Sustainable Alternative to Coca

During the 1980’s and 1990’s, there was not much of a culture around cacao in the San Martin region of Peru.  Coca plantations dominated the province due to the strong market and high prices.  Some farmers grew cacao, but it wasn’t as profitable as coca.


Coca leaves are traditionally used for medicinal purposes in Peru, but there is far more leaf grown than needed.   The coca leaf contains less than one percent of the alkaloid called cocaine and has less stimulant effect than your cup of coffee.  Coca is also full of calcium and other vitamins and minerals. (1)

In its natural state, coca has beneficial properties.  In its refined state, it causes problems for families in the developed world and needs to be controlled.  Supply and demand drives the refinement of coca.


Attempts to eradicate the production of coca in Peru has punished farmers while failing to reduce its prevalence.  Eradication efforts also cause farmers to move their coca crops every couple of years to avoid the destruction of their livelihood.  Farmers tend to clear swaths of rainforest, plant coca, harvest, and then move to another area and restart the process over.

Farmers in San Martin need to provide for their families and while international commodities brokers always seek the lowest price possible for cacao, farmers are left with no viable option but to continue to grow coca in order survive.  The eradication strategies did not address the underlying reasons for coca production in the first place.

Sustainable alternatives to coca have been sought for years.  In the early days, low value crops were suggested to farmers as substitutes to coca.  The low value and labor intensity of the alternatives made them unviable.  Working twice as hard for half the reward is never likely to be a success and the statistics have proved this over the years.

Cacao and coffee are two high value crops that have thrived in the same climate as coca and have replaced much of the coca production in San Martin.  The superior quality of coffee and cacao grown in eastern Peru earns a higher price than normal when farmers take their harvest to market.

Cacao and coffee also help to preserve the environment since they are grown on the same piece of land for upward of 30 years, helping to protect the biodiversity and ensuring its continued fertility.  The region of San Martin is one of the best examples of how to transition from a narco-zone to a thriving region that provides opportunity to its people.

1: Harvard Study – Nutritional Value of Coca Leaf (Duke, Aulick, Plowman 1975)