Pubdate: Sun, 28 Oct 2001
Source: Inquirer (PA)
Copyright: 2001 Philadelphia Newspapers Inc
Author: Jude Webber, Reuters
Bookmark: (Cocaine)


As Coffee Prices Keep Plunging, Many Farmers Are Looking To Their Only 
Viable Cash Crop.

APURIMAC-ENE VALLEY, Peru - For 10 hours a day in a field in Peru's 
southern jungle, Lucia Huarca strips green coca leaves off bushes with 
calloused hands and collects her harvest in her wide blue skirt.

Her day's haul - typically 66 pounds, for which she is paid around $3 - 
will probably end up in the hands of drug traffickers to be transformed 
into cocaine.

Despite a decade-long, U.S.-backed crackdown to strangle the drug trade at 
its source in the world's No. 2 cocaine producing country, coca cultivation 
is thriving - even spreading - where Huarca works in the lush Apurimac-Ene 
valley, about 520 miles southeast of Lima.

"We live off coca because we're poor. Without it, our children can't eat," 
said Huarca, 52, as she harvested a field in Pichari where stray coffee 
plants nestling among the coca bushes bear witness to the plot's 
now-abandoned crop.

A few yards away, men with picks cleared ferns to ready an area for 
replanting with coca - a sacred plant for Peru's Inca emperors and still 
enthusiastically - and legally - chewed by Andean people as a cure for 
altitude sickness and to alleviate hunger.

Coca can be sold legally to the State Coca Co., but it offers lower prices 
than the drug traffickers.

Backbone Of Local Economy

Meanwhile, glutted markets and plunging world prices for traditional coffee 
and cocoa output have turned coca leaf into the only viable cash crop and 
backbone of the local economy.

Peru's eradication efforts in the 1990s made it a key ally in Washington's 
regional drug war. But analysts say the illicit trade here has been boosted 
by the U.S.-backed antidrug Plan Colombia, spurring prices that coffee, 
cocoa and alternative crops such as fruit and palm hearts cannot hope to 
match and leaving dirt-poor farmers little choice but to depend on coca.

Producers say export-ready coffee fetches just 60 cents a kilogram, a big 
loss on the $1.52 each kilo costs to produce. Coca leaf goes for up to 
$2.30 on the black market. Farmers say they would have to sell eight kilos 
of coffee to buy one of beef.

Despite official figures - the United States cites a 70 percent fall in 
coca cultivation since 1996 to 84,263 acres in 2000 - farmers and drug 
experts say the stark reality is that Peru's coca production is rising again.

Expert Refutes U.S. Claim

"It is absolutely false that coca production has fallen since mid-1998, and 
the United States and the [Peruvian] government know that very well," said 
Hugo Cabieses, an expert on coca at the Peruvian Center for Social Studies.

He estimated 2001 coca cultivation of 173,000 acres with some of Peru's 
densest areas - up to 200,000 coca plants per hectare (2.47 acres) - in the 
Apurimac-Ene area.

Some hills are literally covered with closely packed, vivid green coca 
bushes, and in villages and on many roadsides, carpets of leaves left out 
to dry in the sun are common.

"I've got old coca plantations that I had abandoned, but since January I've 
rehabilitated them because coffee and cacao are no longer rewarding," said 
one farmer, Teodosio Candia.

While it would be an exaggeration to say farmers everywhere are ripping up 
fields to replant with coca, the crop is an everyday necessity. In the 
village of Sivia, even the Lima government's representative, Vidal 
Saavedra, is a coca farmer.

Although only a tenth of his land is planted with coca, that yields far 
more in cash than other crops. Along with the higher price, coca can be 
harvested every three months.

"Here in the valley, I think 90 percent grow coca," said Luis Guevara of 
the El Quinacho coffee cooperative that has sought to boost organic coffee 
and encourage its members to diversify their crops to build sustainable 

Local officials say the message from President Alejandro Toledo is gradual, 
consensual eradication and farmers say they would be willing if there were 
other crops as lucrative.

But farmers, many of them armed and organized into local defense corps, say 
they would fight if Peru tried to eradicate coca crops as Colombia has 
done. Scores died in clashes with police when Bolivia clamped down on 
illicit coca last year.

Local residents say any forced eradication could also revive the leftist 
rebel Shining Path group that originated in Ayacucho and waged a bloody war 
on the state in the 1980s and 1990s. It still has clusters hidden in the 
hills - Saavedra said 400 armed but peaceful rebels entered a valley 
village in March.

"Blood would flow if they tried to eradicate coca," said Juan Rojas, one 
farmer in the valley.
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