In Peru, coca puts one of the world’s best coffee crops at risk


According to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), Bahuaja-Sonene has the world’s highest amount of illegally-cultivated coca within a protected area: 118 hectares (about 290 acres) are growing within the park. Authorities in the area say that the park’s deforestation, the majority of which is related to drug trafficking, has risen to 473 hectares (about 1,170 acres).

Angelina, Moisés, and hundreds of other coffee growers migrated to Putina Punco, a district in the Sandia Valley in the 1970s from the mountains in the Puno Region. It is eight hours away from the city of Puno by train, past the high plateaus and lowland rainforests. The name Putina Punco may be familiar to some: it is the birthplace of Tunki coffee, which was named the best organic coffee in the world in 2010. Tunkimayo, an area within Putina Punco, is where Raúl Mamani harvested the coffee that made him last year’s winner of the “highest quality coffee” award by the Specialty Coffee Association of America. Yet only six of the 60 producers who once grew this coffee in Tunkimayo continue to do so.

The latest report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) says that Bahuaja-Sonene National Park is the protected area with the world’s largest amount of illegally-cultivated coca: 118 hectares (about 290 acres) are growing within the park. Photos courtesy of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) (2017) and the Monitoring of the Andean Amazon Project (MAAP) (2015).

Illegal coca plantations are a major part of the problem.

Although these plantations were detected in the area as early as 2004, it was 2012 that saw the greatest growth in coca crops. This is because a fungus called coffee leaf rust, which turns leaves yellow before causing them to dry up and fall, dramatically reduced the number of coffee plants in the region. Javier Cahuasa, director of the Central Coffee Growers’ Cooperative of Sandia Valley (Cecovasa), says that in 2012, there were 8,400 hectares (over 20,700 acres) of coffee being grown. After the crops were devastated by coffee leaf rust in 2017, only 2,330 hectares (over 5,700 acres) remained. The Ministry of Agriculture of Peru confirms these statistics.

“They were defeated,” Moisés said, shaking his head, noting that there’s nothing to do to fight it. “There has always been coffee leaf rust, but it was controlled and it disappeared. In 2012, that was no longer possible, and in 2013, it came for almost all our plants; the leaves didn’t grow back,” he said. The 66-year old coffee grower has spent more than 40 years in the trade. Of the 5,000 pounds of coffee that his crops once produced, today he is lucky to harvest 200 pounds. At a profit of about $90 per 100 pounds of coffee, and only one crop per year, Moisés says they can no longer afford to live.

Angelina says that in the beginning, everyone was worried and discussed what they could do, hoping for technical assistance from Cecovasa, their municipality, or the government. When that didn’t happen, the tide slowly began to move toward coca cultivation.

The shadow of illicit crops advancing on this protected area is one of three latent threats putting one of Peru’s most biodiverse parks at risk. In this first installment of a three-part series, Mongabay Latam explores a problem that, according to residents and authorities, is out of control.

Drug trafficking in Bahuaja-Sonene National Park

Among the areas in this region where coffee once grew, most are now dominated by coca, if not abandoned completely.

“They saw the money and they left [to grow coca]. In this area, there used to be 50 coffee growers. Now we’re the only ones,” Moisés said. The UNODC estimates that in Putina Punco alone, there are 2,880 hectares (about 7,100 acres) of coca growing  adjacent to the park. In 2012, there were only 1,662 hectares (about 4,100 acres), more than 50 percent increase.

The entire district of Putina Punco is considered a buffer zone of Bahuaja-Sonene National Park. However, those who live there know that being close to the park means being close to danger.

In 2015, four park rangers with an office in the district had to be removed from the National Service of Natural Protected Areas (SERNANP) by the Peruvian government because of the constant threats they received. According to the director of SERNANP, Pedro Gamboa, these threats even involved people appearing at the house of the former park director, who ultimately resigned. The breaking point was when park rangers spotted an unauthorized airstrip. Airstrips are commonly used by drug traffickers to deliver cocaine to other countries in the region. A 2015 report by SERNANP confirms the presence of the unauthorized airstrip.

In 2015, park rangers from Bahuaja-Sonene National Park identified an unauthorized airstrip inside the park. Photos courtesy of DigitalGlobe’s WorldView. Image A: Reference map. Courtesy of DigitalGlobe’s WorldView (NextView).
In 2015, park rangers from Bahuaja-Sonene National Park identified an unauthorized airstrip inside the park. Photos courtesy of DigitalGlobe’s WorldView. Image A: Reference map. Courtesy of DigitalGlobe’s WorldView (NextView).

The Ministry of Agriculture says that drug trafficking in the area has arisen as a consequence of the “balloon effect.” Illegal coca crops are eradicated from one part of the country, only to show up in another area. In 2013, the co-occurrence of the decline in coca crops in the highlands of the Huallaga Province, the military work in the valley of the Apurímac, Ene, and Mantaro rivers, and the massive influx of migrants from Ayacucho and Apurímac in Sandia Province aroused suspicion among coffee growers.

Five years later, the origins of the coca growers in the valley are diverse, according to locals. The “balloon effect” not only spurred farmers to move away, but also encouraged drug traffickers to come to the area. José Chuquipul, the director of the National Commission for Development and Life Without Drugs (DEVIDA), says that there are large families taking control of various sectors of the district, in addition to laboratories for cocaine and cocaine paste located just a few meters from the plantations.

Locals say they know that cocaine is developed within Bahuaja-Sonene National Park. They also say that they know that those grow operations make entering the park through Putina Punco extremely dangerous.

The area’s troubled coffee growing operations, coupled with almost non-existent government and law enforcement entities — the closest police station is 90 minutes from the district — have served as a breeding ground to strengthen the illegal cultivation of coca. Carlos Díaz, the coordinator of the Green Commodities program within the UN Development Program (UNDP), says that in coffee-growing areas with a high presence of illegal crops, coffee plants are usually damaged by the illegal crops, ultimately distorting the economy.

The first indicator is seen during harvest.

“If a person can earn 120 soles ($40) in wages from coca, [that person] will not prefer the 30 to 40 soles ($9 to $11) that coffee offers,” Díaz said.

For Moisés, he tries to harvest as much coffee as possible with his youngest son, but they also need workers to kill weeds and to monitor for diseases and infestations It is tireless work. Díaz says that this is another serious problem with growing coffee: many of the people dedicated to cultivating it are over 50 years old, and younger generations tend to prefer easy money.

This story first appeared on Mongabay

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