TINGO MARIA, Peru – The organic cacao used to make the finest chocolate has banished drug trafficking from a lush valley in central Peru where cultivation of coca – the raw material of cocaine – was not so long ago the only viable occupation.
The unmistakable aroma of cacao now permeates the air in the Bolson Cuchara valley, located near the city of Tingo Maria in the Upper Huallaga region.
Once a bastion of drug traffickers, the Upper Huallaga saw the amount of land planted with coca decline from 17,500 hectares (43,200 acres) in 2009 to 1,099 hectares in 2015.
The dramatic change came with the arrival of the National Commission for Development and Life without Drugs (Devida), whose goal over the next four years is to reduce by half the 55,000 hectares of Peruvian land currently covered with coca through crop substitution focused on cacao, coffee, pineapple, and citrus.
“We’re not talking about just replacing coca, but about building roads, offering technical assistance and providing land titles to consolidate alternative, comprehensive, and sustainable development,” Devida chief Carmen Masias told EFE.
Despite the inauguration this week by Devida of five bridges in Bolson Cuchara, farmers headed to their fields must still make their way along winding trails through misty, densely wooded mountains in an area dominated for nearly three decades by Shining Path guerrillas.
“They are people who lived many years shackled to illegal activities by force, contending with Shining Path and the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement, and drug trafficking,” Masias said. “There are in Peru 70,000 villages with fewer than 500 inhabitants, on steep terrain, and it requires creativity to reach all of them.”