Program Gives Colombian Farmers An Alternative to Cocaine Crops

By Paul Gaita 01/04/19

A former government official has spent seven years helping the farmers of the coastal town of Chocó – where he grew up – transition their efforts from cocaine to cacao.

farmer using program to transition from cocaine crops

A new feature on NPR profiles Joel Palacios, a former member of Colombia's Ministry of the Interior who is working with  farmers in his country to replace their financial dependence on growing coca – a primary ingredient in the manufacture of cocaine – with a safer, legal alternative: cacao, which is used to make chocolate.

Palacios has spent seven years helping the farmers of the coastal town of Chocó – where he grew up – transition their efforts to cacao, and pays them for their efforts through sales of chocolate from his artisanal chocolate company, Late Chocó.

But, as NPR noted, Palacios' efforts face steep competition from cocaine production, which increased significantly in 2017, and lack of government support for farmers who give up their coca crops.

Palacios grew up in the region of Chocó, which is comprised predominately of Afro-Colombians; more than half live below the poverty line, which makes the cultivation of coca difficult to turn down for basic sustenance.

After his tenure with the government, he returned to the region in 2010 to implement the cacao-for-coca project – or as Palacios described it, "Mas cacao, menos coca" (more cacao, less coca) – and in the past seven years, has persuaded enough Chocó farmers to grow cacao for his chocolate company. As the NPR feature detailed, his campaign faced a host of challenges during that period.

The region is extremely poor and remote, with no roads and virtually no cellphone reception. Palacios said that his operation also lacked practical know-how about managing and harvesting cacao crops. "We didn't have technical knowledge – how to manage the harvest, how to make it more productive or how to control diseases," he said. "We'd only collected what nature, in its generosity, would leave for us." 

With the help of the National Cacao Producers Federation and cacao growers in the western region of the country, Palacios learned about cultivation and purchased a plot of land outside of the area's capital, Quibdó. There, he established a training center for local farmers and, more recently, Late Chocó, which uses nearly 1,000 pounds of cacao per month to make its chocolate bars. The profits from sales of its bars are used to fund the training center and pay farmers a better rate per pound for their crops.

Despite these efforts, Palacios still faces an uphill battle in converting coca crops to cacao.

As the NPR piece explained, farmers in the region felt abandoned by a similar federal program, which was established as part of a 2016 peace treaty between the Colombian government and FARC, a revolutionary group that controlled much of the country's cocaine industry. More than 83,000 families joined the program, but lack of support by current president Iván Duque has left available funding limited.

Farmers like Francisco Ramírez want to participate in the program.

"We don't want to grow more coca," he said. But the government and outside organizations needed to give them a replacement crop, and aside from efforts like the one established by Palacios, that has yet to happen.

Support from the sales of Late Chocó has made a small but significant impact in filling that gap, one that Palacios hopes to keep active. "Projects in Chocó fail because the [nongovernmental organizations] go and donate money and leave. I went and got them in this cacao project – it's all of our project."  

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Paul Gaita lives in Los Angeles. He has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Variety, LA Weekly, and The Los Angeles Beat, among many other publications and websites.