United Nations support for palm oil production in Peru not only provides former coca growing farmers with sustainable incomes, but also allows them to break with the narcotics trade and re-enter mainstream society.
"Now we have our names and respect. We belong to something. We are part of our country" OLPASA member
Sixty-four-year-old Jonas Chaugua-Sánchez has five hectares of palm oil trees near the rural community of Shambillo on the rugged plateau between the eastern slopes of the Andes known as the Cordillera Azul and the town of Aguaytía, the capital of Padre Abad province.
He stands beneath a “racimo”, a forty-kilogram clutch of ripe, purple fruit hanging from an eight-meter palm tree, and quietly recalls his illicit past.
“Before, life with cocaine was very difficult and dangerous. I thank UN for giving me the chance to get out of that life.” Mr. Chaugua-Sánchez braved threats from narcotics traffickers, abandoned his illegal coca growing, and joined a palm oil cooperative promoted by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) and UNOPS.
In the “war against drugs”, often described as stalemated, Mr. Chaugua-Sánchez and hundreds like him are proof that in parts of Peru the battle against illegal coca has had noteworthy success.
With the concurrence of the Government, the UNODC-UNOPS Alternative Development projects studied the socio-economic aspects of coca cultivation in the project area, where poverty is high. The results revealed that most coca farmers were quite willing to grow legal, sustainable crops. But they did not believe they could make a living if they raised crops that could not be processed or reach main markets from their isolated areas.
These small farmers, desperate to feed their children, therefore saw growing coca as a last resort. They chose the crop despite the fact that it demanded long days of backbreaking, manual labor that damaged the soil, which in turn forced coca-farming families to migrate every four years.
Caught between narcotics buyers and Government officials determined to eradicate the coca crops, they lived in a shadow world, fearful outcasts who avoided authorities and lacked access to basic community services, like sending their children to local schools. Cultivating illicit coca had made the lives of these growers as barren as the soil.
To address this problem, in 1991 the UNODC-UNOPS alternative development effort began an innovative project – “Desarrollo Rural en Tingo María” – to promote palm oil production in the community of Neshuya, 100 kilometers northeast of Aguaytía.
This led to construction in 1997 of a processing plant operated by the palm oil enterprise OLAMSA (Oleaginosas Amazonica S.A.) The plant – funded by the Government of Peru, the Fondo Contravalor Peru-Canada and the UNODC-UNOPS project – has since become the second largest palm oil plant in Peru.
The environment-friendly facility – efficiently powered by burning palm refuse as fuel – at first processed six metric tons of racimos per hour. Today that production has doubled to 12 metric tons. And the growing demand for OLAMSA oil has profited all involved. Some 480 farmers who chose to switch their crops from coca bushes to palm trees have improved their incomes a dramatic tenfold, last year earning US$ 2,200 per hectare in net annual profits. News of this achievement has spread and there is a long waiting list of farmers hoping to join the cooperative.
The clear success of OLAMSA inspired construction in Boquerón of a second plant in 2004 – OLPASA (Oleaginosas Padre Abad S.A.) – where Mr. Chaugua-Sánchez and 400 other farmers bring their racimos.
In all, UNODC palm oil activities in UNODC-UNOPS Alternative Development projects in Peru have changed the lives of more than 2,000 families, a fact acknowledged by the farmers.
OLPASA member Moisés Parada-Patricio described his former life as a coca grower in stark terms. “We were ‘forgotten’ people,” he said. “We lived in fear of crime and of the narco-traffickers. We had serious social problems. We were terrified.” Another member, Lander Manuel Chaves-Vidalón, summed up what the palm oil project means to all of them. “Now we have our names and respect. We belong to something. We are part of our country.”