In this month’s Root Capital Roundup, we explore how the illicit drug trade affects farming communities in three Latin American countries where we work… and how agricultural businesses offer people a peaceful alternative.
Since the 1960s, much of rural Colombia has been embroiled in a multi-pronged civil conflict between government forces and a plethora of armed guerrilla groups. Many of these groups depend on the drug trade to fund themselves—causing a rise in cocaine production and a corresponding increase in violence. Over nearly 50 years, 260,000 people have been killed and over seven million displaced. The majority of the people affected were from rural regions exactly like those where our clients work.
In 2016, Colombia’s government reached a peace accord with FARC, the largest rebel group. But while a political peace has been negotiated, the road to economic recovery is only just beginning. Many rural Colombians can’t access the markets or networks that would make farming viable. Some will still be tempted to grow coca, fueling the drug trade that the peace agreement aimed to stamp out. And many more, currently residing in shantytowns on the edges of Bogotá and Medellín, simply don’t have farms to go back to.
But the country’s coffee cooperatives present an alternate path. Their commitment to producing some of the best coffee in the world allows farmers to earn higher incomes through legitimate agriculture. By fortifying these businesses, we can show farmers that viable alternatives exist outside of the drug trade and deprive “narcotraficantes” of the resources they need to operate.
Take a closer look at the work of our Colombian clients: in southern Colombia, FCC is promoting environmental sustainability and creating opportunities for young farmers; hundreds of miles to the north, ANEI seeks ways for its indigenous members to preserve their heritage by gaining economic power.
Honey producer and member of the Pangoa cooperative, Peru.
Founded as an offshoot of the Peruvian Communist Party in the late 1960s, communist militant group el Sendero Luminoso (The Shining Path) grew to control large swathes of central and southern Peru. Their rise to power sparked an ongoing conflict between insurgents and government forces that lasted for decades and drove thousands from their homes. The growing international drug trade exacerbated the violence. Inspired by a rising demand for cocaine—fueled largely by American consumers—the Shining Path invested in coca plantations and processing plants to fund their civil war. Without viable alternatives, many farmers either chose to grow cocaine to earn a decent living or were forced to abandon their farms in search of better opportunities and safer homes. The scars of the conflict are still visible in many regions of Peru today.
While Peru might not have as much of a reputation for drug trafficking as its neighbor to the north, the effects of coca cultivation are every bit as drastic on the ground. While the Shining Path is a shadow of what it once was and violence has subsided, coca production is actually on the rise. No longer linked to political violence, it’s still a cause of deforestation and the displacement of indigenous peoples
That is exactly why we invest in local agricultural businesses. By aggregating farmers and connecting them to larger markets, these enterprises make legal crops lucrative and nip the drug trade in the bud. Take Pangoa, one of the longest-running cooperatives in Peru. This woman-led business has secured higher prices for hundreds of coffee, cocoa, and honey producers, and invests its profits into projects that benefit both farmers and the land they depend on.
Read the full story of Pangoa, the cooperative that’s thriving “on the road where life was once worth nothing.”
Producer-member of the Maya Ixil cooperative picking coffee on her small farm. © Sean Hawkey
For 36 years, the people of Guatemala endured one of Latin America’s most brutal civil conflicts. While the war was formally waged between the military government and leftist rebels, the government targeted anyone they viewed as aligned with the rebels, including many of the country’s indigenous farmers.
The formal war ended with the 1996 peace accords; but drug trafficking remains a real threat for the farmers of Guatemala. The drug trade in Central America looks a bit different than it does in Colombia or Peru; rather than cultivating drugs themselves, many people in this part of the world profit from the transport of drugs to the north. Cartels take advantage of weak political systems to influence elections and leverage governmental control to their advantage. And with unemployment and poverty still high among the indigenous and rural communities recovering from conflict, many farmers are tempted to participate in the international drug trade that ferries cocaine and marijuana overland to the United States.
So let’s give those farmers an alternative. Providing already-strong networks of coffee farmers and honey producers with capital and training can help them build loyalty among their members and prevent them from “side-selling” their crops or their labor to drug traffickers. Susana Rodríguez Pérez, accountant for Cooperativa Maya Ixil, says “With the cooperative’s help, now we can sell coffee at a higher price...the cooperative has allowed us to study, to put nutritious food on the table, and buy more land.” It’s businesses like this that can make agriculture work for the world’s most vulnerable farmers, and end the poverty that drug traffickers exploit.
Guatemalan farmers were among those most affected by the country’s civil war. They’re still vulnerable to the violence brought by drug trafficking. Businesses like coffee cooperative Maya Ixil and honey cooperatives COPIASURO and ASOBAGRI offer a road to recovery.
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