This article originally appeared on ¡PACIFISTA!, VICE Colombia's platform for promoting peace. It is part of "The COCA Project," which aims to establish and bolster the public policy debate on issues related to the aftermath of coca production with stories from rural regions.
In the 1980s and 90s, Puerto Camelias, in the Colombian department of Caquetá, was often considered the country's cocaine capital. The village, which hugs a curve of the Caguán River, was among the spots producing the greatest volume of processed cocaine in the country's most comprehensively coca-obsessed agricultural region.
But that was then. Since 2004 or 2005, things have changed in this village of 50 homes, which can only be reached after a four-hour boat trip (or voladora, as they say here) from Cartagena del Chairá. Thanks to the US-financed military operations of the Colombian government's Plan Patriota (Patriot Plan), not only did Marxist FARC guerrillas withdraw from where they operated in the region, but—as a result of combat and fumigations—coca leaf and coke production virtually disappeared. The plant moved on quickly—like it always does—toward Nariño, Putumayo, and Norte de Santander, where it remains widely harvested today.
Lacking any support from the government, residents of Puerto Camelias promptly found themselves in search of new work. Previously, even those who weren't a grower or raspachín (harvester) in their own right made a living off people who were. When coca disappeared, cattle-farming emerged as the last viable economic alternative in an area where the only way to move goods was by river. That's where farmers still sell the milk and cheese produced on their land to people on the boats that pass by early every day.
But with a new way of life came a new obstacle: Herding cows required more pasture, so farmers started to cut down trees left and right. In Puerto Camelias, and in much of lower Caguán, workers exchanged an acute problem—and an illegal one—for another that, while legal, was and is itself problematic. Today, Cartagena del Chairá is ranked third among Colombian municipalities when it comes to deforestation, having cut 10,241 hectares of trees annually. To put it in terms that are easier to imagine, that's 1,300 soccer fields every year.
From coca to cows
"Here, people believe that for every cow, you need a hectare (or nearly 2.5 acres) of pasture. If I have 100 cattle, I need 100 fields. And also that the pastures have to be clean, with no trees," explains Hamilton Tapias as he climbs on his horse and begins riding through the hilly ravine connecting Puerto Camelias with the farm where he lives.
A two-hour ride later, Tapias stops at a wooden gatehouse. The landscape of La Hermosa Cinco Estrellas ("The Beautiful Five Stars")—the name he gave his farm—is totally different from what's typically on display at the edge of the Caguán River and throughout the region. The expansive pasture is littered with dozens of little trees, most about two meters high.
"Look, before I cut down everything, but I'm a changed person," he says. Smiling from ear to ear, he begins to show off his trees, one after another, reciting their names with the vibe of a botanist on a forest expedition: Ahumados negros (also known as the guanacaste tree), achapos (also known as tornillos), cedros (cedars), flormorados (pink trumpet tree), medio cominos (evergreens).
Soon, once they've grown a little bit more, 150 cattle owned by Tapias's family will graze and sleep here. This is just one example of a broader experiment to combat the problem of deforestation in the region, the effects of which are already being widely felt.
"Why is it that the big cats come out and threaten the cattle? Because we invade their habitat. And why do the parrots eat from the coconut palms? Because we've cut down the trees whose seeds they ate. To understand this requires a change of thought," says Victor Garcés, the most respected community leader of Puerto Camelias, while sitting in the living room of his home.
Another one of the problems farmers face in the region is that the Caguán River has widened within just a few years, nearly doubling in size, due to the indiscriminate removal of trees on its banks and resulting erosion. Now, many houses are much closer to the river. "They gained a few meters of pasture, but now there's nobody who can stop this. What we've lost can already be measured in hectares," Garcés says. He arrived 30 years ago to work first as a raspachín, later transporting drums full of chemicals, and finally working his own coca lot.
Blaming all this on the coca workers—or ex-coca workers—is easy. But the truth is that nobody showed them another way to live. For that reason, the lower Caguán is a good example of what can happen when a post-coca economy isn't environmentally sustainable and the state doesn't assist rural residents who, like Tapias, are in the process of reshaping their lives.
"This is called silvopastoral. It means that the cattle live with the trees," Tapias explains as he looks across his land. Since the collapse of the 80s cocaine bonanza and amid an enduring absence of schools in the region, he's stuck looking to the future with just a third-grade education.
When he was a teenager, Tapias went to work as a raspachín in Llorente, along the coast of Nariño, with the dream of earning enough to buy a farm. He returned a few years later without a dollar to his name, and began working on the farms of others, saving enough to buy 50 hectares, which he recently supplemented with 50 more.
Today, the trees in the middle of his pastures are hardly the only things setting the man's farm apart. He has already fenced off nearby water sources using wire so that his cattle don't contaminate them. He's subdivided the pasture with fences made of native trees so that those parcels can begin to grow again while the cattle are rotated among them. And since he learned that the secret to getting by with a smaller pasture is having your cattle eat more nutritiously, he's developed a new kind of corral rife with vegetation.
"This is what I call my 'nutritional pasture.' See, this is buttercup. This other one is matarratón (Gliricidia sepium). This one here is king grass, and that one is gólgota. That one with the big leaf is bore (or arum)," he says proudly as he walks around pointing out 20-something species that—their leaves dried and crushed—will become a nutritional supplement, the kind scientists call a mixed forage bank.
Since his cattle are already eating better and using less pasture, he's made a commitment that he won't consider breaking: He's going to protect the 25 hectares of native forest that surround the pasture, where he's building his house of wood. Furthermore, he's allowing a cañero corridor—that's what they call the forest along the Caguán, and what scientists call "secondary forest"—to recover so that animals can cross from one side to the other and reproduce more easily.
They're small actions but, taken together, they can have a real environmental impact.
Living off the forest, living with the forest
Fifteen minutes from Tapias's farm, Juan Esteban Rodríguez and his wife, Cristina López, have just finished moving a heavy pumpkin almost 70 centimeters wide. Just past the water source they've fenced off to protect it from the pigs and cows, there's a family garden where they grow tomatoes, onions, carrots, cabbage, and cucumber, both for their own use and to sell to neighbors. A few meters away is a little pond fenced in by sheets of zinc, where, from January until Holy Week (essentially the Colombian equivalent of easter), they raise tilapia to sell.
"Before, you never saw even a plantain growing here, just coca leaf and grass. And look at it now," says López, a 22-year-old woman and daughter of a coca-leaf-producing family that moved here from the department of Quindío before her birth. Rodríguez, who was born in the same town, arrived as a teen and also began collecting coca leaves. The farm where they both live now was, in another time and under previous ownership, an enormous coca field.
In fact, there are reminders of that era all over this place. From a high point on the property, you can see the remains of jars, cans, and concrete: Twenty years ago, it was one of the hundreds of "crystallizers" where—with the help of hydrochloric acid and other chemicals—the paste that formed the base of cocaine was extracted from the coca leaf, which was, in turn, bought by the narcos along the Caguán River. Today, it's where López and Rodríguez are going to plant the seeds that might soon feed cattle.
The only way that these types of projects will be sustainable over time is if these small actions add up to larger win-win propositions. The first victory, in theory, has to be for rural people: If it doesn't help them live better in a region where the absence of the government has been near-total, it will be difficult for them to see those projects through.
Tapias's farm is smaller and therefore more manageable, which allowed him to increase productivity and begin construction on a wooden house he designed based on a Google search for "country houses." And Rodríguez and López have been able to generate two additional streams of income that have nothing to do with cattle.
There are reasons to be bullish about the environmental gains from these novel approaches, as well. First, they seem to be able to help reduce the loss of forest in Caquetá, which is considered one of Colombia's most vulnerable regions, and, by being a kind of door to the Amazon jungle, is critical for preserving the so-called lungs of the world. That some of the parts of the forest are integrated into the farms suggests a degree of connectivity, the term biologists use to describe the free movement of animals and seeds, and that there's genetic diversity among the species.
Just as important, these farmers are experimenting with solutions to a problem caused by cattle, which contribute the most greenhouse gases to the environment in Colombia—even more than oil, cars, or factories. Having more trees in the proximity to livestock could help convert the methane they emit into oxygen, neutralizing some of the harmful effects to the climate.
Lest you think these are just a couple of innovators, along with Tapias, Rodríguez, and López, there are 48 other farming families in Puerto Camelias making small changes on their properties. It's all part of a pilot project sponsored by the NGO Fondo Acción called Paisajes conectados ("Connected Landscapes"), which draws upon international resources.
Each of these 50 families has signed a conservation agreement in which they commit to certain activities in exchange for technical support. For example, they might receive the wire that allows them to build fences or the seeds for native trees. Later, a technician from Fondo Acción visits every so often to see how things are coming along.
Though they're really just getting started with these new farming models, among all the families who are participating in the project, there's a total of more than 5,500 hectares in play. If each participant manages to keep their part of the forest intact, they will have prevented the loss of a tenth of the annual deforestation that occurs in this municipality.
This demonstrates the potential of this kind of work in the most deforested regions of the country, like Caquetá, Guaviare, the south of Meta, the north of Chocó, the Catatumbo, the south of Bolívar, or the lower Cauca, where deforestation has occurred largely because of extensive cattle ranching. In fact, research published in the scientific journal BioScience and conducted by the Colombian biologist Liliana Dávalos (who teaches at Stony Brook University in the United States) demonstrated that the uncontrolled growth of agriculture and livestock farming has been one of the most significant factors in the loss of Amazonian forests—even more than coca itself.
You might argue the farmers of Puerto Camelias have done everything on their own. They got out of coca, started cattle farming, and are now beginning to think about other models without any real help from the government. The authorities should take notice of these potential solutions, but also how bad things can get in the regions where the eradication and substitution of coca are proceeding at a rapid pace.
"The State's presence here is epileptic: There are no public services, there are low levels of education, and the only doctor (in Remolinos, downriver) left a year ago and never returned," says Rodrigo Velaidez, an agronomist who has worked with the area's rural residents since the 90s, when Chocaguán, a Nobel Prize-winning project that substituted cacao for coca, was in full effect. Today, the place is paralyzed by a lack of resources.
"If the farmers had had the awareness then that they have today, these deforestation rates would have never happened. That people are talking about conservation, water sources, isolation, and connectivity zones—all words that you never heard in the lexicon—is an incredibly important achievement," Garcés says, adding, "It's not just about saying, 'I have a headache,' but 'What am I going to do about it?'"