Narcos vs. Chocolate: A Bittersweet War on Drugs

Narcos vs. Chocolate: A Bittersweet War on Drugs

Cacao beans from Boyaca await a quality inspection after being cut at the Cacao Hunters chocolate factory in Popayan, Colombia.

SourceGreif Etchebehere/Getty

Why you should care

Because even the most well-intentioned actions have dire consequences.

Many cities would welcome government support in a war on drugs. But last year on a visit to Argelia, a town of around 27,000 in southwestern Colombia, Eduardo Díaz, the leader of a presidential initiative to help farmers switch out of illegal crops, felt anything but welcome. The hotels wouldn’t even provide the government officials with rooms, Díaz says. In the end, he and his official entourage ended up sleeping in a local church — the only space, he says, left open to them.

As it turns out, making the switch from farming coca to other crops is a painful process for local farmers, who’ve grown resentful of a government trying to win the region’s drug war. Previously, planes loaded with toxins intended to destroy coca proved to be just as destructive to the farmers as the crops. Meanwhile, consumers and nongovernmental organizations are growing increasingly unwilling to buy products farmed in areas that could be considered environmentally sensitive — which are the same remote areas populated by the relatively poor farmers being encouraged or forced to stop growing coca. The result? Good news for the war on drugs, but it’s left tens of thousands of farmers dangling in the winds of change. Indeed, some are discovering it might just be easier to stick with the illicit stuff.

Now, a newer approach could be much more productive: turning to cocoa beans used to produce chocolate. Back in 2000, Colombia harvested around 163,000 hectares of coca leaves, much of which was turned into cocaine to fund the vast drug business that had been controlled by the narco-terrorist group FARC since at least 1993, when Pablo Escobar was killed. By 2012, less than 48,000 hectares of coca were harvested in the country, a historical low, thanks in part to Plan Colombia, an ambitious push against drugs conceived and jointly enforced by U.S. and Colombian authorities. Much of those coca leaves disappeared thanks to crop substitution, Díaz says. And chocolate — or rather its raw ingredient, cocoa beans — has been at the heart of Colombia’s strategy to swap crops (peppers and bananas, which require similar conditions as coca to grow, are also being substituted). Between 2010 and 2013, Colombia’s cocoa bean production jumped from 37,000 to 48,500 tonnes.

Even if more farmers are forced to give up their coca for cocoa, their long-term success will depend, in part, on whether consumers in the U.S. and Europe will shell out for their chocolate.

All told, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) estimates that there are more than 600 productive crop-substitution projects in Colombia. Just over half of them are at the commercial stage, and nine projects are already exporting products — not cocaine, but cocoa — to Europe. And the U.S. figures from UNODC also suggest that more than half of the coca fields that have been transformed were switched to cocoa.

But it’s no simple (or sweet) task. Few of those coca fields are located in developed areas — keeping them isolated was key to the FARC’s control over remote and undeveloped regions — and the problem now is linking those territories to hungry markets, Díaz says. And despite the progress made over the past decade, the number of families involved in illegal business has been on the rise in the past four years; the Colombian government estimates that there are still about 60,000 families involved in coca harvesting today. Even as the government works to negotiate peace with FARC in Cuba, their coca business is resurging in some areas.

Reaching a peace deal with FARC, which has an estimated annual turnover of $600 million, could prove much easier than dismantling the coca business. After all, Forbes has named it the third-richest criminal organization in the world. And switching all of FARC’s coca suppliers into legitimate crops without some kind of a treaty would be difficult, to say the least. Remote regions with low connectivity to the rest of the country offer few legal ways for farmers to make a decent living — coca is typically the better, or only, option.

Even if more farmers are forced to give up their coca for cocoa, their long-term success will depend, in part, on whether consumers in the U.S. and Europe will shell out for their chocolate. In the meantime, NGOs are ramping up their campaigns to pressure countries in Latin America to identify companies by their environmental credentials, looking to sideline those that source products farmed from areas that could be preserved. So while pressuring farmers to make responsible environmental decisions comes with good intentions, the movement may also be encouraging farmers in Colombia to stick with the drug business.

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