From coca to tourism

The Caribbean beaches of northern Colombia are a brilliant white and, aside from the occasional Kogi Indian, deserted. The perfect place for the tourist who isn’t scared off by the Colombian reputation for guns and guerrillas—or by coca farmers. In the mountainous jungle that borders the beaches, they are free to do their thing. Nearby harbors make it easy to smuggle their “white gold” out of the country. 

Fifty-four-year-old Celso López is one of many farmers who decided to plant coca—five acres of it—among his coffee crops after years of economic uncertainty. “I had no choice; my family needed to eat,” he says without shame. The uncertainty, fear and need to maintain anonymity were an acceptable part of the bargain. López, in rolled-up pants, black jackboots and a straw hat, takes a sip of coffee. Organic coffee, the product of his own efforts—for the fields he once razed to plant coca are back to growing Coffea. He serves it to guests at his own ecolodge, San Rafael, a cluster of five huts—with thatched roofs and hammocks on the verandas—half a mile from Tayrona National Park, whose beautiful beaches have earned it the moniker “the Thailand of South America.” Lopez says proudly, “Tourists come from around the world, from Canada to Argentina, and they’re all amazed at how beautiful and peaceful it is here.”

López is a member of Familias Guardabosques, a joint initiative of the Colombian government and the United Nations. Farmers who want to transition to legal activities sign a contract in which they promise to destroy their coca plants and not resow them. In exchange, they receive 18 months of financial support and assistance in making the transition. López and 118 area families voluntarily destroyed their coca plants and used the financial aid to buy 875 acres of forest. They built five ecolodges and replanted their fields with cocoa, coffee, pineapples and bananas. “Now you can buy fruit beside the road,” López says. “We used to have to drive to the city for it; you couldn’t find it here anymore.” 

Fourteen thousand newfamilias guardabosques,or forest-ranger families, joined the program last year. Combined with the other families that have joined since 2003, they keep 1.3 million acres of rainforest coca-free. In addition, 2,500 acres of coca land have been given a new purpose, usually for growing cocoa or coffee intended for export to the United States—just like the coke. 

With 158,000 acres of coca, Colombia provides some 90 percent of American cocaine. The country receives billions of dollars per year from the U.S. in exchange for its efforts to combat drug cultivation. Most of that is spent flying crop dusters over the coca fields to spray them with pesticides. But finding and destroying these crops isn’t enough, says the UN’s Carlos Zambrano. “If you force farmers to stop, they raze a new tract of rainforest and plant new coca. Only when you provide an alternative can the situation permanently change.” 

The switch from coca to tourism has completely changed López’s life, he says. “I live without fear and I contribute to peace. Coca is the engine of the drug war.” Even if the lodge is unsuccessful, he doesn’t want to return to his old life. López isn’t really worried that it will be a fiasco. Coca’s disappearance—in 2011, the number of acres of coca in the Sierra Nevada dropped from 630 to 153—is making the region a safer place. And safety has brought in tourists. Exactly what López needs. | STEPHANIE BAKKER | Find out more: posadasturisticasdecolombia.com
PHOTOGRAPH: STEPHANIE BAKKER

Solution News Source

From coca to tourism

The Caribbean beaches of northern Colombia are a brilliant white and, aside from the occasional Kogi Indian, deserted. The perfect place for the tourist who isn’t scared off by the Colombian reputation for guns and guerrillas—or by coca farmers. In the mountainous jungle that borders the beaches, they are free to do their thing. Nearby harbors make it easy to smuggle their “white gold” out of the country. 

Fifty-four-year-old Celso López is one of many farmers who decided to plant coca—five acres of it—among his coffee crops after years of economic uncertainty. “I had no choice; my family needed to eat,” he says without shame. The uncertainty, fear and need to maintain anonymity were an acceptable part of the bargain. López, in rolled-up pants, black jackboots and a straw hat, takes a sip of coffee. Organic coffee, the product of his own efforts—for the fields he once razed to plant coca are back to growing Coffea. He serves it to guests at his own ecolodge, San Rafael, a cluster of five huts—with thatched roofs and hammocks on the verandas—half a mile from Tayrona National Park, whose beautiful beaches have earned it the moniker “the Thailand of South America.” Lopez says proudly, “Tourists come from around the world, from Canada to Argentina, and they’re all amazed at how beautiful and peaceful it is here.”

López is a member of Familias Guardabosques, a joint initiative of the Colombian government and the United Nations. Farmers who want to transition to legal activities sign a contract in which they promise to destroy their coca plants and not resow them. In exchange, they receive 18 months of financial support and assistance in making the transition. López and 118 area families voluntarily destroyed their coca plants and used the financial aid to buy 875 acres of forest. They built five ecolodges and replanted their fields with cocoa, coffee, pineapples and bananas. “Now you can buy fruit beside the road,” López says. “We used to have to drive to the city for it; you couldn’t find it here anymore.” 

Fourteen thousand newfamilias guardabosques,or forest-ranger families, joined the program last year. Combined with the other families that have joined since 2003, they keep 1.3 million acres of rainforest coca-free. In addition, 2,500 acres of coca land have been given a new purpose, usually for growing cocoa or coffee intended for export to the United States—just like the coke. 

With 158,000 acres of coca, Colombia provides some 90 percent of American cocaine. The country receives billions of dollars per year from the U.S. in exchange for its efforts to combat drug cultivation. Most of that is spent flying crop dusters over the coca fields to spray them with pesticides. But finding and destroying these crops isn’t enough, says the UN’s Carlos Zambrano. “If you force farmers to stop, they raze a new tract of rainforest and plant new coca. Only when you provide an alternative can the situation permanently change.” 

The switch from coca to tourism has completely changed López’s life, he says. “I live without fear and I contribute to peace. Coca is the engine of the drug war.” Even if the lodge is unsuccessful, he doesn’t want to return to his old life. López isn’t really worried that it will be a fiasco. Coca’s disappearance—in 2011, the number of acres of coca in the Sierra Nevada dropped from 630 to 153—is making the region a safer place. And safety has brought in tourists. Exactly what López needs. | STEPHANIE BAKKER | Find out more: posadasturisticasdecolombia.com
PHOTOGRAPH: STEPHANIE BAKKER

Solution News Source

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