From Cocaine to Cocoa - The Inspiring transformation of a region
We want to tell you a bit more about the San Martin region of Peru, and more specifically the untouched primary forest at the end of the River Alto Huayabamba known as Martin Sagrado and its inspiring history.
Martin Sagrado is located in Northern Peru, in the western part of the San Martin province. San Martin is located in the Amazonian Andes tropical region of Peru at the transition between the high Andes and lower Amazon basin.
Nearly 20 years ago, most of the farmers of this region were making a living by cultivating coca, the bushes that produce leaves sold to drug traffickers for producing cocaine. Cocaine was king when the drug mafia and Marxist guerillas of ‘Sendero Luminoso’ (Shining Path) dominated this province. As you can imagine these were hard times for the farmers and their communities. Producing coca was a dangerous and violent operation; conflict with military, terrorists and coca buyers was constant. Our close friend and cacao producer of Acopagro, Oswalado del Castillo Sr., recounts stories of these times, notably, memories of dead bodies seen floating down the river…daily. Most of the communities lived in a perpetual state of fear during these years.
Luckily, there was a dramatic shift in the late 1990s. With the help of a United Nations program, the entire region transitioned their coca cultivation into cacao. Today, these same farmers are some of Peru’s biggest exporters of award winning organic and fair trade cacao. This change in the province of San Martin has become a model of success, replicated in other regions. The farmers are proud to have survived the transition and even more proud of the organic cacao they now produce.
Another blemish in the history of the region is deforestation. San Martin is one of the most deforested provinces of Peru, with over 185,000 acres deforested between 2001 and 2010. Most of the deforestation is the result of development activities, especially logging, commercial agriculture, mining gas and oil operations and infrastructure construction.
But farmers and their communities are working together to turn things around. Producers and engineers of Alter Eco’s cacao cooperative, ACOPAGRO, have been working since 2010 on a conservation project of the Martin Sagrado preserve. The project aims to combine reforestation with the protection of forests in order to preserve their land, soil, biodiversity and wildlife at risk of extinction.
Through Pur Projet, farmers are now planting native trees within their cacao parcels and nurturing the trees through maturation, sometimes for 30-40 years. These trees provide many benefits to the farmer and the environment; enriching soils, providing shade for the cacao crops, stabilizing the climate, retaining water and minimizing water off-shed and land erosion.
The communities have also realized the importance of conservation, preserving the primary rainforests that have thus far been spared of deforestation. One region in particular is Martin Sagrado. This is one of my favorite places to visit in Peru, mainly for its majestic waterfall, El Breo.
Entering Martin Sagrado is like stepping into a real life Avatar. Everything is green and beaming with life. Wild green parrots greet us at the entrance of the corridor, squawking as they fly from one Cliffside to the other. The riverbanks are covered with brightly colored butterflies; blue, green, orange, yellow… there are thousands. Water runs from the lush vegetation on the cliff sides without any clear sign of the water source.
The El Breo waterfall is located 3 hours up river, past the last community on the Huayabamba River. El Breo can be seen from the boat, if you know where to look, but the hike in takes about 20 minutes, through small streams, around moss-covered boulders and walls covered in massive spider webs. You walk over ants (hormigas) the size of kidney beans and dodge spiders the size of sand dollars (not too big). On one trip our boat driver pointed out paw prints of a jaguar, but they said they’ve never actually seen one.
The force of El Breo can be felt before it can be seen. As you get closer, the air begins to cool and fill with mist. Climbing over the final boulder the massive cascade comes into site as wind whips your hair back. Stepping into the icy cold pool, at first you feel you want to turn back but El Breo calls you in further. You can’t leave El Breo without standing under the fall. It feels like a thousand pounds of water crashing on your head at once. It’s terrifying, exhilarating, energizing and inspiring. In that moment, you feel all the energy of this region, the history, the communities and the forest all around you, in you.