Cocoa for coca: How Colombia hopes to heal a drug-infested countryside

One of the biggest challenges that Colombia faces as the end of one of its largest most complicated conflicts nears its end is the issue of rural restoration. The war with the FARC guerrillas was waged almost exclusively in the Colombian countryside, and it is there where its effects are most worrying. Record numbers of displaced farmers combine with millions of acres of coca leaf plantations to make the agrarian situation in Colombia a proper tragedy.

The search for solutions in this seemingly unsolvable crisis has led private and public agents to turn to cocoa as a highway to rural prosperity. Initially, the government just needs to replace illegal crops and start up production in sub-utilized land, so finding viable crops for farmers is essential.

Cocoa stands out because it comes backed up with an unlikely ally, the Swiss Economic Cooperation Organization, which has taken the first step towards incentivizing farmers to leave illegal coca plantations behind, and instead grow the much sought after Colombian cocoa.

Their flagship project is an award they expect cocoa growers will covet for years to come, El Cacao de Oro, or The Golden Cocoa. A panel of industry experts searched all across Colombia to find the best cocoa growers, those with highest quality product will be shortlisted, and able to win the grand prize: a visit to the prestigious Salon du Chocolat in Paris, where hopefully they will learn how the global cocoa market works and get a chance to promote their product at the largest stage in the industry.

Incentives have been placed not only to produce cocoa, but to produce quality cocoa, a product able to compete at the highest level in the international markets. If Colombia were to rise up to the occasion the rewards could be significant.

There are still sizable obstacles in the way of these agrarian recovery strategies however. Worryingly, coca leaf farmers are staging protests, having built over 400 blockades this year alone to prevent state agents from eradicating their crops. These protests are a sign that there is simply not enough being done to offer alternatives for the former pawns of the drug business, as they will vouch for the more financially stable, always in demand, coca leaf, over other riskier, more technically complex crops.

Pedro Bernal

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