste into its final cocaine hydrochloride. After refineries, the drugs are packaged and transported to distribution networks. The final white powder per kilo is sold at US $30,000 in the United States, US $50,000 in Germany, and over US $160,000 in Australia.10

A worker sprinkles lime over crushed coca leaves as they are processed into coca paste in the
A worker sprinkles lime over crushed coca leaves as they are processed into coca paste in the 'lab'. (Edinson Arroyo/picture alliance via Getty Images)

Market forces at play

The difference in price the consumer pays and what the farmer receives may be enormous. But it ultimately comes down to the market. As Toby emphasised, often, the coca farmers also do not have a choice:

“The main reason is simple. It’s basic economics: demand and supply. These farmers live in very difficult parts of the country. It’s difficult because there are no roads, and often there are no bridges. You have to imagine a farmer, who harvests three tonnes of pineapples in the middle of nowhere, what are you supposed to do? That becomes the problem of the infrastructure in Colombia."

Coca is often the most profitable crop for farmers in areas where poverty is widespread, and government support is limited. Although support and incentives were provided by the government, NGOs, and the United Nations for farmers to switch to alternative crops, along with protection against retaliation from drug cartels, the progress has been slow and difficult. The government can only do so much, as drug cartels continue to exert control over coca-growing regions.

When the Colombian government discovers coca fields, they typically initiate a forced eradication campaign in which they send in police and military forces to destroy the plants and arrest those involved in their cultivation. This often leads to violent confrontations between the authorities and the farmers, who rely on coca as their main source of income. Meanwhile, the alternative crop incentive scheme does not provide sufficient economic incentives for the coca farmers when coca cultivation provides higher income and demand.

But times may be changing. In 2022, a new president, Gustavo Petro, was elected with a new promise to eradicate cocaine through another crop substitution program.11 Petro has also announced a 60% decrease in the government’s cocaine eradication targets for 2023. Instead of targeting small farmers, he has pledged to go after the drug cartel leaders.

Petro used to be a guerrilla involved in the forced eradication campaign, where coca crops were ripped up and burned in the fields. Some hope that his personal experience in the cocaine conflict will motivate him to make more reasoned and pragmatic choices in his ongoing efforts to protect the Colombian people from the impacts of the cocaine industry. But Petro isn’t the first president to promise that he will move the Colombian economy away from cocaine, and only time will tell how effective his strategy will be.

Toby believes that there is reason to be optimistic this time. “Farmers who grow coca, many of them, are very, very tired of the business because the business is about violence; it’s about corruption. And the price has kind of stayed the same in their business, meaning they’re not even making as much money as they once did.” 

Awaiting a serious proposal from the government is the last hope for many coca farmers right now. Coca may have a long history as a cash crop, but Toby told me that many coca farmers are ready for change.

A harvester carries coca leaves on his back in a coca plantation. For each 12-kilo sack, he receives the equivalent of about $1.50. A worker can harvest about 20 bags of coca leaves a day. (Edinson Arroyo/picture alliance via Getty Images)
A harvester carries coca leaves on his back in a coca plantation. For each 12-kilo sack, he receives the equivalent of about $1.50. A worker can harvest about 20 bags of coca leaves a day. (Edinson Arroyo/picture alliance via Getty Images)

From coca leaf to coffee beans

A gentle rain falls on the rugged terrain of the misty Andean mountains, as the car winds its way from Bogotá into the lush, green landscape of Fusagasugá, a town ~40km away from the city center. I’m on my way to discover how Colombia’s national pride could provide a viable economic alternative to the coca leaf.

Hacienda Coloma is a popular coffee farm that produces high-quality coffee sustainably, offering tours and tastings for visitors. The farm also prioritises supporting its employees and the local community. “Colombians are intensely proud of their coffee. The Arabica beans are rated as the finest coffee in the world,” one of the farmers at Hacienda Coloma explains, pointing to the thriving coffee plants that grow up to 3 meters tall.

The Autumn air is crisp and cool, and small, purple-red fruits hang from the coffee plant’s branches. The ripe flesh of the coffee cherry is not well known to the Western palate. But it is edible and highly nutritious, with a sweet and tangy flavour. Hacienda Coloma employs polyculture, which means growing more than one species simultaneously. Polyculture can improve both the biodiversity and the profitability of a farm. In terms of biodiversity, a diversity of crops can support a wider range of soil microbes, insects, birds, and mammals. And diverse income streams can protect farmers from external market factors. For example, if the price of coffee plummets one year because of a global oversupply, the other crops can often help absorb the financial shock. 

Learn how polyculture could impact food security.

According to Hacienda Coloma, polyculture has even helped improve the taste of the coffee:

“The coffee plants are usually seeded together with other crops such as mangos, oranges, papayas, bananas, and other non-edible crops. On our farm, our coffee is never planted alone. This is how coffee beans develop fruity notes and intense flavors, thanks to cross-pollination and the majestic cross-talks of nutrients underneath the soil,” the farmer laughed proudly.

To the farmers at Hacienda Coloma, coffee beans are the crop that built up Colombia. The widespread transition from coffee to coca farming, which began in the 1970s due to the rising cocaine demand and decreasing coffee profitability, deeply upsets many coffee farmers in Colombia. Both for the associated violence and instability, and through the sense of loss for their traditional way of life.12 “It’s very distressing for us to see some farmers switching from coffee to coca farming,” the farmer told me.

The different microbial environment in Colombia is one of the reasons that coffee has a region-specific flavour. (Photo by the author)
The different microbial environment in Colombia is one of the reasons that coffee has a region-specific flavour. (Photo by the author)

Farmers need support

After returning from Colombia, I spoke with Fernando, the founder of BrownDog Roasting, who sources high-quality Colombian coffee beans and promotes sustainable and ethical farming. As a coffee expert with a deep passion for the industry, Fernando wants to leverage Colombian pride in coffee to help coca farmers and their families get away from a dangerous industry. Fernando and his wife started Colombia Cocaine 4 Project in 2012 after moving from Colombia to the U.S ​​ to help find a foreign market for the ex-coca farmers who produce high quality coffee.13

He was raised in a military family in Bogotá and became a professional cyclist growing up. After 17 years of an athletic career, Fernando retired and wanted to give back to his community in Colombia through his passion, coffee. With the help of his father, Fernando partnered with a family in Cauca who sought a better life by cultivating coffee. By introducing them to the US market, Fernando helped the family achieve higher profitability.

One of the reasons that many coca farmers are unable to find a higher profit margin by cultivating coffee is that coffee farmers are often forced to sell their coffee at prices well below the cost of production.

“The people we are helping in Cauca are very optimistic. They are former coca farmers who want to seek a better life,”Fernando told me, “The government funding towards each family is simply not enough for the coca farmers to transition full time into coffee farming, not to mention those who aren’t lucky enough to receive the funding.”

Based in Seattle, Fernando has been helping one Colombian family by generating 10 million Colombian pesos annually (~US $2,538) by accessing the US market. However, Fernando has some doubts about the scalability of the project: 

“We set out in the business for passion instead of profits. The farmers we are in partnership with are very vulnerable people, I mean people in extreme poverty. To scale up the business we need a lot more farmers and much bigger lands. To ship a full container of coffee from Colombia would cost over $10,000. You will need a lot more coffee to achieve economy of scale in terms of shipping alone, not to mention the extremely tedious paperwork one needs to fill up for export. For a small business like in our case, 400 kilograms of green beans per year, there is still a lot to be done.”

Based on Fernando’s data, 400 kilograms of green beans will equate to roughly $22,340 annual revenue, in which 10% goes to the ex-coca farmers. The 40,000 kilograms of coffee beans are estimated to fill one full 40-feet container.15,16 So to achieve economy of scale and to make a wider impact, Fernando would need 100-fold more green beans by on-boarding up to 100 more ex-coca families.

When possible, the transition from coca to coffee production has brought significant positive changes to the lives of the farmers. Not only can they earn four times more per kilogram of raw coffee, according to the International Coffee Organization, but they also cultivate legal crops, leading to a more stable way of life. This transition can also enable farmers to gain independence from cartels and coca cultivation, promoting a safer and more sustainable future for themselves and their families.

It’s not only small business owners like Fernando that are ready to support Colombian farmers. In 2017, Starbucks also launched its Farmer Support Centre in Colombia to help 2,000 farmers in Colombia with US $4 million farmer loan initiative to support training in agriculture and climate resilience programs, and grant farmers access to technology.17 But despite the individual and corporate efforts, it’s unclear how both individuals and corporations could mitigate farmers’ financial risks in terms of the volatile Colombian pesos in which they are paid. The value of the Colombian peso is also well known to fluctuate. In November 2022, the currency hit a record low against the US Dollar.18 While the value of the peso is likely to rise in the future, this unpredictability can complicate trade for both sellers and buyers.

There is clearly a lot more to be done to make coffee an economically viable alternative crop for the ex-coca farmers who opt to leave the cocaine cultivation zone to start a peaceful life elsewhere in the country.

Blockchain as a solution to volatile pricing

At the cacao ceremony in Bógota, the sound of the helicopter fades. At the center of the stage, the young Piratapuyo man mixes ground chocolate powder in a copper tin. In contrast to the footage we have just seen, the ceremony is peaceful.

As the ceremony comes to an end, Sergio Figueredo, the event organizer, speaks alongside the Piratapuyo man. He explains that cacao, another cash crop, is comparably more profitable than coffee in Colombia. This is because the Colombian coffee market is becoming saturated, making it hard for farmers to get a fair price for the crop.19 And while cacao isn’t immune to market difficulties, Figueredo is using blockchain technology to help cacao farmers get access to a fair market.

Sergio founded Choco4Peace in 2018, which empowers ex-coca farmers in Colombia to cultivate cacao and, with the help of the blockchain, sell it for a fair price. Figueredo has signed agreements with 7 cacao associations across 4 regions of Colombia, representing over 1000 small farmers, and gained support from former Colombian President Ivan Duque. Sergio doesn’t see coca farmers as villains, but rather potential agents for change: 

“We need to change the narrative for a better solution. The ex-coca farmers are really the peacemakers. I call them peacemakers because they are the courageous people on the ground who can build peace socially and financially.”

Being able to access funding is essential for small farmers that want to lift themselves out of poverty. But small farmers are considered a risky investment, making it hard for them to access loans. Because of this, many small farmers in Colombia are faced with a difficult choice: grow legal crops unprofitably, or cultivate illegal crops like coca to make ends meet.

Sergio Figueredo, the Founder of Choco4Peace and Will Ruddick, the Founder of Grassroot Economics, discuss the Decentralised Inclusive Economic Network for cacao farmers at Casa Palma Hub, Colombia. (Photo by the author)
Sergio Figueredo, the Founder of Choco4Peace and Will Ruddick, the Founder of Grassroot Economics, discuss the Decentralised Inclusive Economic Network for cacao farmers at Casa Palma Hub, Colombia. (Photo by Sunny Chen)

Sergio wanted to help ex-coca farmers access the resources and markets they need to grow cacao profitably. But he found direct cash funding to be ineffective due to its lack of accountability, and failure to address the root cause of the problem: farmers' lack of financial tools to make their own choices. So, in 2022, Sergio established a partnership with the Grassroots Economics Foundation to develop community currencies for its cacao community in Colombia. As a result of this partnership, the organisation has developed the Decentralized Inclusive Economic Network (DIEN), a business-to-business blockchain.

As stated by Choco4Peace, this new economic system serves three key purposes. First, it enables producers to access services in an effective and user-friendly way, with an interface tailored to their digital abilities. Second, the digital applications within the platform allow buyers to access precise information about the quality of the cacao via a blockchain app, where payments are facilitated by e-wallets and/or a banking application, or they can see whether they are part of the Colombian government’s crop substitution program. This offers ‘transparency from bean to bar, producer to buyer’. Third, the unprecedented level of security, transparency, and traceability brings crucial improvements to mitigate investment risk.20

The benefit of this technology is that blockchain transactions don’t need a central intermediary, such as a bank, which can be beneficial for small farmers who can’t always access these traditional financial tools. Blockchain enables a digital ledger that lets people keep track of exchanges, in this case it is an exchange of tokens (called C4P) that are a form of "community currency" that can be used instead of the state currency, when money is not available. But Choco4Peace is applying the blockchain to a community currency called C4P tokens for farmers in their community.

The C4P tokens can be used by farmers to pay for services they need such as education, insurance, technology, and resources. Consumers, buyers, and cooperatives can also use these tokens to trade and invest in the farmers. The tokens can only be used within the C4P community, but farmers can convert them to state currency through the community reserve. C4P follows in the footsteps of Sarafu, the first community currency that leveraged blockchain technology to promote local economic development and financial inclusion in rural Kenya. The use of Sarafu significantly helped facilitate local trade outside of the volatile traditional currencies, which had a positive effect on the participating communities. The designer of Sarafu, Will Ruddick, is helping Figueredo to develop C4P for the Colombian context.21

The C4P currency has great potential to financially empower small farmers in a more inclusive economic network. However, there are still potential risks and limitations to using blockchain and community currencies, and it remains to be seen if it will be a game changer for the Colombian cacao industry. Choco4Peace launched a campaign in the beginning of March 2023 for both sale and pre-sale of chocolates in the official website where consumers can purchase tangible chocolates powered by the blockchain and the community currency.

Breaking the deadlock

In parting, I met with Felipe Leal, a local community leader in Bogotá. Felipe aims to build a global community to bridge the gap between the communities in emerging economies and other parts of the world. 

“Andean coca is a sacred plant, the wisdom keeper, representing the mother earth. The misuse of coca is reflective of the cause-and-effect relationship in nature. We all are responsible for the problem we create. Educating the farmers to set up blockchain wallets for community currency trading will be a challenging task, but we have to take small steps to rebuild trust between us and the external world like what Sergio has been building,” Felipe told me. 

During my reflections from my time in Colombia, I drafted a concept to help consolidate my own thoughts on the complexity of the cocaine problem here. I coined the term the ‘Triangular Deadlock’. It describes the seemingly unbreakable chain of interactions that drives the cocaine industry and its unending grip on Colombian farmers. In a seemingly self-perpetuating cycle, the international market demand for cocaine leads to the increasing involvement and control of drug cartels, which, in turn, leads to poverty issues and instability. And so on, the cycle continues. Solving poverty alone may not be enough. The reality of breaking this deadlock may be far more complicated, requiring the targeting of all three aspects - market demand, cartels, and poverty - at once. How and when this deadlock will be broken, only time will tell.

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