How cacao is helping Colombia recover from decades of violence and conflict.
Late last year the Colombian government ratified a peace deal with the largest guerrilla group in the country, the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC). This peace deal formally brings an end to over fifty years of armed conflict in Colombia, a devastating war that impacted Colombia’s rural population the most.
This deal is an enormous achievement, and a momentous step in Colombia’s journey to peace, but it is just that, a step. The Colombian peace process faces many challenges, and one of the biggest is eradicating the illicit cultivation of coca, the raw material for cocaine. This is where cacao will play an important role.
Guerrillas and others have long used drug trafficking to finance their activities. With the FARC in the process of disbanding, there is a risk that other illegal groups will step in to control the distribution of this crop.
Often a farmer’s decision to grow coca is one of survival. During the worst years of the internal conflict many parts of Colombia were controlled by guerrilla groups like the FARC. The lack of a government presence in these areas meant roads and bridges were not maintained, so farmers couldn’t transport their produce to buyers. As purchasers of an illicit crop, coca buyers go directly to the farm, relieving farmers of the stress of wondering if a river might be passable during heavy rains.
However coca farmers are in an extremely precarious position, with ruthless narcotraffickers on one side and the Colombian authorities on the other. To bring peace and financial security to these farmers, the Colombian government, with the help of several international agencies, is encouraging them to switch to cacao.
The potential of cacao
Colombia’s tropical climate and rich soils mean much of its land is ideal for growing cacao. Additionally, the cacao trees currently growing in the country are mostly of the Criollo and Trinitario varieties, trees which produce fine-flavour cacao beans that command higher prices on the international market. And with a global shortage of cacao recently pushing those prices to historical highs, this crop has the potential to provide a fair and legal income to farmers previously engaged in coca cultivation. President Juan Manuel Santos called cacao the “seed of peace”. Expectations are high.
However, much needs to happen before a farmer can expect to earn money from cacao which is why international agencies including USAID and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) have created a programme called Cacao for Peace. The programme aims to improve the cacao value chain by strengthening public and private agricultural institutions with research, technical assistance and extension eduction. What does this mean in the real world?
Education is crucial if cacao is to help bring peace to Colombia’s rural areas. Farmers new to the crop must first learn how to grow cacao and, most importantly, how to perform the crucial post-harvest processes of fermentation and drying that are essential for maintaining a high-quality product. The Cacao for Peace programme sends agricultural extension agents, experts in the cultivation and processing of cacao, to farms to teach these essential skills.
Conducting cacao post-harvest processes requires equipment on the farm. To this end, architects at the UNODC are designing and installing drying beds, known as Casa Elbas, and fermentation stations. These facilities ensure the high quality cacao the farmers are cultivating is not damaged by poor fermentation or drying processes.
Access to markets
Finally, for cacao to replace coca, farmers also need access to markets. This requires a huge investment in infrastructure like roads and bridges. It also means connecting farmers to buyers, those who pay fair and transparent prices for cacao. This is one of the ways that USAID is helping cacao farmers like Doña Ana Almanza. A farmer on Isla de la Dulzura, a tiny island in the Cauca river in the country’s northwest, Doña Ana has always grown cacao, but previously she earned very little money for it. The isolation of her community made it vulnerable to unscrupulous middle men who paid well below the international market rates for cacao, sometimes as little as half its value. However a recent project by USAID connected the farmers of Isla de la Dulzura to cacao buying collective, Chocolate Colombia.
Ana Almanza is the leader of a cacao-growing group on the island. In addition to cultivating cacao on her farm of 6 acres, she collects cacao from several local farmers and pays a fair market price, determined by Chocolate Colombia based on the current price on the NY stock exchange. She then makes the hour-long journey to Chocolate Colombia’s newly opened weighing station on mainland Cáceres. She and the farmers she works with are now earning double for their cacao, because the system is regulated and transparent.
A few signatures on a piece of paper won’t immediately change the reality for Colombia’s rural population, but with investment in infrastructure and education, cacao has potential to bring some economic stability and social harmony to Colombian farmers. That means when you buy chocolate products made from Colombian cacao, you are part of Colombia’s journey to peace.
Stay tuned for more updates on the Cacao for Peace project.