As the war on drugs continues to appear futile, the drug that supplants coca’s stranglehold over Bolivian farmers might turn out to be ... coffee.
In 2004, USAID introduced the idea of “specialty” coffee to Yungas, an area renowned for coca production, reported TIME. USAID worked with 9,000 Yungas families, sharing expertise on how to cultivate organic shade-grown beans. At the time, Bolivia’s exported coffee beans were among the lowest quality in Latin America. But USAID investments in equipment, such as drying beds and shelling machines, helped the Yungas families lift their bean quality.
By 2009, Bolivian coffee quality was 90 out of 100 among coffee grading experts. In that time, the price of Bolivian coffee beans had more than doubled, from $1 per pound to $2.30. On top of that, hot temperatures in 2010—11 wiped out coffee crops across Latin America with the exception of the Yungas beans, resulting in a price jump to $4.50 per pound. Now, farmers earn $6,000 more per hectare from coffee than coca and, according to the Bolivian Federation of Coffee Exporters, the outlook is good for continued growth. Starbucks continues to show support for shade-grown beans, partnering with Conservation International to invest in coffee-growing communities who engage in climate-friendly activities, including protecting existing forests and helping restore degraded landscapes.
This shift toward coffee production over coca “cuts through the myth that coca farmers are inherently invested in the drug trade”, reports Kathryn Ledebur, director of the Bolivian based drug-war watchdog group, Andean Information Network. What these producers are actually inherently invested in is business: income that supports their families and communities. With investments in equipment and skills, farmers can earn a comparable living with a lot fewer local and international side effects.