“We went into the substitution programme to eradicate coca, and because you need money to invest in a project here. We needed help, my kids are in secondary school and I haven’t got the means”, are the first words of José, a PNIS beneficiary who lives in a community council in Tumaco. “Those of us here have no way out, the cassava rots on the farm, we aren’t commercialised, nobody buys from us”, explains Emilse*, who is also part of the PNIS and claims that the programme hasn’t fulfilled its promises.

Audio translation
We wanted to do other things. We didn’t want to work with coca anymore. We wanted things like cacao, or to grow oranges for example, in other words, something productive, to get out of this trade. Something else … because this is bad [illicit], it’s harmful to the body. That’s why we wanted to grow something productive.
José* on his way to the cacao crops

Some time ago, José managed to cultivate a hectare of coca. But he was unlucky: the army came and eradicated it. “I only got two harvests out of it; I was on the farm when the army came”.

Emilse among her cacao crops grown with their own resources

Though Emilse has never grown coca, she recognises the impact this crop has had in the region. Before, she says, people lived from their produce and grew cacao, cassava, chilma, chontaduro (peach palm), plantain and wood. José adds: “before, there was no illicit production, it only started a few years ago”.

The worst thing about coca, they tell us, were the fumigations. The sprayings destroyed everything, the crops, the animals and people’s health, as Emilse recalls in the following segment.

Audio translation
When they did the aerial fumigations, they destroyed everything that we’d grown.
-They flew overhead?
Yes. The air looked so green. They killed everything, the land began to crack. We were left without any food. They killed everything.

Faced with a crisis situation caused by the forced eradications, they both trusted the promises put forward by the programme, hoping for a better future. “Food assistance never got here, nothing ever arrived”, José says. Emilse tells us that people were expecting much more from the programme, but that, in the end, it’s been terrible for the communities, “we’ve been treated unfairly”.

Audio translation
Well, we were hoping to receive some support to start working in cacao, to grow oranges, mandarins, lemons, cassava. But the way I see it, with what little knowledge I have, what they’ve done has been bad … you realise how long this has gone on?

When faced with the systematic failure to fulfil the agreement, the community didn’t sit around doing nothing. José and Emilse tell us that in their rural division, people were tired of waiting for PNIS resources and had started to sow cacao on their own initiative. This can be seen in the photographs.

A coca bush in poor condition, in the middle of various cacao trees
A cacao fruit, a few weeks away from being harvestable
Step one of the cacao drying process
After the failures of the PNIS, many farmers in the division have been trying to commercialise their cacao
Dried cacao in the hands of its cultivator
Audio translation
[…] And this is from our hard work, because we don’t want to work with something illicit. Seeing as they’re not helping us, we’ve been doing this and working by ourselves.

As well as this, Emilse says that she would like to resume one of her greatest pleasures, here in the area: baking. Years ago, she worked in San Lorenzo, Ecuador, making sweets and working with icing. But this type of work is very difficult in an area like Tumaco, where there isn’t a stable supply of electricity. “We lose power every two hours”. Having electricity would give people in the rural division the opportunity to set up their own businesses, to set their projects in motion and to distance themselves from the illicit economy. Electricity would give them the chance to make the transition towards legality.

Audio translation
Yes, I would like the project to continue, but so long as they help us to move forward. In order for us, for example, us women and men to be able to work at home, doing other work, setting up little businesses, like I told you about with baking, then people would come and buy things, and so I wouldn’t need to work in illicit things.

*Names have been changed to protect anonymity