According to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), Bahuaja-Sonene has the world’s highest amount of illegally-cultivated coca within a protected area: 118 hectares (about 290 acres) are growing within the park. Authorities in the area say that the park’s deforestation, the majority of which is related to drug trafficking, has risen to 473 hectares (about 1,170 acres).

Angelina, Moisés, and hundreds of other coffee growers migrated to Putina Punco, a district in the Sandia Valley in the 1970s from the mountains in the Puno Region. It is eight hours away from the city of Puno by train, past the high plateaus and lowland rainforests. The name Putina Punco may be familiar to some: it is the birthplace of Tunki coffee, which was named the best organic coffee in the world in 2010. Tunkimayo, an area within Putina Punco, is where Raúl Mamani harvested the coffee that made him last year’s winner of the “highest quality coffee” award by the Specialty Coffee Association of America. Yet only six of the 60 producers who once grew this coffee in Tunkimayo continue to do so.

The latest report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) says that Bahuaja-Sonene National Park is the protected area with the world’s largest amount of illegally-cultivated coca: 118 hectares (about 290 acres) are growing within the park. Photos courtesy of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) (2017) and the Monitoring of the Andean Amazon Project (MAAP) (2015).
The latest report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) says that Bahuaja-Sonene National Park is the protected area with the world’s largest amount of illegally-cultivated coca: 118 hectares (about 290 acres) are growing within the park. Photos courtesy of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) (2017) and the Monitoring of the Andean Amazon Project (MAAP) (2015).

Illegal coca plantations are a major part of the problem.

Although these plantations were detected in the area as early as 2004, it was 2012 that saw the greatest growth in coca crops. This is because a fungus called coffee leaf rust, which turns leaves yellow before causing them to dry up and fall, dramatically reduced the number of coffee plants in the region. Javier Cahuasa, director of the Central Coffee Growers’ Cooperative of Sandia Valley (Cecovasa), says that in 2012, there were 8,400 hectares (over 20,700 acres) of coffee being grown. After the crops were devastated by coffee leaf rust in 2017, only 2,330 hectares (over 5,700 acres) remained. The Ministry of Agriculture of Peru confirms these statistics.

“They were defeated,” Moisés said, shaking his head, noting that there’s nothing to do to fight it. “There has always been coffee leaf rust, but it was controlled and it disappeared. In 2012, that was no longer possible, and in 2013, it came for almost all our plants; the leaves didn’t grow back,” he said. The 66-year old coffee grower has spent more than 40 years in the trade. Of the 5,000 pounds of coffee that his crops once produced, today he is lucky to harvest 200 pounds. At a profit of about $90 per 100 pounds of coffee, and only one crop per year, Moisés says they can no longer afford to live.

Angelina says that in the beginning, everyone was worried and discussed what they could do, hoping for technical assistance from Cecovasa, their municipality, or the government. When that didn’t happen, the tide slowly began to move toward coca cultivation.

The shadow of illicit crops advancing on this protected area is one of three latent threats putting one of Peru’s most biodiverse parks at risk. In this first installment of a three-part series, Mongabay Latam explores a problem that, according to residents and authorities, is out of control.

Drug trafficking in Bahuaja-Sonene National Park

Among the areas in this region where coffee once grew, most are now dominated by coca, if not abandoned completely.

“They saw the money and they left [to grow coca]. In this area, there used to be 50 coffee growers. Now we’re the only ones,” Moisés said. The UNODC estimates that in Putina Punco alone, there are 2,880 hectares (about 7,100 acres) of coca growing  adjacent to the park. In 2012, there were only 1,662 hectares (about 4,100 acres), more than 50 percent increase.

The entire district of Putina Punco is considered a buffer zone of Bahuaja-Sonene National Park. However, those who live there know that being close to the park means being close to danger.

In 2015, four park rangers with an office in the district had to be removed from the National Service of Natural Protected Areas (SERNANP) by the Peruvian government because of the constant threats they received. According to the director of SERNANP, Pedro Gamboa, these threats even involved people appearing at the house of the former park director, who ultimately resigned. The breaking point was when park rangers spotted an unauthorized airstrip. Airstrips are commonly used by drug traffickers to deliver cocaine to other countries in the region. A 2015 report by SERNANP confirms the presence of the unauthorized airstrip.

In 2015, park rangers from Bahuaja-Sonene National Park identified an unauthorized airstrip inside the park. Photos courtesy of DigitalGlobe’s WorldView. Image A: Reference map. Courtesy of DigitalGlobe’s WorldView (NextView).
In 2015, park rangers from Bahuaja-Sonene National Park identified an unauthorized airstrip inside the park. Photos courtesy of DigitalGlobe’s WorldView. Image A: Reference map. Courtesy of DigitalGlobe’s WorldView (NextView).

The Ministry of Agriculture says that drug trafficking in the area has arisen as a consequence of the “balloon effect.” Illegal coca crops are eradicated from one part of the country, only to show up in another area. In 2013, the co-occurrence of the decline in coca crops in the highlands of the Huallaga Province, the military work in the valley of the Apurímac, Ene, and Mantaro rivers, and the massive influx of migrants from Ayacucho and Apurímac in Sandia Province aroused suspicion among coffee growers.

Five years later, the origins of the coca growers in the valley are diverse, according to locals. The “balloon effect” not only spurred farmers to move away, but also encouraged drug traffickers to come to the area. José Chuquipul, the director of the National Commission for Development and Life Without Drugs (DEVIDA), says that there are large families taking control of various sectors of the district, in addition to laboratories for cocaine and cocaine paste located just a few meters from the plantations.

Locals say they know that cocaine is developed within Bahuaja-Sonene National Park. They also say that they know that those grow operations make entering the park through Putina Punco extremely dangerous.

The area’s troubled coffee growing operations, coupled with almost non-existent government and law enforcement entities — the closest police station is 90 minutes from the district — have served as a breeding ground to strengthen the illegal cultivation of coca. Carlos Díaz, the coordinator of the Green Commodities program within the UN Development Program (UNDP), says that in coffee-growing areas with a high presence of illegal crops, coffee plants are usually damaged by the illegal crops, ultimately distorting the economy.

The first indicator is seen during harvest.

“If a person can earn 120 soles ($40) in wages from coca, [that person] will not prefer the 30 to 40 soles ($9 to $11) that coffee offers,” Díaz said.

For Moisés, he tries to harvest as much coffee as possible with his youngest son, but they also need workers to kill weeds and to monitor for diseases and infestations It is tireless work. Díaz says that this is another serious problem with growing coffee: many of the people dedicated to cultivating it are over 50 years old, and younger generations tend to prefer easy money.

Access to marketing is another indicator: while coffee growers need to travel for hours to deliver their bags of coffee, coca sellers simply collect coca at the door of each farm. However, the payment is the most evident difference. One hectare of land can produce 10,000 pounds of coca at least three times per year. With prices hovering around $42 per 100 pounds of coca, a coca seller can earn about $4,200 each trimester. A coffee grower only earns about $1,820 for an entire year’s work, according to the National Coffee Board of Peru.

Cecovasa predicts that coffee production will continue to decrease this year, and estimates that only 600,000 pounds of coffee will be harvested in the area, in contrast to the 8.5 million pounds produced in 2011. The co-op itself, which produced the famous Tunki coffee, is now at risk of disappearing.

“To work, we need to produce 5 million pounds per year; that’s a figure that we haven’t reached since the coffee leaf rust problem began in 2012,” said Cahuasa, the director of Cecovasa. Last year, they launched a campaign to encourage the Peruvian government and private businesses to unite to save the coffee grown in the Puno Region, but they weren’t successful. In 2017, the entire valley only produced 900,000 pounds of coffee.

Moisés and Angelina have tried almost everything to stay in the fight to produce coffee, from organic fertilizer to inspecting their plants day and night. Even after the coffee leaf rust began, they developed a better type of coffee, which went on to win accolades.

At this point, Cecovasa knows well which battles are worth fighting. In the Sandia Valley, there are coffee growers who also have less than a quarter of a hectare of coca plants. This could either be because they needed a quick source of income, because they did not want to raise suspicions, or simply because they have already entered the illegal coca industry. The only thing that Cecovasa’s technicians repeatedly tell them is that if they grow coca, it needs to be grown at least 10 meters (about 33 feet) away from the coffee plants, because of the chemicals used to grow coca. This practice has hit Cecovasa hard: in 2016, the coffee producers affiliated with Cecovasa lost their organic coffee certification because traces of coca were found on a farm. The co-op recovered its organic coffee certification last year, but the economic impact is still being felt.

Pure fear

Fear is dispersed in the Sandia Valley in different ways. For Angelina, it came from her 20-year-old son. “It was when he began to act strange and then he wouldn’t help us harvest the coffee,” she says. Angeline remembers that when her son was a child, he played in the coffee fields and was excited for harvest time. Two years ago, he told her that he was going to move to the Bolivian rainforest because he had met a girl.

For a year, Angelina spoke with him once per month. One day, he stopped answering the phone. She talked to some of her son’s friends who used to cross the Tambopata River, the natural border between Peru and Bolivia. His friends said that nobody had seen him.

Recently, someone approached Angelina to advise her not to ask about him anymore. Her son was a “backpacker,” or a person hired by drug traffickers to deliver the processed drugs on foot. On one of his routes, he was killed, the person told Angelina. It was a two-day route in which cocaine passes through Madidi National Park in Bolivia; on this route, death is as common as a bug bite.

Fear can conquer even the strongest of people.

Tired of being accused of being “snitches” because they did not grow coca, Moisés and Angelina began to grow a quarter of a hectare of it. They were still being watched. Now, they can’t go into downtown Putina Punco without feeling persecuted. They prefer to talk when their voices can almost be drowned out by the rain, and they hope their lives will return to normal.

Insufficient responses

“For 20 years I worked in Huepetuhe, in the mining [area] of Madre de Dios. There you saw silver, but you were inundated with mercury,” says Benedicto, a coffee grower who has since left Huepetuhe and now lives in Putina Punco, farther away from the park. “In 1990, I returned to Putina Punco. Everything was going well until the coffee leaf rust appeared. What used to be coffee plantations are now full of coca. When I was young, people would line up to work during the harvest, but now the wage that we can offer is painful. We can’t compete with the people who work with coca,” Benedicto says.

Benedicto and Sofía, his wife, sit under the shade of their house where they can see the waters of the Tambopata River. Instead of the park being within their view, they now see green mountains and their neighbors’ homes. There is no forest anymore; instead, there are bare spaces now covered with tiny coca leaves. “[Some people say] it’s foolish to still make coffee,” says Benedicto. “But this way we are more calm. What is going to happen when [coffee leaf rust] comes? We’ve already been here for several years, hoping that someone will remove the coca. No one comes,” says Benedicto.

Those who manage Bahuaja-Sonene National Park cannot ignore the coffee growers’ situation, because drug trafficking is one of the park’s main enemies. The deforestation caused by illegal coca crops, the installation of laboratories, and the unauthorized airstrip have affected the park’s biological corridors.

Park director David Araníbar says that they no longer see South American tapirs or jaguars crossing from Bahuaja-Sonene into Madidi National Park. He blames the increase in illegal activities. “There is a fragmentation of their habitats, and the impact has also been huge for the black spider monkey, the white condor, and the green military macaw, which no longer appear in the area,” says Araníbar.

The director of SERNANP’s management of protected natural areas, José Carlos Nieto, says that although the vast majority of the park – 98.6 percent – is still well-conserved, the worst deforestation in the area is in Colorado, just outside the park.

“We have always informed the highest national agencies of this problem,” says Pedro Gamboa, SERNANP’s director. Gamboa says that they have even developed a strategy that aims to eradicate illegal crops and consider better economic options, such as coffee or cocoa, but they are still awaiting the approval of Peru’s regional government. They also need the involvement of more Peruvian governmental entities.

Chuquipul, the director of DEVIDA, says that although his organization is the leader in the fight against drug trafficking, the decisions regarding eradication must correspond to the Ministry of the Interior, specifically to the Corah Project. DEVIDA is responsible, however, for encouraging the growth of alternative crops.

“We know that for the Corah Project, the cost is too high to intervene in this area,” Chuquipul said. According to DEVIDA, the Corah Project spends $3.6 million annually to eliminate 25,000 hectares (over 61,700 acres) of illegal coca from the country. Mongabay Latam reached out to the Ministry of the Interior for comment, but did not receive a response.

Chuquipul adds that they are aware there is an increased presence of illegal crops, but technicians can’t develop new projects if the illegal crops have not yet been eradicated. “In some other areas, it can be argued that some of the coca is for sale legally, but by law, it must be eradicated in protected natural areas.”

The public prosecutor from the Ministry of Environment, Julio Guzmán, confirms that at least a few times, he has received complaints from SERNANP about the illegal coca inside the park. He says he has submitted reports to the anti-drug department of the Peruvian national police.

Five years after the 2012 coffee leaf rust began, Benedicto and Sofía received their reward for their persistence: in 2017, their coffee earned 86.75 points in the Cup of Excellence competition. “It’s a proud moment,” said Benedicto. “Because of this, we keep trying with our coffee.”

However, not all former coffee growers have turned to growing coca. Many people abandoned farming and took up mining in the mountains. But a few days ago, Benedicto heard his neighbor’s chainsaw; they have begun to return. “I hope they’re not here to grow coca, but I want to convince them to plant even a little bit of coffee,” Benedicto said.


Noah, a 35 year-old coffee grower, keeps his coffee sprouts on a half of a hectare plot, which he had to destroy after the coffee leaf rust. As he lifts some of his unplanted sprouts to show them, a devastating landscape appears in the background. It looks as if a huge rake has combed through his coffee plantations and left only a few small plants. He tries not to talk about it.

Loyola Escamilo, director of the Madidi-Tambopata landscape project by the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), thinks that when the first signs of coffee leaf rust appeared, the problem areas should have been attacked systematically. However, Jorge Figueroa, the Ministry of Agriculture’s coffee farming specialist, says that this was not done. The national action plan against coffee leaf rust was begun in 2013, but the Puno Region was not included in the plan until 2014. “We started with the central rainforest because it was closer to Lima, and the leaders of the coffee industry were putting pressure on us,” Figueroa said.

Figueroa adds that the new national coffee action plan highlights the Puno Region as a place of high-quality coffee production. “We know that before, there were 8,000 to 10,000 hectares (about 19,700 to 24,700 acres) [of coffee] and that Putina Punco was home to 80 percent of the [coffee] production in the Sandia Valley,” Figueroa said.

According to Cecovasa, these numbers have been reduced to about half of what they once were, and they keep falling.

“I was born here, in Putina [Punco]. As a child, I only knew coffee; I watched it grow, almost like weeds. Later, I was growing and trying different varieties to cultivate. When my father died, I received a few more hectares on lower land. That was in 2011. My plants were small when they started to become like string beans and dry up. The coffee leaf rust almost wears us out.” -Noah, a young coffee grower from Putina Punco in Puno Region.

Even with a centralist viewpoint, one could realize the problem: if a flagship Peruvian coffee is reduced to producing less than 10 percent of what it once did, this will soon be reflected in the entire country’s coffee production data. “If this coffee once represented 25 percent of the national production, now it’s down to 15 percent,” said Carlos Díaz of the UN.

The situation could get even worse if new roads are constructed in Putina Punco. This year alone, DEVIDA has allocated more than $300 million to enable more routes for coffee farmers in the district. With a growing population linked to drug trafficking, it is not difficult to understand who would benefit from those roads.

“We support municipal projects that will support coffee production. We can’t restrict who will use [the roads],” says Chuquipul from DEVIDA.

Gamboa, from SERNANP, says that before local projects are begun, it’s important to identify what projects really need to be invested in so that illicit activities are not supported. “We have to identify all the people in the area and see what activities are being done. Many roads that are built actually serve for crimes,” Gamboa says.

Beyond everything, there are still coffee growers like Noah who become excited when they talk about their plants. When he began his own coffee farming project in 2011, many people came from the Puno Region’s rainforests in hopes of being successful at growing the best coffee in the world. The Tunki coffee created by Wilson Sucaticona was in high demand, and Noah thought that, with a few more years of work, he could be like Sucaticona: winning prizes and selling his coffee in the most exclusive coffee shops.

Noah now talks about how that dream has become a nightmare.

“The blow was so hard,” he says while playing with a few coffee leaves that survived the rust. His current goal is to earn as many points as possible in the Cup of Excellence competition. “Last year, I got 79 points. This year I need at least 80 with my coffee; I’ve put so much work into getting here,” said Noah. This one-point difference would allow him to have a greater income this year. Noah doesn’t think much about the distant future anymore. His new dreams are short-term, which is exactly what happens when you live in uncertainty.

(*) The names of these coffee farmers have been changed for their security at their request.

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Article published by Genevieve Belmaker
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