Peru’s Coca Substitution Program Stalls Before It Starts

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Peru has yet to implement a crop substitution program that was slated to begin last year in the country’s most prolific coca-growing region known as the VRAEM, a reminder of the challenges facing both traditional and alternative strategies to reducing coca production.

Despite a government initiative to convert 5,000 hectares of coca crops into coffee beans, cacao, and pineapple in 2014, Peru failed to convert a single coca leaf into alternative plants last year in the Apurimac, Ene and Mantaro River Valleys (VRAEM) region, reported El Comercio. The VRAEM is Peru’s most productive coca-growing region: an estimated 200 tons of cocaine leave the tri-river valley every year, an astonishingly high number that represents between a fourth and a fifth of total estimated cocaine production worldwide.

Peru’s Minister of Agriculture Juan Manuel Benites told El Comercio the reasons behind the delay were two-fold. For one, the coca leaf remains a lucrative cash crop compared to other crops. Secondly, some groups are intimidating farmers into not substituting coca for alternative crops.

Benites said the government initiative in the VRAEM is set to begin in March, and the stated goal is to substitute 2,000 hectares of coca within three months.

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Given the government’s rate of success thus far in the VRAEM, Benites’ goal seems ambitious, if not impossible. Alternative crops take a lot of money, security and local political will, all of which currently seem in very short supply in the VRAEM.

But the failure of Peru’s crop substitution program in the VRAEM last year also illustrates the difficulties of implementing any approach to coca reduction. As noted by Benites, there are economic and security reasons to stay away from alternative crops. However, the more traditional government approach of forced coca eradication has not yielded much better results in the VRAEM.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Coca

In June of last year, the Peruvian government abandoned its eradication program in the region in part due to the security threat posed by insurgency group the Shining Path. The government abruptly switched its goal of forcibly eradicating 15,000 hectares of coca in the VRAEM in 2014, to the voluntary replacement of just 5,000 hectares via the current crop substitution program. 

The inability to successfully reduce coca production in the VRAEM is an ongoing problem in Peru. Peru destroyed over 30,000 hectares of coca throughout the country last year, and hopes to eradicate 35,000 hectares in 2015. However, the lack of an integrated government strategy to curtail coca growing, most notably in the VRAEM, is a principal reason Peru has become the world’s top producer of cocaine

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