A close up of recently harvested red and green cacao pods

Cacao pods ready for processing/USAID

I always enjoy the chance to take Washington visitors out of the vibrant capital city of Lima and into the Amazon. There they see first-hand the complex challenges that Peru faces, including the presence of transnational criminal organizations and the coca fields that dot the landscape. But they also see the bravery and enthusiasm of rural farmers who have turned away from coca farming and are now growing coffee and some of the world’s best cacao, used by chocolate producers in the United States and around the world.

Peru remains a leading producer of cocaine, an illegal industry that enriches criminal organizations, fuels violence and perpetuates poverty in rural communities. Peruvian cocaine can be found on the streets of the United States and Europe. And the criminal networks that produce and sell cocaine in Peru threaten the security of the entire hemisphere.

Farmers like Rolando Herrera, who decide to grow coca, are often at the mercy of these cartels. And while coca generates income, it does not lead to development. Banks, pharmacies and farm suppliers do not want to set up shop in narco-trafficking zones. Schools and health clinics cannot recruit teachers and nurses to such areas. As one farmer told me, “coca gives you work, but doesn’t give you a future.” As a result, like Rolando, many communities are agreeing to abandon coca farming and join the licit economy.

The U.S. Government works closely with the Government of Peru in its efforts to disrupt the operations of criminal networks, eradicate coca and help farmers like Rolando develop lucrative, legal crops. USAID Administrator Mark Green recently visited Peru and saw first-hand this dynamic and the way the Agency partners with Peruvian officials and citizens to reduce this transnational scourge.

A woman (Irene Chamalla), left, and a man (USAID Peru Mission Director Lawrrence Rubey), right, stand outdoors holding a tray of unprocessed cacao pods

USAID Peru Mission Director Lawrence Rubey and Irene Chamalla, cacao farmer and representative of the Colpa de Loros Cooperative in a cacao farm in Campo Verde, Ucayali. / USAID

USAID works in partnership with both the Peruvian Commission for Development and Life Without Drugs (DEVIDA) and the private sector to connect farmers to national and international markets. This model works.

Data from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime show that in areas where coca eradication was paired with sustained assistance to farmers and greater investment in infrastructure and social services by the Peruvian government, coca cultivation decreased by nearly 90 percent from 2011-2016. Most importantly, communities that were mired in a poverty trap because of coca now have a much brighter future.

Much of this success is because of the Government of Peru’s growing commitment to invest its own resources to stop the production and trafficking of cocaine.

The government has dramatically increased its counter-narcotics budget from $145 million in 2012 to $214 million in 2017. And in 2013, Peru expanded the role of DEVIDA from a coordinating and policymaking agency to one with a field presence that works directly with communities to improve government services and create economic opportunities. Today, DEVIDA’s budget is over $45 million, up from just $4 million in 2010.

A large group of men and women pose in lines among trees

USAID Peru Mission Director Lawrence Rubey in a cacao farm in Ucayali together with a group of farmers benefited from the Peru Cacao Alliance, a public-private partnership sponsored by USAID. / USAID

A perfect example of DEVIDA’s success is the former coca stronghold of the Monzon Valley, which once held about 10,000 hectares of coca. Here, the average income in 2013 was $1.89 per person per day, well below Peru’s extreme poverty line of $2.20 per person per day. With DEVIDA’s assistance, households saw a 53 percent increase in income from 2012 to 2016, and the percentage of extremely poor families dropped by 55 to 30 percent.

USAID is committed to helping Peruvians and their government. Our partnership is more cost-effective than ever as it leverages more external resources every year. Peru’s national production of high-quality, exportable cacao is expected to more than double by 2021, helping to feed the growing demand for dark chocolate and supply the $35 billion U.S. confectionery industry that employs 55,000 workers. In 2015, USAID leveraged $11 million from the private sector to generate $48 million in total sales of legal crops.

There is certainly more work to be done, but Peru is clearly gaining traction against the criminal organizations that operate in the rural Amazon. Given the commitment of the Peruvian Government, I am confident that progress will continue. And Rolando and thousands of other former coca farmers seeking a more secure future will see to it.


Lawrence Rubey is the director of USAID’s mission in Peru.