A year ago, I had the opportunity to go to Colombia for the first time, as part of a delegation from Open Society Foundation. We were trying to understand the affects Colombia’s long guerilla war had on the society and what we might expect from the peace referendum planned for a few months later.
The referendum failed, but the peace didn’t, and Colombia seems to be transforming. I returned to Bogota in November 2016 to speak at a national journalism event. My friends who’d judged the contest marveled that this was the first year where the best reporting was not about the war, but about social issues: homosexuality, drug use, women’s roles in the workforce. “It’s almost like we’re a normal country,” one of the judges told me, laughing.
I wrote about my experiences visiting a small village where coca farming is the primary local industry. I’d hoped to sell the piece to one of my editors in the US, but I couldn’t get any traction. It’s sat open in a browser tab for a full year as I’ve felt guilty about not finding a way to share this story with a wider audience.
Colombia is in the news again, with the demobilization of the FARC in its final steps. And coca, the center of the story I wanted to tell, is back in the news, with record levels of Colombian countryside planted with coca bushes. Once again, authorities are trying to lure coca farmers into growing substitution crops… and once again, the economics of the equation don’t make sense to the farmers.
I re-read the piece today, and I still think it’s important for understanding some of the challenges Colombia still faces, especially in areas outside of the major cities. If you like it, please share it, so I can feel less badly about failing my friends in Lerma by not getting the New York Times or National Geographic to pick this up. :-)
The village of Lerma, Colombia is 700 kilometers from Bogota, 150 kilometers from the border with Ecuador, and a long, long way from anywhere I’ve ever been before. My companions and I flew from Bogota to Popayán, a provincial capital of whitewashed houses, countless churches and cobblestone streets, then took a bus three hours down the Pan American highway, onto smaller roads and ultimately nine kilometers of dirt and gravel. I spent the trip losing my breath at the beauty of the mountain scenery and trying not to lose my breakfast, my nerve or my mind as our driver slalomed through bus-plungeworthy curves.
We had come to Lerma for the reason outsiders ever come to Lerma: coca.
I am a member of the global board of the Open Society Foundations and a team from our organization had come to Colombia to learn about the economic and social challenges the country is facing as it goes through a peace process at the end of a 50 year war with the FARC, a Marxist-Leninist guerrilla army which has engaged in terrorism, kidnapping for ransom and drug production and trafficking. We’d come to Lerma to meet farmers who were cultivating coca not to sell for cocaine production, but for licit uses: a nutrient-rich flour, a medicinal tea, for chewing as their ancestors had for centuries.
What we found was more surprising than licit coca. We found a community that had once descended into unimaginable violence and had remade itself into what residents proudly call “a village of peace”.
Our hosts in Lerma met us with lemonade spiked with coca leaf powder and sweet local basil, and lead us into a covered town square, where we sat on concrete bleachers while schoolchildren played chirimía, a local musical style that features reed flutes and drums. After the performance, schoolteacher Tocayo offered a remarkable history of the town to us and to a group of elementary school students.
In his account, Lerma was a peaceful village where people cultivated plantains, yucca and chickpeas, as well as small coca crops, until the Peace Corps arrived in 1979. Yes, according to local legend, those idealistic volunteers were the agents of Lerma’s destruction, bringing to the rural community the chemical techniques for extracting cocaine from coca leaves. Once the Peace Corps volunteers had done their sinister work, Lerma farmers quickly realized they could make far more money growing and processing coca, so they abandoned subsistence farming and became narcotics providers.
By the early 1980s, Lerma had attracted the attention of the Escobar network, Colombia’s most powerful drug cartel. The cartel bought Lerma’s coca leaves and paste, turning the village into a boom town. Lerma residents put new roofs on their houses, bought cars and motorbikes, and guns. They partied, drinking heavily and partaking of their new crop. The town’s population surged from 400 to 2,000. By 1983, the international market was glutted with cocaine and prices began to fall. Accustomed to their new wealth, Lerma’s residents began mugging each other to make ends meet, and those who hadn’t already arm themselves bought guns.
If other villages in the region were terrorized by the FARC or by M-19, a Bolivarian guerrilla group, Lerma was terrorized by the people of Lerma. Over the course of five years, at least 20% of the town’s population was murdered. The murder rate sparked on Thursdays, the town’s market day, when farmers came in town to sell their crops and spend their money in local bars, where all-day drinking sessions often devolved into gunfights. According to Rudy Gomez, a schoolteacher in Lerma, “La gente decía que si se pusiera una lápida en cada sitio donde había caído un muerto, no habría por dónde caminar” (The people say that if there was a stone at every place where someone died, you wouldn’t be able to walk.)
In 1988, a group of schoolteachers and widows intervened, pressuring bar owners and liquor stores to shut their doors in the hopes of ending the violence. For ten years, Lerma was a dry town, and citizens turned from drinking to rebuilding the town. One of the town’s few university graduates, Walter Giviría, returned to his hometown to teach and invited friends to join him. The young teachers turned empty bars into classrooms, eventually raising enough money to build a sprawling elementary and high school. By focusing on the next generation, the town followed the advice of an old proverb, which says, “For new birds, you need new eggs” – those who’d grown used to easy drug money might not be saved, but the new generation could be.
“We succeeded in making social change,” explained Tocayo, “but not in economic change.” Instead of two murders a week, Lerma experienced a decade without violent deaths. But the village was still desperately poor. Lerma tried to shift from coca to sugarcane, but the switch was economically disastrous. And so, at least 40 families in Lerma grow coca as part or all of their crop.
Our tour guide, “Gato”, led us up a steep mountain path to a farm in the shadow of El Cerro de Lerma, a 2500m peak that dominates the local skyline. We’d been told we were meeting the largest local landholder, and I’d been expecting an elaborate hacienda. Instead, carefully tended low hedges led us to a small, tidy mud brick house surrounded by what appeared to be wild jungle. Once Celima, the farmer, began pointing out that this tree grew oranges, that one tangerines, a third bananas, did I began to understand that the jungle was the farm. To the trained eye, the apparently random explosion of green was a carefully planned garden. We walked past a shallow fish pond, covered with thick netting to deter birds, through thickets of coffee bushes, yucca and pineapple plants.
Turning a corner past an achiote tree, we entered the coca fields, head-high bushes reaching up to strands of barbed wire strung at 2.5m above ground-level as a trellis for the plants. Planted at the feet of each bush were bean plants – the farmer explained that the beans would climb the coca plants. (Using legumes to fix nitrogen to fertilize other plans is a time-honored technique, reportedly taught to colonial farmers in New England by native Americans. Celimo confirmed that he used almost no commercial fertilizer, not out of a desire to seek organic certification, but because it’s expensive and hard to transport to his fields.)
Local politician Gustavo Muñoz borrowed a machete from the farmer and cut chunks for fresh sugarcane for members of our group. I asked why sugarcane had failed as a commercial crop in Lerma, since it clearly grows well in local soils. The answer is complicated, and helps reveal why crop substitution, the coca-combating philosophy promoted by the Colombian government, is having trouble catching on. First, the farmer explained, the US government had sprayed the entire village with herbicides shortly after they’d converted to sugarcane, seeking to kill remaining coca crops. But beyond that frustrating setback, simple economics lead farmers to grow coca. Our host explained that sugarcane takes a year to mature before you can harvest it, while coca will begin producing harvestable leaves within four months. Sugarcane can be harvested once a year, while coca produces four crops a year. And while sugarcane does poorly in drought, coca is extremely drought-tolerant.
We paused to eat cancherina, a mixture of roasted corn flour, quinoa flour, sugar and coca flour into a gritty powder that’s best eaten while drinking lots of water. It’s traditional traveling food in the Andes, and it was good preparation for the next leg of our trip, a 4km hike further into the mountains to another farm, where we saw a legacy of the failed experiment with sugarcane: an iron press designed to extract cane juice from sugarcane.
The press is designed to be operated by horses who pull poles to turn the heavy gears, an unthinkable luxury for most people in the town. (Our group of twenty takes turns riding three horses on the rocky trails, apparently a large percentage of the local equine supply.) And even this press isn’t up to national standards – to sell cane juice to the national sugar company, Gato explains, the farmer would need a much larger, and much more expensive gas-powered press. And if the government provided funding for a gas-powered sugar press? The heavy, hard to transport cane juice is still 6km from town on a rough muletrack. “And so…” his explanation trails off. And so, we grow coca.
And so, we eat coca. Lunch at the farm is a little like dinner with your hippie friends who insist in putting marijuana in everything they cook. Coca flour accents a rich achiote-driven stew full of sweet corn and potatoes. A coca leaf, carrot and lime salad accents guinea hen over rice, or, for the vegetarians, handmade noodles flecked with coca leaf. Unlike your hippie friends, the campesina women can cook, and we linger over a dessert of corn and pumpkin in coconut milk, talking about the role of farmers in Colombian society, who sometimes see themselves almost as an ethnic group distinct from urban Colombians.
And then we pick coca.
It’s really not hard – bushes grow all around the mud-brick buildings and picking involves stripping the leaves from a branch. In three minutes, we filled a huge basket with leaves, which were transferred to a clay oven over a slow fire. After roasting the leaves for half an hour, our hosts offered an explanation that characterized coca leaves as female and a white rock they’re consumed with is male, encouraging us to put bundles of leaves into our cheeks and slowly soften them with our jaws, then take a pinch of white rock and add it to the mass in our mouths. (It seems likely that the rock is sodium bicarbonate, which activates the alkaloids in the leaves.)
In the coca bushes
The leaves are bitter and tangy, but not unpleasant, and they almost immediately numbed my mouth and tongue. And while I didn’t feel high, I did feel surprisingly good, given that the hike back to town, in midday heat and high altitude, was brutal. Gato explained that the people of Lerma routinely walked to the PanAmerican highway, 20 kilometers from town, to demand services from the central government by blocking that critical route, chewing coca all the way.
As my companions shopped for coca-derived souvenirs, I felt like the trip had opened more questions for me than it had answered. How had this village been spared guerrilla violence since conquering its own demons in the 1980s? Was the lovely and peaceful town we were visiting supported by subsistence farming, or was coca production driving the local economy? And where was all that coca going? We were the largest group of visitors the town had ever received, and Gato reported that small groups came roughly once a month – it doesn’t require all that much coca to produce the “hayu” cookies I took home. (Hayu is the local indigenous word for coca, and part of Lerma’s rebranding campaign involves celebrating the virtues of the local herb, Hayu.)
My translator Juan learned more of the truth talking to politician Gustavo Muñoz as we toured the high school’s computer lab. “I’m Colombian. I know that every place that has coca has a master. Who’s the master in Lerma?” he asked. The answer is both complex and encouraging. M-19, the guerrilla army influential around Lerma, demobilized and became a political party in the late 1980s. When a paramilitary – nominally opposed to the FARC and other guerrilla groups, but often just a front for narcotrafficking and extortion – tried to move into the village in the 1990s, the villagers resisted and the paramilitaries couldn’t get a foothold and moved on.
Between its success story of moving beyond cocaine and alcohol towards peace, and its track record of chasing out paramilitaries, the guerrilla army powerful in southern Cauca – the ELN – tends to treat Lerma with some respect. While two ELN camps are within walking distance of the village, our hosts report that their presence in the village is limited to occasional visits by commanders who share their mobile phone numbers and ask villagers to call if “anyone unusual” – aka, paramilitaries – comes to town.
ELN hasta siempre – ELN forever
We got a sense for just how close the ELN is to Lerma as we left town. Shortly after the dirt road turned back to pavement, but before we hit the Panamerican, we passed a house emblazoned with the graffito “ELN hasta siempre” (ELN forever). Two kilometers later, we passed a government checkpoint.
Just we left Lerma for Popayán, Muñoz pulled me aside for a negotiation, asking me to use my (non-existent) pull with Bogota to ensure the government paved the road into town. I explained that I didn’t have any political power, but that I would write about my visit to Lerma and explain that, with a better road, it would be a remarkable destination for ecotourism, for visitors who wanted to learn more about Colombian agriculture and the cultural use of coca.
That’s all true. What’s also true is that the future of towns like Lerma is critical to the future of Colombia. For more than 50 years, Colombia has faced armed insurgencies whose powerbase is in rural areas hundreds of kilometers from Colombia’s cosmopolitan cities. As long as those villages feel invisible to Bogota, as long as they see no economic options beyond coca, they are likely allies to ELN and any other rebel movements outside the current peace negotiations.
(While the national referendum on the peace process is only weeks away, the subject of the peace vote didn’t come up in Lerma until we brought it up. Our friends assured us that they’d all vote for peace, mostly because former president Uribe is urging his supporters to vote no, and they cordially loathe Uribe.)
While the FARC has come to the table, the ELN has not, and there’s no guarantee that peace with the FARC will force ELN into negotiations. One possibility is that ELN may take in FARC dissidents who’ve rejected peace and become more active in kidnapping and cocaine production. Another is that ELN may remain a small force focused on local grievances and not on the national political process. While FARC’s Marxist politics incline it towards seeking political power in Bogota, ELN was founded by Catholic priests steeped in liberation theology who felt Bogota was not helping the poor. While ELN has become criminal organization engaged in kidnapping for ransom, it’s not hard to imagine sympathy for some of their positions from farmers who feel excluded from Colombia’s economic transitions.
The Colombian state needs a much stronger presence in towns like Lerma if it wants to counter the influence of the ELN, and that presence needs to start with aggressive infrastructure-building and economic development efforts. As we navigated endless switchbacks on our return to the provincial capital, we passed farm after farm selling tangerines, a dozen for $0.30, because there’s no good way to bring their products to national and international markets. It’s just too easy for farmers to make coca paste (a crack-like substance smoked locally as “bazuco”) and sell it to guerrilla armies, paramilitaries or any other broker taking advantage of the consequences of America’s failed drug wars: an increase in price with little reduction of supply.
Can Lerma find a way to build an economy around legal coca? It seems almost impossible. But this is a town that kicked out guerrillas and paramilitaries, bars and guns while searching for peace. Don’t ever underestimate the people of Lerma.
There’s little written about Lerma available online in English or in Spanish. This 2013 piece in Cali’s El País offers a recounting of Lerma’s origin story. This 1995 story from El Tiempo looks at the role of teachers in transforming the town and notes Lerma’s attempts to become a sugar producer.
Should you go to Lerma? Absolutely, yes! And absolutely not!
Let me explain. On the one hand, Lerma is one of the loveliest villages I’ve visited anywhere in the world, and I learned more about Colombian agriculture and rural development in a single day that I could have imagined. (And I almost tried to kidnap one of the cooks because the food was so good.) However, the roads to Lerma are often closed due to protests. And ELN attacks do still occur in the area. We traveled to Lerma by coordinating closely with CASA, a local organization that works on rural development in Cauca state. If you wanted to visit Lerma, it would be wise to coordinate with a local group that knows the area well.