#20 work
Hildegard Willer

Coffee Instead of Coca

In Peru many farmers grow Coca to generate an income. After facing ruin when her crops were destroyed, Moly Checya has found a better alternative.

When Moly Checya thinks back on how she outwitted her husband, the 35-year-old coffee farmer cannot repress a grin. “My husband wanted nothing to do with the new cultivation methods the engineers recommended. He said it would just mean more work with no reward,” she recalls on her way down through the coffee plantation behind her house. “I suggested a wager: I would use the new methods on one half of our land and he would grow coffee the old way on his part.” The old method meant simply planting the rootstock of the coffee bush in the soil. The new method developed by the engineers involved in the German-funded UNODC (United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime) project required more work and meant allowing the coffee beans to sprout, then waiting for them to grow into individual seedlings before planting. It was well worth it and Moly Checya easily won the wager she had made with her husband: “My coffee bushes were so beautiful afterwards,” she still recalls with delight. Unlike her husband’s plants which didn’t grow at all. Since then how to plant coffee has not been an issue in the Checya-Ponce family.

The story of Moly Checya and her family illustrates how planting legal products not only results in a certain degree of prosperity, but may also restore peace and laughter to an entire family. Each time Moly Checya laughs, the silver crown on her incisor catches the light. Laughter seems as much a part of the 35-year-old as her straight, black hair, her round face and the Wellingtons she wears to work on her coffee plantation. Yet in the early years of her life, Moly Checya had very little to laugh about.

She was just eight years old when her parents moved her and her five siblings from the neighbouring city of Huánuco into the backcountry of the Peruvian high rainforest. In Peru at the end of the 80s and beginning of the 90s, there were only two reasons for moving to the rainforest: either to join the “Shining Path” (Sendero Luminoso), a Mao-inspired ideological militant group that carried out bloody massacres of farmers and provoked equally violent attacks by Peru’s military. Or “in search of a livelihood,” as Moly Checya’s mother euphemistically put it.

With multiple harvests a year, coca cultivation brought in more money than Molly’s father was able to earn working in the silver mines.

The livelihood referred to here was growing coca for the Columbian drug mafia. With multiple harvests a year, coca cultivation brought in more money than Molly’s father was able to earn working in the silver mines. But the money brought violence with it, violence from all sides. First the “Terrucos”, as people in the countryside referred to the members of the Shining Path, arrived. “They came and seized everything we had,” Moly Checya recalls. Some days the children had nothing more to eat than a plantain and an egg. Then the military came in and accused the farmers of supporting the terrorist organisation.

The Checya family had a particularly hard time of it. “My sister was kidnapped by the military and held prisoner in the military barracks for a year.” This is all the otherwise so open and talkative Moly is willing to say. The terrorists murdered one of Moly’s husband’s uncles. Every family in the region has lost at least one loved one to this violence. The only way her mother has been able to survive has been by suppressing the memory of it. She admits that the memories come flooding back when she sees war films on television, memories of rows of dead bodies along the side of the road, of massacres by the military and the terrorists.

The destruction of their coca plants left the family facing complete ruin.

Following the capture of the leader of the “Shining Path”, the politically motivated terror and the government’s brutal response slowly tapered off in the mid-90s. But this did not spell the end of the vicious cycle of violence in Huánuco and Tingo María. After all cultivating coca might be profitable, but it was also still illegal. Nevertheless, drawn by the allure of quick money and a lack of viable alternatives, Moly and Paul began their married life together growing coca. Until one day CORAH, the Peruvian Coca Reduction Agency, first sprayed their coca fields with a defoliant and then pulled the plants out by the roots. Moly Checya is still indignant when she recalls the incident: “They didn’t care one bit that we had nothing at all to eat.” The destruction of their coca plants left the family facing complete ruin.

The starting phase was rough, as they knew next to nothing about how to grow coffee.

At that moment, the UNODC project stepped in and offered the family a profitable alternative. With some assistance, they began ramping up their coffee production for the consumer market. “We started with 2 hectares. Today we have 27,” Moly Checya says with justifiable pride. The starting phase was rough, as they knew next to nothing about how to grow coffee. It also takes a number of years before the plants begin to generate a profit, so it is important to continue growing other crops, or start growing them since coca is generally grown as a monoculture. This aspect of food security is an important element of the UNODC project. During the one to two years a coffee farm requires before it begins turning a profit, many families succumb to the draw of the drug mafia, which offers farmers lucrative pre-financing if they go back to growing coca. Thus, it is very important to have other sources of income. Moly Checya and Paul Ponce remained firm in their determination to grow coffee. They could afford to because the United Nation’s agriculture engineers provided them with 20 chickens, seeds, and technical support to ensure they could earn a living until the coffee was ready for harvest. Although coffee provides a good income by now, Moly and her husband Paul still plant maize, beans and bananas for their own consumption and 75 chickens scratch and peck for food in their coop.

The price of coffee has fallen in recent years and a fungus has increasingly begun infecting many plants, so Moly and Paul plan to start planting cocoa in the coming year. It will fetch more at the current higher market price. “We are getting the fields ready right now.”

Moly sells a portion of her coffee to the Bio-Azul cooperative. She also roasts and grinds some to sell directly to consumers. Since she lives along the main road from the highlands into the rainforest, her stand in front of her parent’s house next door is very popular. Simple wooden shelves display bags of ground coffee along with handmade chocolate from cocoa farmers in another village. They also sell giant plantains and limes the size of grapefruits. Business is brisk and considerably more profitable than selling unprocessed coffee beans to a middleman. “We get around 2 euros for 250 grams of ground coffee.” They would have to deliver four times as much to the cooperative to earn the same amount.

“We live in peace now, earn a good income, and our children can go to school and university” (Moly Checya)

Moly Checya, her husband Paul and her parents are sitting around a table behind the stand, selling cups of homebrewed coffee from their fields. The couple’s two daughters have joined the group. 13-year-old Zarai still attends school and would like to be a civil engineer one day. 20-year-old Jennifer is already enrolled in an environmental engineering program in nearby Tingo María. Moly was only able to complete the sixth grade. No one in the family regrets giving up coca farming. “We live in peace now, earn a good income, and our children can go to school and university,” Moly says.

Photos by GIZ/Leslie Searles.

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