By Marian Romero/Diálogo April 05, 2017 With the delivery of 3,000 kilos of high-grade cacao to one of the largest cacao processing plants in the country, communities in Colombia’s Vichada department ratified their decision to replace coca crops with cacao, marking the country’s first successful illegal crop substitution effort. The Colombian Air Force (FAC, per its Spanish acronym), which oversees this initiative, is providing the support needed to transport the harvest from the nation’s jungle area. So far 248 families have switched from growing illegal coca to planting cacao for export. “Drug trafficking is a problem that has always plagued this region. The Combined Joint Task Force ARES was started in this zone in 2012 to fight trafficking and to block criminal and insurgent group activity,” said FAC Colonel Jean Paul Strong, ARES director. “From the beginning, we knew it was essential to give people other options, as 90 percent of residents have devoted themselves to planting coca for a living over several generations, and this was their only source of employment in the area.” Agriculture is a skill deeply rooted in the region, formerly known as the Black Triangle due to the predominance of drug trafficking. FAC and local officials proposed to the community the voluntary replacement of illegal coca and the creation of different incentives for legal crops. Local farmers considered that cacao would be a better alternative, as it is a plant that grows naturally in that soil and climate, the seed can be easily stored for prolonged periods, and it is an agricultural product that is in high demand. They are hopeful that through this change in livelihood, the region will come to be known as the Cacao Triangle. “Here, we all made a living from coca. We came from other villages when ‘scraping’ [harvesting the leaf] was booming in the 90s. Things have changed since then. Crops got scarcer and it has been harder and harder to find work. A lot of people are still doing that work but others of us wanted a change,” said farmer Pedro Tobías, treasurer of the Association of Agricultural Producers of Alto Vichada (PROAGRO, per its Spanish acronym). To close the production cycle, FAC entered into a commercial agreement with a cacao processor and with PROAGRO, which brings together producers from nearby communities in Güérima, Chupave, and Puerto Príncipe. The agreement includes the payment of fair prices in accordance with the commodities exchange, the payment of freight costs, a harvest plan to support the families, and cash advances so farmers can buy the necessary equipment, like trucks. Comprehensive development of Alto Vichada Several meetings were needed for local farmers to arrive at the best crop alternative and come together as partners. “The departmental government of Vichada donated the cacao plants but the advising on best practices for crop cultivation was sporadic, as none of the technicians wanted to stay in the region for longer than a month,” Col. Strong said. “Also, while the cacao was growing, the farmers needed a means of subsistence, so they kept planting coca over the four years that it took to get to their first cocoa harvest.” In view of the development of the cacao crops over time, the willingness of farmers to properly maintain their crops in order to secure a different livelihood and the social milieu in a country seeking peaceful solutions to the armed conflict, the Colombian government will subsidize the second phase of the project. On October 14, 2016, the Comprehensive Development Plan for Alto Vichada was established to promote the coordinated replacement of illegal crops — mainly the replacement of coca with cacao, as well as with other crops. The plan also creates the conditions necessary for viable agricultural economic activity, including improvements to roads, health services, and education, as well as PROAGRO training. This project was the first of its kind to be formalized within the framework of the Final Agreement for the Termination of the Conflict and the Construction of a Stable and Lasting Peace, specifically in terms of Article Four of that plan regarding solutions to the illegal drug problem. This new form of technical and financial support includes the Immediate Assistance Plan, a food assistance and a quick income generation strategy to assist families through the transition to legality. Under this agreement, 183 new hectares (about 452 acres) have been planted and 108,710 cacao plants have been grafted. Producers in charge The plan has two components: cash assistance to prepare the soil for planting, and a short-term production project along with the main crop — agricultural products that can be consumed or commercialized in the region, such as plantain, corn, or rice. The Commander’s Advisory Group (GAC per its Spanish acronym) of the Ministry of Defense is the project coordinator and ensures that government entities and the food processors continue their alliance under the initiative so that the community takes control of this new alternative livelihood. The key to developing a comprehensive effort in the triangle area is “the ongoing partnership with the community to reach an effective repositioning toward legality through voluntary crop replacements,” said Orlando Bustamante, a consultant for GAC Consolidation and Comprehensive Action of Joint Task Force Ares. “One of the main challenges the program faces has been convincing farmers that earning a living legally is a real option. In fact, it’s hard to talk of ‘illegality’ here, because this is a community that has always grown coca. Their trust in this project has grown enormously since the first harvest when the farmers began receiving payments and ongoing support from the government and the FAC to achieve sustainability in this business,” he added. The United Nations (UN) is taking part in the project as an observer to certify that complete substitution is taking place. At the time of the first inspection, 130 hectares had been replaced. Currently, the UN is conducting a second survey to confirm whether the farmers have lived up to the agreement.