NUEVO CANAVERAL, Peru (AP) — Edma Duran uses a machete to salvage what leaves she can from the family’s coca plot, which government workers have just destroyed in a record-breaking U.S.-backed eradication campaign that has affected roughly a half million Peruvians.
“This is what we live off,” says Duran, who lives with her husband and six children in a village of 110 people that lacks electricity, phones and running water and is five hours from the nearest doctor.
Duran is among thousands of Peruvians who have lost their livelihoods to the government’s campaign to destroy the plant used to make cocaine. They say officials have offered only paltry compensation, or none at all.
A record 55,000 hectares (just over 210 square miles) of coca were destroyed in 2013-14 — dropping the Andean nation to No. 2 behind Colombia in land area under coca cultivation.
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Peru nevertheless remains the world’s top cocaine-producing nation, and its most dense coca fields grow undisturbed far from Duran’s ravaged plot of less than a hectare (2.5 acres).
The two-year effort has yielded a 30 percent decrease in the amount of Peruvian land planted with coca, and the government says it’s on pace this year to destroy another 35,000 hectares (135 square miles) — an area the size of Philadelphia.
“For the first time in the country’s history we have broken the rise in coca leaf production (used) for drug trafficking,” President Ollanta Humala said last month after the United Nations announced the latest numbers.
According to Peru’s government, 42,000 families got financial support or help with alternative crops last year after their coca fields were destroyed. But many of the 95,000 families affected by eradication get no assistance or, like Duran, have rejected what was offered.
“They give you a machete and a few cacao seeds and then they forget about you,” she complained.
Some growers are pushing back. A protest by 5,000 people in the nearby central Amazon town of Ciudad Constitucion turned violent last month, with one farmer killed by a police bullet and 23 other people injured. It was Peru’s first violent “cocalero” protest since 2012, when several hundred growers attacked eradicators and police.
The growers say they want eradication halted until the government offers them better alternatives for making a living.
Hipolito Rodriguez, a protest leader, says authorities waste alternative development funds on useless and frivolous projects — “internships, car rentals and officials’ juicy salaries.”
Since Humala took office in 2011, his government has spent $285 million on counterdrug efforts — more than triple the amount under the previous administration of Alan Garcia.
Over that same period, the United States put more than $60 million into eradication after previously footing the entire bill, and it plowed more than $100 million into crop alternatives, principally cacao, coffee and palm oil.
Washington also supplies the 22 Huey helicopters used to transport eradication teams and their armed police escorts.
Juan Manuel Torres, a drug policy expert with the nonprofit Center for Research into Drugs and Human Rights, advocates a more integrated approach to coaxing coca farmers to plant different crops — low-interest loans and a phased eradication that would let farmers keep some coca while introducing new crops.
Bolivia permits select farmers to grow limited amounts of coca and eradicates in other regions, where it, too, has encountered unrest. The U.N. announced Monday that Bolivia had reduced its area under coca cultivation by a third since 2010 to 20,400 hectares (79 square miles).
Duran and her husband planted bananas after a government crew uprooted their coca crop for the first time in 2013.
But when the fruit ripened, the river connecting them with the nearest market town was dry and they trekked for five hours with 100 bananas between them. Duran said the bananas turned out to be worth just $1 at market.
The family went back to planting coca, which brings them a little less than $1,000 at harvest every four months.
“Nobody buys anything but coca,” she said.
The U.S. Hueys returned in July and 70 men with hoes, guarded by police armed with assault rifles, destroyed the family’s coca plants in a half hour.
Duran’s is like thousands of families who have migrated to coca-growing areas on the Andes’ eastern slope since the cocaine boom ignited in Peru and neighboring Colombia and Bolivia in the 1970s.
Under Humala, eradication teams largely cleared the plants from the Upper Huallaga Valley, the cradle of the cocaine trade, but many cocaleros moved elsewhere.
Many settled in the Apurimac, Ene and Mantaro river valley, where 68 percent of Peru’s coca is grown and the government doesn’t eradicate for fear of violent resistance. About 60 Shining Path guerrillas, remnants of the Maoist insurgency that convulsed Peru in a 1980-2000 conflict, protect the drug trade there. Police say it’s one of about 15 trafficking bands in the area.
Carlos Figueroa, an alternative development expert with Peru’s counterdrug agency, says that while Peru has spent more than $169 million in programs to wean farmers off coca growing under Humala, it takes time for assistance to get traction in faraway villages like Nuevo Canaveral.
One reason is the insecurity caused by traffickers.
Police say that in the region where Duran lives they’ve detected more than 300 cocaine laboratories in the past two years and about 20 clandestine airstrips used by small planes to fly cocaine to Bolivia.
Counter-narcotics police Sgt. Miguel Ore says the people who flee when police arrive with eradication teams are almost always processing coca leaves into paste.
But plenty stay put.
“They are very poor people,” he said. “They drop to their knees and beg us to leave them a little, because that’s what they live off.”
Associated Press writer Frank Bajak in Lima, Peru, contributed to this report.