former Governor, cocoa exporter.
"When the civil war raged in Peru in the 80s, the battle was particularly bloody in the VRAEM valley. Only few families stayed here.
"You never know who is working for whom here in the valley."
From the rich, the Shining Path guerrilla extorted a war tax. The poorer farmers had to give away their chicken and corn, or even hand over their children to be trained as guerrilla fighters. There was no presence of the state, no infrastructure and virtually no connection to the outside world. Therefore, we organized ourselves in self-defense groups.
Our only source of funding was the drug trade. We had contacts to the Colombian drug cartels. With their money, we were able to buy weapons and beat the guerrillas.
Once Shining Path was defeated and its leaders were in prison, the state came back. But the drug trade remained and corrupted the institutions. I was governor at the time and repeatedly tried to cut the relations between the mafia, the police and the politicians. It was in vain, the only thing I got were threats.
Rumors quickly spread all around Peru that you could earn good money in the VRAEM valley. Since the mid-90s, there has been a huge influx of poor families from the highlands. Almost all of them grow coca, because that’s the fastest way to make money. But nobody is interested in investing here. The money flows to the larger cities, especially to Lima, where the families bought homes and businesses.
“Harassment of legal producers”
People like me have a hard time. The coca farmers are well-organized, well-connected and have leaders who are prepared to use violence. They are not interested in alternative products. After so many years of coca cultivation the soil is poor and completely deprived of nutrients. If you want to grow something else, you first have to regenerate the soil. But that takes time and money. And how are the farmers going to survive in the meantime?
You can grow excellent exotic fruit and cacao here. Organic production in particular has huge potential. But the farmers would have to organize themselves in order to guarantee excellent quality and to export in larger quantities. But there isn’t even a local market. Fruit and vegetables are brought to the VRAEM valley from Lima, Ayacucho and Cusco. This is nuts, but of course it is in the interest of some politically well-connected wholesalers. I export cocoa, but the cost of transportation and security are very high. Gasoline is rationed, and I need a lot of papers and permits to get my products out of the valley. I have to secure the merchandise with double and triple sealed locks, so the driver, the security forces or the mafia won’t slip in drugs. You never know who is working for whom here in the valley.
In 2008 the United Nations financed a factory for the processing of palm hearts in Pichari. The idea was to add value to local products and incentive the farmers to give up the cultivation of coca. But when the UN’s support subsided and there was no more help by specialized technicians,, the farmers quickly gave up. The cooperative which was responsible for the factory got into trouble because some of its leaders embezzled money. Now the factory is practically idle. The farmers would like to reactivate it, but the mayor and the regional government put bureaucratic obstacles in their way. They invent absurd pretexts to refuse the operating license, for example, that the factory was built only for the processing of palm hearts, even though it could be used for processing any kind of fruit and vegetable.