Stories from Peru
In Peru's traditional coca-growing regions, small farmers are trying to break out of their dependence on illicit coca cultivation and switch to legal products such as cocoa or coffee. Alternative Development projects as a UNODC project financed by the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) to combat drug crop cultivation support them in their efforts. In 2018, the journalist Hildegard Willer spoke on behalf of the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) to farmers about how they experience and have helped shape change in their villages.The photos were taken by Leslie Searles.
When Silvia Iparraguirre hears the invitation to early morning exercise on the radio programme broadcast from the provincial capital, she smiles: "I don't need early morning exercise here," says the 48-year-old. "I go to my cocoa plantation every day, that's sport enough".
Quickly the slim woman with the green eyes and blond curly hair walks a dirt road out of the village. Her father was of Italian descent, she explains the colour of her eyes and hair, which is unusual for the area. At a rice field she turns right, then goes down an embankment to a river. Silvia skillfully balances on the slippery ground in her rubber boots and with her machete. Two hills further on and Silvia has arrived at her cocoa plantation. The heat and the mud don't seem to bother the sporty Silvia, she easily finds her safe step on the narrow muddy path.
For Silvia and her husband, cocoa is not just a product. "The cocoa is our treasure", says Silvia and points to the low trees, on which large cacao fruits hang, yellow, blood-red and almost brownish fruits that resemble a papaya fruit in shape and size. However, the skin is considerably harder than that of a papaya. Silvia's husband, Angel, cuts off the fruit with a machete, Silvia plucks the "baba" out. "Baba" is the name given to the white and fluffy-looking pulp that envelops each cocoa bean. The fresh cocoa beans look like huge snowflakes in there, or like a big white candy. Silvia Iparraguirre puts one of the "babas" in her mouth. "That's a CCN 51, a bit sour," she expertly comments and sucks the flesh away until the brown cocoa seed appears. CCN 51 is the most common type of cocoa, it is very resistant and grows well. But it is also a bit sour. Not suitable for export to Europe the bean is mainly used to make cocoa butter; the price that farmers get for it is low.
Silvia and Angel are now focusing on the gourmet varieties, the so-called "Cacao Fino Aromático" - "fine aromatic cocoa beans". Although they do not yield quite as much fruit, they have a higher market value. "You have to try this baba," she enthuses and offers the bystanders a cocoa bean wrapped in white pulp. It looks no different from CCN 51, but actually tastes much sweeter.
Silvia and her husband Angel have been growing gourmet cocoa beans since their cocoa cooperative "Colpa de Loros", established a year ago, found a buyer in France who purchases their entire production and uses it to make exquisite branded chocolate. "The cocoa is like a baby, you have to take care of it all the time," says Silvia. Since her husband Angel often works as a lumberjack away from home, Silvia has learned everything she needs to know about cocoa farming from the UNODC project financed by Germany: Pruning, grafting and fertilizing trees, all using purely organic methods. Her land is also certified organic, a precondition for remaining in the cooperative. It took four years before the cocoa trees yielded their first profit this year. So far, they have earned around 800 euros with the cocoa, "but we are only at the beginning," Silvia is convinced - because cocoa trees only reach their full productivity after the fifth year.
Silvia lives with her husband Angel and her 22-year-old son in Nolberth, a good half hour's drive off the highway to the provincial capital Pucallpa. Nolberth was only founded 16 years ago, allegedly by a German named "Norbert", who wanted to build a holiday settlement here, had the village entered in the land register on his name and then disappeared forever. Only the name Nolberth has remained from him. Today 600 people live her and many of them have fled from other parts of the country because of the civil war to earn their living with coca.
Silvia and Angel also have a painful history behind them. Silvia's mother was killed by the terror of the "Shining Path" guerrilla which was active in Peru in the 80s and 90s, and Silvia had to leave her home in the neighbouring department of San Martin "only with what I was wearing". Studying was not possible. Silvia, as the oldest, had to care for her five younger siblings. Her difficult fate is not apparent to Silvia Iparraguirre. "I'm not complaining," she says calmly. "I have found a treasure in the cocoa today."
In search of a new home, Silvia and her husband Angel settled in Nolberth. At first, like everyone in the village, they grew coca. But coca brought the same violence they had tried to escape from. When the Peruvian government defoliated and eradicated the last coca bushes 6 years ago, Silvia and Angel were more than willing to bet on cocoa instead of coca.
They have been living here for 16 years - and Silvia has become the "agente municipal", the head of the village of Nolberth. "I am the first woman in this position", she says proudly. The gender courses taught by the female engineer from the UNODC were important for this. As a condition of German funding, the gender component has been part of the project from the very beginning and was a major reason why a woman is now in charge of the small village. "At our first meetings, the women of the village did not take part at all or sat at the back of the room," recalls project manager Ernesto Parra. "We then brought the women to the front of the meetings, a strategy of our gender component". Thanks to this experience, the women of the village organized a so-called "ladies committee", whose president was Silvia Iparraguirre. "What can men do that I cannot do as well", Silvia Iparraguirre asked herself and said “yes” when her predecessor in office asked her if she would stand for election.
Silvia was elected and is now negotiating with the authorities for the fate of her village. At first, many men would have refused to follow her, but in the meantime, she has gained authority and gets along well with them in her local council. Her husband Angel is proud of his wife: "In the past, with coca growing there was a lot of machismo, the man brought the money home and said, here I decide". This has become much more cooperative with cocoa, because the couples cultivate cocoa together and earn the proceeds through hard work together.
She has her office at home - at the wooden kitchen table is her booklet in which she notes down her appointments, right behind there is the sink. Silvia's most important work tool as a local manager is her mobile phone. Two of them are right by the window. Unfortunately, there is only connection at some points in Nolberth. "When I lean out of the window, it usually works".
So far, there is no running water in the houses in Nolberth - everyone gets their water from two public wells. This is what Silvia Iparraguirre wants to achieve during her term of office: that the houses get running water and the village has a good secondary school. Just a few years ago, the school authorities denied that there were any school-age children at all in Nolberth. Silvia Iparraguirre was able to correct this at the school board and is now fighting for a decent secondary school. Also, the dirt road to the country road should be improved, so that the next rainfall does not turn it into a mud hole again.
"But it should remain naturally here," says the cheerful woman. "Not too much cement, like in the city." On the way back from her cocoa plantation, she notices that the coconuts on a palm tree are ripe. With a well-practiced hit with the machete she cuts off the coconut and knocks a hole in it to drink the coconut milk from it. Then she skips down, machete in one hand, coconut in the other, the slippery path to the river as if it were an easy walk. No, Silvia Iparraguirre really doesn't need to do early morning exercise.
The young entrepreneur
The small paradise of Willy González is well hidden. From the main road, one drives approximately 600 meters of altitude difference steeply down on a single-lane gravel road that turns into a mud hole when it rains. After 6 kilometers by car, the route is only walkable: after a jump over a stream and two muddy embankments further up, there opens up all at once a well-tended green area lined with flowers in all colours. Two wooden houses in the middle of the area. Willy González and his mother Epifania Enríquez live here. They have returned here.
Willy González's cocoa finca almost would not have existed. When his father died, many years ago, his mother Epifania wanted to sell the remote property on the slope of the rainforest. The family was already living in the nearby town of Tingo María. "We children were barely able to stop her from doing so," says Willy González. He now is 30 years old and is convinced that his future lies in the countryside, on his finca. This was not always the case.
"We came here as a young couple at the beginning of the 80s and founded the village of Ricardo Herrera," recalls Epifania Enríquez. Now 53 years old, she is the mother of three children and has been a widow for many years. At that time, it was all about survival, she remembers: self-sufficiency, with everything that the forest could provide. And of course, the coca. It brought the money, the quick money, thanks to several annual harvests and the high demand. Back then, they walked for three hours on an impassable dirt track to the main road. But then the special police came to the remote village, sprayed the coca bushes with a defoliant and eradicated them. "All of a sudden we had nothing, many of us left the village," Epifania remembers. The Alonzo Enríquez family with Willy, then 10 years old, also left their property and moved to nearby Tingo María. Willy and his two sisters went to school there. After that, however, their education was over. The family could not afford higher education. Young Willy worked in temporary jobs, printing t-shirts for a friend who ran a printing shop. But that was not a perspective, Willy González tells today. The entrepreneurial spirit was already in him then. He wanted to start something of his own. He found this perspective on their old property in the distant village of Ricardo Herrera. Living in Tingo María he had never gave up the connection: His uncles continued to cultivate their land in the remote village and Willy helped them from time to time. At first Willy, like everyone else in Ricardo Herrera, also grew coca. After the national anti-narcotics police had eradicated the bushes, Willy Alonzo was reluctant to be convinced of the UNODC project for alternative cultivation. "In Ricardo Herrera, coca cultivation and the violence that accompanied it was particularly strong," recalls Ernesto Parra, the head of the UNODC project. "There was much distrust and initial resistance to our proposal to grow cocoa instead of coca".
The decisive factor for Willy was the beginning of the cocoa boom. The global demand for cocoa increased and Peruvian cocoa was considered to be of particularly high quality. "I first planted cocoa eight years ago," recalls Willy González. "With no capital, just my own hands working" It takes four years to harvest a cocoa plant. During this time, UNODC project staff showed Willy Alonzo how to overcome this drought by growing corn, beans, raising chickens and guinea pigs. It was encouraging for Willy Alonzo, when the first cocoa harvest already yielded a small profit – enough for the young entrepreneur to invest more and move completely to Ricardo Herrera.
Today Willy González cultivates 6 hectares of land with cocoa trees. The trees, which are about 5 meters high, are placed at precisely measured triangular intervals from one tree to the other. He learned how important proper cultivation is from the engineers of the UNODC project. "If you plant them in opposite directions around the slope, you can avoid soil erosion". He also learned the importance of cutting the trees correctly so that they get the right amount of light and shade. In the tropical rainforest, the leaves quickly grow together to form a dense canopy of leaves and no longer let sunlight through. Then moisture would also accumulate underneath - both of which are poison to the cocoa plants. Proper fertilization is just as important. Willy González composts the shells of the cocoa beans, pear-shaped hard shells measuring around 20 centimeters in size, in a wooden rack provided for this purpose. At precisely measured intervals in a circle around the cocoa tree, he pours the fertilizer obtained from the cocoa beans.
The result: a flowering cocoa grove, with large organic red cocoa fruits, so many and so large that one wonders how the small trees can carry such a load. The yellow to reddish cocoa fruits resemble the papaya fruits in shape and colour, but the shell is hard and often notched.
He harvests up to 800 kilos of cocoa per hectare, says Willy. At a price of the equivalent of 2.35 euros per kilo, he makes an annual profit of around 5,200 euros after deduction of expenses. That is twice the Peruvian minimum wage, extrapolated to an entire year.
When Willy González comes along in his rubber boots, jeans and the red t-shirt, you can see that he likes being a cocoa farmer and enjoys being outdoors. But Willy González is also an entrepreneur. And he is extremely curious. Although he has not been able to complete a formal university or technical college degree, he has acquired knowledge of crop cultivation, accounting and marketing in various courses organized by the UNODC project. "In the past, people thought that if you didn't learn anything, you could only become a farmer. But it's the other way round, to be successful as a farmer, you have to learn and keep yourself informed". Today, his goal is to increase his cocoa production and set up his own cooperative with which he can market his cocoa beans directly. Thanks to the coffee and cocoa cooperatives Naranjillo and La Divisoria, which are strong in the region, he has been able to identify the advantages of the cooperative model for small-scale farmers. Only as a cooperative the farmers can meet guaranteed delivery quantities while retaining control over the marketing of their products.
Willy González is particularly proud of the new house he has built himself. "We used to live here like animals," he talks about his childhood in Ricardo Herrera. "Everyone lived in one room, next to the animals and the barn. The kitchen was a dark, sooty hole. There was no bathroom or toilet". Today, his farmstead consists of two wooden houses, an old and a new one, and a separate new concrete building, which contains the toilet and a shower. Willy Alonzo was only able to make these purchases because he achieved good harvest yields thanks to the conversion to cocoa - advised and accompanied by the UNODC project. On the ground floor of the family's old wooden house, there now is a workshop, next to the workbench are a few sacks. Willy and his mother have neatly taped little signs to know where everything belongs: machetes, hammer, saw on one side, the sacks of food on the other side. On the opposite wall, a little sign shows that the bedrooms are located upstairs.
The highlight, however, is the new wooden house with the kitchen and dining room. It is built on wooden stilts to protect it from the heavy rains: It has a sink with running water, a gas stove and a long-tiled work surface in the kitchen section. In the other part of the room wooden benches and chairs invite to sit down. Epifania serves "chopo", a delicious juice made from cooked bananas. In front of the open veranda, you can almost touch the rain forest with your hands: Green banana trees, red strelicia and purple bougainvillea grow on the hillside behind the veranda. Willy and Epifania don't need to plant flower boxes. They can pick the flowers directly from the veranda.
Willy González was able to build the new wooden house with his own funds, thanks to his income from selling cocoa. He was inspired to do so by the model house that the Ricardo Herrera community built in the center of the village and which today serves as a community house. To build it the UNODC project team has applied for funds from the "Fondo de las Américas". The community members then built the model house with their own contributions.
Willy González is convinced that rural life has a future. "We used to be cut off here, but today we have good mobile phone connection, a passable road, running water" - this too was made possible by an agreement between the UNODC project and the district mayor in Hermilio Valdizan. The mayor committed to use state funds to upgrade the road to Ricardo Herrera. The UNOCD project provided two machines for this purpose.
The only thing missing in the village is a good school. If the educational opportunities in the countryside do not improve, this could also lead Willy to move back to the city one day.
But this is still theory: Willy González is not married yet nor has children.
But he infected his mother with his optimism. She moved back to her son in Ricardo Herrera, in the village that she once co-founded with her husband and left afterwards.
Ernesto Parra, the head of the UNODC project, is proud of Willy González: "Despite his initial resistance to the switch to cocoa, Willy is the one who has best used and assimilated the potential of our project".
Willy González himself sees his future in Ricardo Herrera: "I want to show that you can live well in the country, that you don't have to go to the city to do so," says Willy González, confirming his intention to stay here and turn his cocoa plantations into a flourishing business.
The coffee farmer
When Moly Checya thinks back on how she outwitted her husband, the 35-year-old coffee farmer cannot repress a grin. “My husband wanted nothing to do with the new cultivation methods the engineers recommended. He said it would just mean more work with no reward,” she recalls on her way down through the coffee plantation behind her house. “I suggested a wager: I would use the new methods on one half of our land and he would grow coffee the old way on his part.” The old method meant simply planting the rootstock of the coffee bush in the soil. The new method developed by the engineers involved in the German-funded UNODC project required more work and meant allowing the coffee beans to sprout, then waiting for them to grow into individual seedlings before planting. It was well worth it and Moly Checya easily won the wager she had made with her husband: “My coffee bushes were so beautiful afterwards,” she still recalls with delight. Unlike her husband’s plants which didn’t grow at all. Since then how to plant coffee has never been an issue in the Checya-Ponce family.
The story of Moly Checya and her family illustrates how planting legal products not only results in limited prosperity but may also restore peace and laughter to an entire family. Each time Moly Checya laughs, the silver crown on her incisor catches the light. Laughter seems as much a part of the 35-year-old as her straight, black hair, her round face and the Wellingtons she wears to work on her coffee plantation. Yet in the early years of her life, Moly Checya had very little to laugh about.
She was just eight years old when her parents moved her and her five siblings from the neighbouring city of Huánuco into the backcountry of the Peruvian high rainforest. In Peru at the end of the 80s and beginning of the 90s, there were only two reasons for moving to the rainforest: either to join the “Shining Path” (Sendero Luminoso) , a Mao-inspired ideological militant group that carried out bloody massacres of farmers and provoked equally violent attacks by Peru’s military. Or one was “in search of a livelihood”, as Moly Checya’s mother euphemistically put it.
The livelihood referred to here was growing coca for the Columbian drug mafia. With multiple harvests a year, coca cultivation brought in more money than Molly’s father was able to earn working in the silver mines. But the money brought violence with it, violence from all sides. First the “Terrucos”, as people in the countryside referred to the members of the Shining Path, arrived. “They came and seized everything we had,” Moly Checya recalls. Some days the children had nothing more to eat than a plantain and an egg. Then the military came in and accused the farmers of supporting the terrorist organisation.
The Checya family had a particularly hard time of it. “My sister was kidnapped by the military and held prisoner in the military barracks for a year.” This is all the otherwise so open and talkative Moly is willing to say. The terrorists murdered one of Molly’s husband’s uncles. Every family in the region has lost at least one loved one to the violence. The only way her mother has been able to survive has been by suppressing the memory of the violence. She admits that the memories come flooding back when she sees war films on television, memories of rows of dead bodies along the side of the road, of massacres by the military and the terrorists.
Following the capture of the leader of the “Shining Path”, the politically motivated terror and the government’s brutal response slowly tapered off in the mid-90s. But this did not spell the end of the vicious cycle of violence in Huánuco and Tingo María. After all cultivating coca might be profitable, but it was also still illegal. Nevertheless, drawn by the allure of quick money and a lack of viable alternatives, Moly and Paul began their married life together growing coca. Until one day CORAH, the Peruvian Coca Reduction Agency, first sprayed their coca fields with a defoliant, then pulled the plants out by the roots. Moly Checya is still indignant when she recalls the incident: “They didn’t care one bit that we had nothing at all to eat.” The destruction of their coca plants left the family facing complete ruin.
At that moment, the UNODC project stepped in and offered the family a profitable alternative. With some assistance, they began ramping up their coffee production for the consumer market. “We started with 2 hectares. Today we have 27,” Moly Checya says with justifiable pride. The starting phase was rough, as they knew next to nothing about how to grow coffee. It also takes a number of years before the plants began generating a profit, so it is important to continue growing other crops, or start growing them since coca is generally grown as a monoculture. This aspect of food security is an important element of the UNODC project. During the one to two years a coffee farm requires before it begins turning a profit, many families succumb to the draw of the drug mafia, which offers farmers lucrative pre-financing if they go back to growing coca. So it is very important to have other sources of income. Moly Checya and Paul Ponce remained firm in their determination to grow coffee. They could afford to because the United Nation’s agriculture engineers provided them with 20 chickens, seeds, and technical support to ensure they could earn a living until the coffee was ready for harvest. Although coffee provides a good income by now, Moly and her husband Paul still plant maize, beans and bananas for their own consumption, and 75 chickens scratch and peck for food in their coop.
Moly sells a portion of her coffee to the Bio-Azul cooperative. She also roasts and grinds some to sell directly to consumers. Since she lives along the main road from the highlands into the rainforest, her stand in front of her parent’s house next door is very popular. Simple wooden shelves display bags of ground coffee along with handmade chocolate from cocoa farmers in another village. They also sell giant plantains and limes the size of grapefruits. Business is brisk and considerably more profitable than selling unprocessed coffee beans to a middleman. “We get around 2 euros for 250 grams of ground coffee.” They would have to deliver four times as much to the cooperative to earn the same amount.
Moly Checya, her husband Paul and her parents are sitting around a table behind the stand, selling cups of homebrewed coffee from their fields. The couple’s two daughters have joined the group. 13-year-old Zarai still attends school and would like to be a civil engineer one day. 20-year-old Jennifer is already enrolled in an environmental engineering program in nearby Tingo María. Moly was only able to complete the sixth grade. No one in the family regrets giving up coca farming. “We live in peace now, earn a good income, and our children can go to school and university,” Moly says.