Colombia Wants To Roll Back Cocaine Production By Promoting Pigs And Peppercorns : Goats and Soda The government wants farmers to uproot coca plants, whose leaves are used to make cocaine — with the promise of money, seeds and technology to help raise everything from peppercorns to pigs.
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Colombia Tries To Get Farmers Away From The Cocaine Biz. How's That Going?

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Colombia Tries To Get Farmers Away From The Cocaine Biz. How's That Going?

Colombia Tries To Get Farmers Away From The Cocaine Biz. How's That Going?

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/669221868/670631211" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

Now to Colombia, where the government is trying to convince drug farmers to produce food and livestock instead of coca, the raw material for cocaine. As John Otis reports, many farmers who have made this switch are barely scraping by.

JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: At a farm co-op in the southern Colombian town of La Hormiga, a machine sorts black peppercorns. They were produced by peasants who once grew coca. Next, workers pour the pepper into plastic bottles and bags.

(SOUNDBITE OF BOTTLE FILLING)

OTIS: But the co-op is already overflowing with bags of unsold black pepper. As his income evaporates, pepper farmer Pedro Culcha says his kids are giving him grief for having gotten out of the more lucrative cocaine business.

PEDRO CULCHA: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: Culcha says, "they tell me, dad, when you grew coca, you had money. When you stopped, everything fell apart. Now we are poor."

CULCHA: (Speaking Spanish).

(SOUNDBITE OF PLASTIC RUSTLING)

OTIS: Culcha's troubles stand as a cautionary tale as Colombia tries to roll back soaring drug production. Besides sending in the police to destroy coca plants, whose leaves are used to make cocaine, the government is helping drug farmers transition to legal products. Much is riding on this strategy. Over the past two years, about 97,000 farmers have agreed to uproot their coca bushes. In exchange, the government has promised money, seeds and technology to help them raise everything from pineapples to pigs. However, Colombia has been promoting so-called crop substitution for the past two decades, and very few projects have taken hold. Many are badly designed and underfunded, says Andres Bermudez, a Colombian journalist who runs a news website about coca farmers.

ANDRES BERMUDEZ: You have to now think of them as people who are going to start their own businesses in a very isolated part of the world where they have no access to roads, where they may not have any access to science and technology, where they have no access to electricity or internet. How are they going to do this? How can we expect them to do this?

OTIS: Despite these hardships, there are other factors at play that can help persuade farmers to get out of the drug business, even if they earn less. That's according to Bo Mathiason, who heads the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime in Bogota.

BO MATHIASON: Where there's coca, for sure there's illegal armed groups. And there tends to be very high levels of violence. I think most farmers today, they actually prefer to live in legality. But at least they live in peace.

ANGEL OBANDO: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: One example is Angel Obando, who grew coca for 26 years.

OBANDO: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: Obando says he finally stopped because he felt like an outlaw. Another reason was that he became a born-again Christian. Now his five-acre farm is dotted with cacao trees.

(SOUNDBITE OF MACHETE HACKING)

OTIS: With a machete, Obando opens purple cacao pods to reveal the seeds that are fermented, roasted and turned into chocolate. He's doing OK because a Colombian chocolate company is buying his cacao. But this is an exception. In La Hormiga and other remote parts of Colombia where production costs are higher, there's little demand for most of the food that ex-coca farmers are producing. That's why Pedro Culcha, who switched from coca to black pepper, is struggling.

CULCHA: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: "We want to live a decent life, but we're scraping by," he says. Culcha is determined to stick with it.

CULCHA: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: But he says that just 10 percent of local farmers are growing food. The rest, he says, are devoted to coca. For NPR News, I'm John Otis in La Hormiga, Colombia.

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