Peru Coca Growers Switch to Coffee, Battle Fungus

LIMA, PERU - Peru's anti -drug strategy
hinges on persuading farmers to grow
coffee instead of coca, the raw material
of cocaine, but low prices and plant
disease are getting in the way .
President Ollanta Humala's government
is allocating $ 35 million to help coffee
growers pay off debts and cope with " la
roya ," a stubborn fungus known as
coffee rust .
The fungus, which creates orange spots
on leaves and damages the bean, has
devastated coffee plantations across
Central America , Colombia and Peru this
year .
Peru was hit particularly hard.
The Andean nation became the world 's
leading organic producer last year and is
the world 's eighth largest overall coffee
producer behind Brazil, Vietnam and
Colombia.
In 2012, coffee exports accounted for a
full quarter - - about $ 1 billion -- of all
revenue from Peru's agricultural exports,
but this year are unlikely to produce
anything close to the same yield,
depriving Peru of critically needed funds.
The fungus and low coffee prices on
international markets have triggered a 30
percent drop in production, according to
coffee grower associations.
Peru exports coffee to 46 countries, but
the bulk - - 60 percent - - goes to Europe.
Germany is Peru's largest single
customer.
"This is the country's main crop , with
400 ,000 hectares (988 ,000 acres) under
cultivation , as well as the main
agricultural export ," Agriculture Minister
Milton Von Hesse told AFP.
He defended the government aid as a
tool to fight drug traffickers and rejected
critics who call the move a populist
strategy aimed ultimately at winning
votes .
Many coffee farmers used to grow coca
in the mountainous jungle valleys, selling
it to drug traffickers to be made into
cocaine.
"Coffee has been an efficient tool
against drug trafficking , eradicating coca
plantations in the countryside and
providing a dignified standard of living to
those who opted for it ," Agriculture
Minister Milton von Hesse told AFP.
The European Union and the United
States have backed programs promoting
coffee and cacao beans as alternative
crops to wean farmers off the lucrative
coca business.
In Peru, 14 companies formed by ex- coca
farmers now grow coffee , cacao, palm
trees harvested for their edible hearts
and another kind of palm grown for its
oil.
The ventures are backed by the United
Nations Office on Drugs and Crime
( UNODC).
Those associations bring together nearly
27 ,000 families of former coca farmers,
working on 78,644 hectares in parts of
the jungle that include the rough and
tumble area where the Apurimac, Ene
and Mantaro rivers meet.
Drug traffickers , as well as remnants of
the Shining Path Maoist guerrilla group
patrol the troubled junction , killing
soldiers and police who dare stray into
the territory .
Peru ranks alongside Bolivia and
Colombia as the world 's main producers
of coca, grown exclusively in the Andes
of South America , mostly on the eastern
slope .
Some 62,000 hectares of coca crops
produce more than 280 tonnes of leaves
a year , according to the latest
government figures from 2012.
The White House Office of National Drug
Control Policy estimated in July 2012 that
Peru's cocaine production was 325
tonnes, ahead of Bolivia ( 265 tonnes)
and Colombia (195 tonnes).
During a recent protest march , farmers
walked from their homes in the central
highlands to the capital Lima demanding
economic aid and technical help to fight
the roya coffee blight.
The government promised to finance
their debt, and got them to halt the
protest just in time to celebrate Peruvian
Coffee Day .
" It is great that they have addressed our
demands. The financing of our debt was
demanded by thousands of our coffee -
growing brothers ," said Isaac Porras ,
head of the Association of Coffee
Growers of the Central Jungle .
Many Peruvians blame the spread of the
roya blight on temperature changes
caused by climate change.
Sober heads acknowledge that there are
other issues , too.
" We did not take advantage of the good
times, and there are still structural
problems in our sector , such as low
productivity and a meager post -harvest
infrastructure," said Peruvian Chamber of
Coffee and Cacao chief Ricardo
Huancaruna.