Coffee crops trump coca as Colombia conflict ebbs

BOGOTA, (Reuters) – Violent armed groups are still  forcing thousands of Colombian farmers to grow coca, but with  the army regaining control of many rural areas, growers are  increasingly turning to coffee for a living.

The switch to coffee from coca and the return of displaced  farmers should lend Colombia, the world’s top producer of both  high-quality Arabica beans and cocaine, a hand to boost bean  output to 15 million sacks in 2015 and 18 million in 2020.

In the mountains of Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta in north  Colombia, the coffee harvest of ex coca growers is seen helping  the nation meet its 2011 output target of 9 million bags, and  is also bringing peace of mind to farmers.

“I no longer get anxious about the army coming to fumigate  the (coca) plantations. I feel glad that I’ve moved from  illegal to legal (crops),” said farmer Daniel Suarez in a  recent interview.

After more than a decade of a U.S.-backed security  crackdown, Colombian forces have retaken large swathes of the  country and expanded state presence in many parts although  rebels and drug lords still wreak havoc in much of the nation.

That campaign has helped cut coca planting to 145,000 acres  (59,000 hectares), a 13 percent drop from 2009. Instead of  coca, farmers are growing crops such as cocoa, palm oil trees  and bananas, as well as coffee, which is becoming increasingly  popular because of high international prices.

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