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From Coca to Cacao -- For Peace
Pennsylvania Ag Connection - 05/18/2017

Mark Guiltinan and Siela Maximova work together all over the world. As co-directors of Penn State's endowed cocoa research program -- and husband and wife -- the two have chased the chocolate trail from Ghana and Peru to Trinidad and Indonesia. Still, the email last January from Colombia came as a surprise.

It was from the U.S. ambassador, asking them to attend a meeting in Bogota in less than a week. Guiltinan and Maximova were wanted on a team assembling for a formidable task: to help poor Colombian farmers make the switch from growing coca, the stuff of cocaine, to growing cacao, the principal ingredient in chocolate.

Cacao for Peace, the initiative is called. It's an outgrowth of the historic peace accord signed in November 2016 between the Colombian government and the leftist rebels known as the FARC, or Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, after 53 years of civil war.

In the jungles of rural Colombia, far from the reach of government institutions, the growing of coca -- and the violence that envelops the enterprise -- has swallowed a generation. For some poor farmers, devoid of opportunity, coca seemed the only option. Others were forced to grow coca and marijuana by the FARC, who used the drug trade to finance their operations. Families who resisted were extorted, murdered, driven from their land in staggering numbers: more than 200,000 dead and 6 million displaced over the long course of the conflict.

For decades, the U.S. and Colombian governments have tried to stem this bloody tide by choking out illicit cultivation. The first approach was forced eradication of coca plants -- basically, scorched earth. More recently, the strategy has shifted to promoting legal alternatives, or what the United Nations calls crop replacement. The end of hostilities brings new urgency to these efforts. Sustainable agricultural development is one of the pillars of the cease-fire document, seen by all parties as essential to Colombia's hopes for a lasting peace.

In many ways, cacao -- a.k.a. cocoa -- seems an ideal solution. The Amazon basin, a portion of which falls within Colombia's borders, is the birthplace of Theobroma cacao (literally, the "food of the gods"). The country already produces some of the finest-flavored cocoa in the world. And with global demand for chocolate increasing all the time, the price of its raw material just keeps rising. Guiltinan thinks it could one day be as profitable to grow as coca. A legal crop with that kind of cachet would be a godsend for the country's rural economy.

On the other hand, cacao is not easy to grow. The plant is finicky and disease-prone; it takes three to five years to produce a crop. Proper fermentation and drying of the beans after harvest is a nuanced art. To make cacao pay, in short, requires hard labor and more than a little know-how, yet around the world most of the stuff is still grown by small farmers with scant access to technology, training, or ready markets.

The ambitious goal of Cacao for Peace is to bridge that gap, or, as Maximova puts it, "to make cacao farming sustainable -- profitable for farmers, instead of just a marginal activity." The larger aim is to make Colombia into a major producer, like neighboring Brazil and Ecuador. Doing so, the thinking goes, would boost the world's supply of high-quality cacao, and also benefit the U.S. chocolate industry.

Cacao for Peace is an initiative of the USDA's Foreign Agricultural Service, with funding from USAID. Partners include the U.N. Office of Drugs and Crime, the Peace Corps, the Colombian Agricultural Research Corporation (CORPOICA), the Colombian National Federation of Cocoa (Fedecacao), the Colombian National Training Service (SENA), and three members of the USDA Land Grant Universities consortium: Purdue University, the University of Florida, and Penn State.

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