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Peru’s chocolate revolution

Tapping into a niche market for organic cocoa, some Peruvian farmers have turned away from growing cocaine in favour of cultivating beans for high-end chocolatiers in Europe and the US. In October, chocolate made from the cacao beans in the south American country’s rain forest was named the most aromatic in the world by the prestigious Salon du Chocolat in Paris. The seal of approval from the annual summit of the world's master chocolatiers is enough to be the start of something special in Peru and perhaps a lesson for other narcostates such as Afghanistan and Colombia.

San Martin has a wilder reputation. For years it was a haven for the rebels of the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement and the violent Maoist fighters of the Shining Path. With the surrounding countryside perfect for growing coca, used to make cocaine, drug trafficking also became rife. "We used to be known for making cocaine paste, but now we are known for chocolate," said Elena Rios, 52, secretary of Tocache Agroindustrial, a small farming cooperative in San Martin. Ms Rios gave up growing coca leaves 10 years ago, joining a program to replace her plants with cacao. "There were only 12 of us when we started; now we have hundreds. Our success is contagious,” she told Time magazine. “No one wants to grow coca in Tocache. Everyone is thinking about chocolate."

The sea change has taken years of coordinated effort by the United Nations, US and Peruvian governments, foreign aid groups, local leaders, and the farmers. Peru's drug traffickers have moved into more remote areas, and growers from across the world are visiting the area to compare notes. "We are working to identify Peru with chocolate, the way Colombia is identified with coffee. We have the world's best beans," said Blanca Panizo, who works for a US international development promoting crops to replace coca. There is also work in progress to identify the DNA of cocoa, which is hoped to lead to the creation of a Peru-specific chocolate that could be marketed the way countries sell wine.

Peru is the world's second largest coca producer after Colombia, with nearly 139,000 acres covered by the crop. While land set aside for coca has shrunk noticeably in San Martin, it has increased nationwide throughout the last decade.