The Washington Times / February 2, 1999
By Larry Luxner
VILLA RICA, Peru -- To get to this dusty little farming town that bills itself as "the coffee capital of Peru," one has to take a one-hour flight east of Lima, land at the heavily guarded San Ramon military airfield, drive to the town of La Merced and suffer a grueling, two-hour trip by 4-wheel-drive over what deserves to rank as one of the 10 worst roads in the Western Hemisphere.
Here, under deep blue skies and impressive mountain panoramas that contrast with the region's desperate poverty, farmer Teodoro Estrella Contreras proudly announces that he's producing 30 quintales (hundredweights) of coffee per hectare, compared to the national average of 6-8 quintales per hectare.
Working alongside Estrella at the Comite La Limena coffee cooperative is Juan Diaz Simon. He says that besides coca leaf, coffee is the only crop worth growing here.
"Before, the subversives wouldn't let us grow coffee," said the 23-year-old farmer. "When the Sendero [Shining Path] was around, we could not tend our plantations. Now, we can make ends meet with agriculture. Coffee gives us a sufficient margin to cover our costs and make a small profit."
Down the dirt road a few kilometers is the Copaevin cooperative, whose 24 growers, including five women, have 405 hectares of farmland under production, including 162 hectares of coffee.
U.S. Embassy spokesman Michael Greenwald says it's no small miracle that these farmers are actually able to grow coffee and get it to market.
"This part of Peru was controlled by terrorists and narcotraffickers," he explained. "Now we can take advantage of a window of opportunity, and we've brought down the price of coca to the point where growing coffee is profitable. The U.S. consumer, by buying coffee that comes from these plantations, will guarantee that these farmers will have a market for their products. When you drink a cup of coffee, you're literally helping in the war on drugs."
U.S. taxpayers -- even those that don't drink coffee -- are helping out too. Over a five-year period, the U.S. Agency for International Development will spend $107 million to help the Peruvian government eliminate coca production and encourage the cultivation of coffee and other crops.
Michael Maxey, director of USAID's Alternative Development office in Lima, says that out of $59 million authorized by Congress, $35 million has been spent so far; the program is currently spending $30 million per year. In November, U.S. State Department representatives attended an Inter-American Development Bank meeting in Brussels, at which the U.S. government pledged significant additional resources for this program over the next five years.
"The United States is supporting Peru's efforts to permanently move out of coca," says the Mississippi native, who has lived in Peru for the last three years and worked for USAID since 1981. "Our objective is to support the Peruvian government's National Alternative Development Plan and its overall goal of reducing current coca cultivation by 50% in the next five years."
At the moment, the program consists of 6,000 coffee farmers grouped into 300 committees with 15 to 20 farmers each. These campesinos are scattered through the jungle areas of Peru -- from Moyobamba in the north to Villa Rica and Merced in the center on towards the Apurimac River Valley and Aquillabamba in the south, near Cuzco and the world-famous Machu Picchu ruins.
Until now, the region's poverty made the cultivation of coca far more lucrative than anything else. As a result, Peru has become the largest supplier of coca leaf for cocaine production in the world. In 1998, it supplied enough coca leaf to produce 240 metric tons of cocaine.
Yet thanks to an interdiction strategy being pursued jointly by the U.S. government and President Fujimori, "there's been a sustained disruption of the market, and this has caused the price of coca to collapse. In turn, farmers have reduced dramatically the area of coca production over the last three years."
According to CIA figures derived from satellite photography, coca cultivation in Peru fell from 115,300 hectares in December 1995 to 51,000 hectares in December 1998.
"This kind of success is unparalleled in U.S. counternarcotics initiatives in Latin America, and provides what the country team believes is a model for successful elimination of coca production in the hemisphere," says a USAID report, adding that it's implementing a $12 million program over the next three years aimed at increasing coffee production on at least 16,500 hectares.
"A significant portion of the coffee produced under this program will be high-quality gourmet coffee," says USAID consultant Gary Talboy. "That's a very unusual thing for Peru, whose coffee isn't known for quality."
In 1998, Peru's coffee exports came to $300 million, down from $400 million the year before, due to lower prices and the lingering effects of El Nino. Of the 1998 total crop of two million 132-pound bags, 50% went to Western Europe (primarily Germany), 30% to the United States and 20% to the Far East and elsewhere.
Vice President Ricardo Marquez Flores, interviewed in Lima, says replacing his country's illicit coca crop with coffee, cacao and other alternatives could cost up to $500 million -- but that Peru can't do it alone.
"Alternative development to coca is a major challenge," he said. "What we need is the support of the international community to set up infrastructure and building roads. You can imagine what we could do if we had the right infrastructure."