VALDIVIA, Colombia – A longing to stop the violence led Elmer Zapata Rojas, 27, an agriculture and livestock technician, to undertake a crusade in his village to change crops of coca for cacao beans with the goal of adding not one more victim to Colombia’s drug wars.
“Cacao has no enemies,” Zapata told Efe when speaking of his appeal to the farmworkers of Valdivia, a municipality in the northwestern Colombian province of Antioquia, currently wavering between the forced eradication and voluntary substitution of illegal crops.
The young man today leads 72 families as president of the Valdivia Cacao-growers Association (Asocaval) in promoting transformative projects in a part of the country where illegal crops are “deeply rooted.”
Zapata, who developed managerial skills through his studies at the Interactuar Corporation, tells his story to the farmers he visits daily about how cacao production changed his life and how he now exports his harvests to Spain, Belgium, the United States and the UK.
“I left school when I was 14 years old to start growing coca,” he said, interested in showing that “it is possible to create a future in the countryside,” but that it must be done right.
In 2009 a program came to Valdivia for the substitution of illegal crops, which attracted some 130 families: “We had suffered too much violence and we didn’t want the conflict to take any more victims.”
Many have deserted the program, but the Zapatas remain strong despite the economic differences between coca crops for cocaine and cacao beans for cocoa, since – the Asocaval leader said – coca is harvested every two months.
“Danger exists on all sides,” he said, indicating that down on the coca farm, people not only have to contend with armed thugs that manage the business but also with the cops, “another enemy of the agricultural worker.”
Cacao, meanwhile, is a crop with a “long cycle,” which takes two years for farmers to start seeing the first fruits of their labor and five years for production to peak.
“There’s no comparison in terms of income, only in peace of mind,” Zapata said.
The association has been a determining force in Valdivia’s progress toward peace by supporting farmers with seeds and supplies, while also giving them technical advice and leaving seedlings planted on their farms.
“Changing a coca-grower’s mentality isn’t easy,” he said.
Asocaval currently serves some 300 cacao-producing families, “people who want change.”
The amount marketed by the association, which in 2015 was 40 tons, jumped to 66 tons in 2018 and this year is expected to reach 90 tons, according to Zapata.
The association recently made a sale to the English company Willie’s Cacao, following a tour of the crop by its owner, Willie Harcourt-Cooze, remembered as the star of “Willie Wonka’s Chocolate Factory.”
The coordinator of rural-development methodology at Interactuar, Adriana Zapata, told Efe that young folks like Elmer represent the “agromillennial” generation that is effecting changes with their special abilities.
“With their new way of seeing things, they’re having a big effect on the future of communities in such significant municipalities for the post-conflict as Valdivia,” she said.
As for associations like Asocaval around the country, she said they play an important role thanks to their “understanding of how to develop new forms of leadership, contribute to the development of cacao production and sales, while creating a system of fairness across the land.