From coca to cacao agroforestry – a sustainable livelihood strategy in the Peruvian Amazon

‘’Plato or Plumo’’. There is no other way I could start this article than by mentioning the famous intimidating words of Pablo Escobar, the drug lord who reigned not just Colombia but entire Latin America in the 1970s. It literally translates as ‘Silver (bribes) or Lead (bullets)’ in Spanish. The phrase itself says how ruthless the drug cartels were in those times. More than two decades after his death, cocaine still lurks as a livelihood strategy for many households in the region.

After successfully defending her master’s thesis in October 2020, Ana Gabriela Lopez Camey shares her fieldwork experience in Peru, where she studied the intergenerational perspectives of farmers in adopting cacao agroforestry after an infamous spree of coca farming. She did her bachelor’s in Bio-environmental systems engineering from the National Taiwan University, Taiwan. She also had rendered her service in a hydro-electric power plant as in-charge of the environmental department in Guatemala where she hails. Gabriela was also an entrepreneur and ran an online business that promoted farm products from Guatemala. She had to sell off everything before shifting to Dresden for doing her masters.

Inspired by her bachelor’s experience with agro-ecological practices, Gabriela underwent a one-year postgraduate programme in Tropical Agroforestry in Guatemala. Furthermore, this instilled in her an interest to explore sustainable production practices and to look into people’s livelihoods in general. It was then that she decided to apply for an Erasmus Mundus Joint Master’s program in SUTROFOR (Sustainable Tropical Forestry). SUTROFOR provided her a perfect platform to network with a cohort of international students with hands-on experience in forestry and social science at various levels. Gabriela chose to do the first year of her master’s at the Dresden University of Technology, Germany, where she learned forest management, its technical and social spheres. Whereas in the second-year, she chose the University of Copenhagen, Denmark, to specialize in forest and livelihoods.

Why cacao agroforestry?

Agroforestry is one of the promising solutions to deforestation in tropical areas as it subsides the forest loss to some extent by reducing people’s reliance on forests, proves studies from the global south. Having said that, agroforestry has many challenges when it comes to its implementation. Depending on the principal crop and other socio-economic factors associated with it, people’s motives to grow trees on their farmlands could differ widely. Hence it is imperative to study people’s perspectives on trees, their choices, etc, as it would guide the scientific community in devising livelihood strategies for a particular region.  

There have been reports of farmers in the Peruvian Amazon encroaching mature forests to farm coca. As coca eradication programs continue to displace growers from the epicenter of coca farming in Peru, large tracts of pristine forests at remote locations are falling prey to deforestation. Alternative Development Programs in the region of San Martin have successfully incentivized and secured the establishment of crops like cacao, persuading the people to transition from coca to alternate livelihood options.

Gabriela studied the case ex-post of alternative development programs in the region of San Margin, a place known for its infamous and terrifying history of the cocaine trade and cartel violence. San Margin had witnessed insurgency and bloody violence in the past till the early 90s. Apart from the illegality associated with coca, an unprecedented collapse of its market price, and frequent pest outbreaks, left the farmers to look for alternative livelihood options. With the government dismantling the insurgent groups in the early 90s, alternative development programs started shaping up in Peru to aid the farmers for a better living. Cacao agroforestry was then a propitious option to increase the biodiversity of the region, and the combination of cacao and shade trees could capture carbon in a way that other crop systems don’t.

ACOPAGRO is one of the cooperatives that got rooted with the help of international aids that Peru had for setting up alternative development programs in the early 90s. They certify organic cacao, promote fair trade, and are also into tree planting. ACOPAGRO’s efforts in persuading the communities to take up cacao agroforestry is noteworthy. Given the positive impacts that these initiatives had on the local communities, Gabriela wanted to see if the existing incentives were enough to motivate the younger generation to pursue cacao as a livelihood strategy. San Margin is still in the phase of transition from coca to cacao. However, the practice of cacao agroforestry is worried to decline as the youth gets lured to alternative modern livelihoods. So are their parents, who want their children to get educated and earn decent jobs elsewhere. They regard farming as a low-level occupation, low in dignity, and therefore, the current generation mostly dissuades their children from taking up farming.

How important is this study to the general public? 

This study throws light on the motivations of the younger generation to take up cacao agroforestry. Furthermore, it digs into the concept of ‘symbolic capital’ as a motivation for the younger generation to adopt cacao agroforestry. Despite the certification schemes, small scale land holders are more likely to fall below the poverty line. However, farmers with large-sized farms are able to earn higher incomes that compete with the minimum wage in the country. Unstable income and unexpected shocks make farmers’ lives tougher, and this is one reason why most of the farmers don’t want their children to take up farming. According to the farmers, they want the future generation to become ‘’someone in life”. ‘’But they do accept to see their children taking up a managerial position in farms, rather than living a peasant farmer’s life’’ says Gabriela. Educated farmers expand their cacao plantations by making use of all the available incentives to manage the farms themselves. She hopes her results will inspire every sector into finding ways to dignify the farmers.

Peru has a well-established niche market for cacao, and it is the world’s ninth largest producer of cacao. When it comes to organic cacao, Peru tops the list of countries known for organic cacao export. Gabriela feels that constant technical support from the cooperatives would allow for sustainable intensification practices that could possibly relieve the pressure on mature forests. For the production to be sustainable, she would opine for a long-term vision that includes the younger generation, engaging them in the cost-benefit analysis, investment practices, and programs that dignify farmers, securing them a better price and a retirement plan. Studies in the region have found the farm successors as more willing to adopt environment friendly practices than the older generations. Gabriela finds the second generation of cacao farmers, who have inherited the farmland, more aware of the agroforestry benefits. She feels the younger generation could help release pressure on the primary forests, and hence, it is important to have younger farmers to keep the country green.

Fieldwork at the time of the COVID pandemic

Though Gabriela was fortunate to make it to her field, an unprecedented lockdown in Peru left her with a lot of setbacks. Her sample population constituted the cacao farmers in the Alto Huayabamba region, which is only accessible by boat. One of the reasons why she chose this region is that Alto Huayabamba had very limited job opportunities, and hence, the youth are more likely to adopt cacao agroforestry in such a setting. She could only go there once before they stopped the boat service following the lockdown. With the lockdown curbing her mobility, Gabriela chose to do a more qualitative study with whatever data that she could get from telephonic interviews with the farmers. As the lockdown got extended for more than a month, she had to take a repatriation flight back to Europe.

‘’I did a total of 23 interviews, 4 face-to-face and 19 over the phone’’ says Gabriela. Like any other online surveys, telephonic interviews are equally difficult if the target population is located in a remote area with limited network connectivity. Though her sample population was kind of representative of the entire Alto Huayabamba region, it was just limited to people with phone connectivity. ‘’Not being there (in the field) made it difficult to verify some answers, like the composition of the farmland’’, says Gabriela.

‘’As with face-to-face interviews, one must take caution, check the validity of the data, and be careful with what the data says. I got confident of the answers after they showed a certain pattern, and after crosschecking with other sources’’ says Gabriela when asked for the validity of the responses. The reported cacao production increased with farm size, but it was lower than the recorded average for that area. Different sources have communicated severe pest problems in the last couple of years, which justified this decline in production. She had to cross-check some of the responses to ensure they are more or less around the possible values. She feels the COVID pandemic has impacted data collection, but she’s optimistic that students would come up with innovative ideas to meet such challenges.

Gabriela had been using Rebtel, a mobile application that offers unlimited talk time to Peru for 7 euros for making the phone calls. One of major challenges she had was to engage the respondents in a friendly conversation. Sometimes people might hang up the call when it gets longer and when the questions sound more private. Field research often comes with challenges, but a true researcher would find ways to overcome such difficulties. Gabriela had her own ways to get the data. She changed the order of the questions, included more open-ended questions and narrowed down to the most important questions to keep her respondents engaged in the interview. Apart from the telephonic interviews with cacao farmers, she also had the opportunity to talk to some of the organizations like the ACOPAGRO cooperative, Purprojet, Rio Abiseo National Park, Amazonia Viva, Choba Choba cooperative, and the APROBOC farmers association.

Her thesis also discusses how the organizations behind the promotion of cacao agroforestry need to recognize and adapt to the existing occupational dynamics to incentivize access to symbolic capital to the younger generation. Gabriela is now in the process of getting her thesis published. She also wants to establish herself as a researcher in Europe. She’s happy to work as an agroforestry consultant. Meanwhile, she’s also trying to find a PhD position that could bridge cooperation between Guatemalan and European universities. 

Krishnanunni Mavinkal Ravindran has a MSc in Sustainable Tropical Forestry, University of Copenhagen