Palm Hearts Replace Coca Bush
By María Isabel García
Colombian peasant farmers abandon their illegal drug crops and instead plant a legal and lucrative alternative on 350 hectares in Putumayo department.
BOGOTA, (Tierramérica).- Two-hundred Colombian families in the southern department of Putumayo are staking their bets on growing palm hearts to replace their illegal plantations of coca, the key ingredient in cocaine, in the context of the drug-eradication efforts of the Colombian and U.S. governments.
It is an initiative aimed at leaving the dangerous world of drug crops -- such as coca, marijuana and heroin poppies -- that cover an estimated 145,000 hectares throughout the country and provide a living for some 200,000 peasants.
"The principle benefit is to become the owner of the company and to have sales assured," Jorge Yoria, manager of Agroamazonia, told Tierramérica in a conversation from Puerto Asís, in Putumayo, some 1,130 km south of Bogotá.
The Agroamazonia company was created in mid-2001 by six associations of farmers that signed pacts to replace their coca crops under the government's National Plan for Alternative Development (Plante).
Although coca growing is deeply rooted in the region's culture, "many have realized how harmful it is and are now seeking change," Yoria said.
By the third year of growing the trees that produce palm hearts, when the initial investment is paid for, each farmer will receive a thousand dollars annually for each hectare. The labor and fertilizer costs total 350 dollars per year.
Agroamazonia purchases the entire output of the area planted with the "chontadura" palm, or peach palm (Bactris gasipaes), in the first phase of the coca substitution plan sponsored by Plante. Agroamazonia is in charge of processing and packing the profitable and tasty product.
Chontadura is one of approximately 50 names given this variety of palm that is native to the warm, tropical zones of the Americas, adopted by indigenous cultures and later integrated into the development of population centers in the Amazon region.
The palm is valued for its nutritional and medicinal properties. The heart of the palm is the ringed base of unopened palm fronds that forms a long, compact cylinder at the connection to the palm's trunk.
The first shoots take 15 to 18 months before they are ready for harvest, when the stem reaches 10 to 14 cm in diameter.
Because it is a highly perishable product, processing and canning of the palm hearts must take place within 24 hours of cutting. A can of palm hearts can be had for one or two dollars per kilo in Bogotá.
Farmer Julio César Ramos told Tierramérica that growing palms takes a lot of preparatory work and maintenance, and because the Amazon region receives so much rain, there is a great deal of weeding to do.
Ramos moved to Putumayo 40 years ago from the western department of Valle, and his is the story of millions of settlers who moved to the jungle from other Colombian regions in search of a better future.
But they found coca was the only feasible way to make a living in a place that lacks roads and electricity, and loans and other motivations to plant legal crops.
In 1994, Ramos bought a 10-hectare farm planted with coca bush but, he says, since he "never liked that crop," he let the plants die and set his sights on palm hearts. He designated four hectares for growing 12,000 palms, and the rest of his land for growing fruit trees, plantain and yucca, as well as setting up a fish farm.
His farm is located in Platanillo, in the municipality of Puerto Caicedo, which with other Putumayo municipalities -- Puerto Asís, Orito, Valle del Guamuez and San Miguel -- is the focus of the Plante initiative.
The palm hearts from Ramos's farm and from others in the area are sold by the French-owned supermarket chain Carrefour, which purchases Agroamazonia's entire output.
Its standards of quality are rigorous: the palm hearts must be 8 to 10 cm long and there is strict control of firmness, fiber, color and taste.
By 2004 the company hope to double its current production of 60,000 cans and boost the number of farmer-partners to 450… and take in its first dividends.
* María Isabel García is an IPS correspondent