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On bananas, coca leaves and the war against cocaine

For many years there has been an ongoing, global war against drugs. Governments from all over the world, particularly the USA, are fighting the production and commercialization of narcotics. Destroying coca plantations and arresting traffickers, dealers, farmers, and even consumers are the key strategies that are being used to win this war. However, is this the best way to achieve the goal of taking down the drug business and stopping worldwide consumption? Indeed, it is not: because it simply does not solve the problem at the source.

The main cocaine producers – Colombia, Peru, and Bolivia – and seven of the world’s main hubs of drug transportation – Dominica Republic, Ecuador, Guatemala, Haiti, Mexico, Panama, and Venezuela – are located in South America. These countries have a low average annual income and a huge income gap so drugs are a booming business.In most of these countries, drugs such as cocaine are illegal. Consequently, they are very valuable on the black market. On the other hand, legal exports – such as bananas, coffee beans, and cocoa – have a very low margin of profit for the producers. The clearest example is the production of bananas. One kilogram of bananas in the USA costs less than $1 dollar while one gram of cocaine is worth up to $35. The figures should explain why global efforts to defeat the cocaine industry will always fail.

To eradicate the drug business and the accompanying crime, it is necessary to offer valid and fair alternatives to the farmers that grow coca leaves, the raw material used to produce cocaine. South and Central America producers form 50% of the top ten world’s banana producer, is it naive to think that farmers will someday have a similar profit from bananas or coffee like the coca leaves that are used for cocaine production? If all stays the same then this is only wishful thinking.

There are two main reasons why many farmers plant coca leaves instead of other products. First, the farmers cannot survive selling legal products because the prices offered by exporters are too low. Second, the peasants are given no alternative uses for coca leaves apart from selling it to cocaine producers. If governments really want to change the situation, they have to fix these two issues.

Four big fruit multinational companies – two of them are merging into one and will be the biggest banana exporter in history – play a big role in exporting bananas. Although their share reduced since the 1980s when three companies controlled 65% of the market, they still control 44% of all exports.Due to the monopolization of power and a single variety of banana, this fruit is cheap, especially if it is related to other types of fruit that grow in countries close to the final destination.

In 2012, the price for a 43 pound box of bananas in Ecuador – the biggest producer in South America – was $5.50. However, the production cost was about $5.00. In addition, the price of the same box was only $3.50 in 2007. How can someone expect peasants to change their business when the profit for one kilogram of bananas is a meager two cents? Peasants are completely in the hands of exporters. Also, during periods of low demand, peasants cannot take countermeasures, because they are often barred from developing alternative channels for selling their products. They are restricted through the threat of reprisals from multinational companies that would stop buying from them.

Planting coca for many peasants is a more remunerative alternative to coffee or bananas, and is often the only way to earn a living. For instance, in Colombia – the third biggest coffee bean producerand in the top ten of banana producersone kilogram of coca can return a profit of roughly $1.28 if sold as leaves or roughly $9.50 if sold as paste. In South America, it is estimated that about 16,000 to 25,000 families are sustained by coffee bean cultivation, while more than 60,000 depend on coca plantations.

More and more families are switching production to coca. Although cocaine alkaloid isolation was discovered in Europe less then two centuries ago, pre-Colombian civilizations have already been using them as an energizer and a painkiller for 8.000 years. Obviously, South America indigenous people would not snort the white powder they would cultivate, but rather they would chew coca leaves. Nowadays, if one goes on vacation in Colombia, Peru, Bolivia, or some parts of Argentina and Chile, one can still see people chewing coca as their ancestors did and you can stumble upon mate de coca, a tea made from coca leaves. Mate de coca is legal in the previously mentioned countries, and locals drink it instead of tea or coffee. Coca leaves, unlike cocaine, contain very low levels of alkaloids and have a stimulant effect comparable to caffeine.

Mate de Coca is only one example of how coca leaves can be used legally, and their presence in the UN list of prohibited drugs, appears unfair and careless, whereby a more accurate “coca extract” inclusion would forbid cocaine while still allow their cultivation and use. Getting peasants involved in coca cultivation for legal purposes and paying a fair price for South American products are the strategies we must employ to eradicate the international narcotic traffickers whose empires are based on violence, poverty, and injustice.

Perhaps someday we will be able to order a cup of mate de coca at our favorite Cafe. However, would we really be willing to pay five dollars for a banana or even seven dollars for an espresso?