When Poppies Don’t Pay

With a stark decline in the price fetched by opium gum, Mexico’s government should take strides toward making crop substitution proposals a reality in Guerrero.

A Guerrero community police member stands guard at an illegal poppy field in Heliodoro Castillo, Guerrero state, Mexico, on March 25, 2018.
A Guerrero community police member stands guard at an illegal poppy field in Heliodoro Castillo, Guerrero state, Mexico, on March 25, 2018. PEDRO PARDO/AFP/Getty Images

“Then and there, I went to sell it, because I needed the money,” sing Los Armadillos, a band from La Sierra in the Mexican state of Guerrero. The popular song, “Cosecha Nocturna” (“Night Harvest”), is about growing and selling opium poppies, a crop that campesinos, or small-plot farmers, have relied on in the mountainous regions of La Sierra and La Montaña for decades.

But that could be about to change. Between 2017 and 2019, the price per kilogram of the gum scraped from the flower fell from $1,059 to $265, making it much harder to earn a living from cultivating poppies. And, as farmers petition the government for subsidies to replace that income with traditional crops like corn, beans, and avocados, there’s a chance it could be a change for the better.

Opium gum was the economic bread and butter for around 50,000 people in the region until the recent rise in fentanyl and decline in heroin use in parts of the United States. Fentanyl, a synthetic opioid, is not made with opium gum. The region has always had high levels of poverty and insecurity, and the cratering price of a crop that was putting food on the table for thousands of families has caused further impoverishment. In March, farmers experienced a further shock when Army helicopters destroyed around 1,000 hectares of poppies—a tactic regularly employed by the Mexican government over the past 13 years as part of the war on drugs.

In response, on April 1, leaders from nine communities in La Sierra petitioned the national Senate to fund the planting of 1,000 hectares of fruit trees in the region, as an effort to kickstart the process of raising legal and sustainable produce for farmers.

The cratering price of a crop that was putting food on the table for thousands of families has caused further impoverishment.

“We ask that they give us everything we need—the equipment, the seeds, the temporary employment—to support us to produce the crop,” one community commissioner, Ruperto Pacheco, told local media. “Otherwise, we don’t even have enough here to eat.” The transition to a new crop would take a while under even the best circumstances. Switching would require soil preparation, especially where soil has been damaged from the army’s spraying and burning of poppy crops to destroy them, as well as the redesign of farming plots, where many also grow beans and corn for family use alongside the opium poppies. Farmers would need interim measures to feed their families while crops mature.

Local authorities in Guerrero have made some response to the demands of the desperate farming communities. Pablo Amílcar Sandoval, a delegate to the federal government from Guerrero, announced in late April that his administration had started a process to generate “a different economy” for campesinos in La Sierra that would begin with a mass delivery of free fertilizer to local communities. When the fertilizer failed to materialize, farmers in the Heliodoro Castillo municipality temporarily detained several members of the army and Guerrero state police. Guerrero state Gov. Héctor Astudillo then went to deliver the fertilizer himself, posting photographs of himself braving the heavy downpour of the rainy season. The distribution of fertilizer to one community, apparently under the duress of a hostage situation, is as far as concrete government responses have gone to date.

Along with proposals to legalize the cultivation of poppies for medical use, crop substitution has been discussed in Guerrero and across Mexico for years. As the experts Romain Le Cour Grandmaison, Nathaniel Morris, and Benjamin T. Smith observe in their recent report, “No More Opium for the Masses,” Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador expressed some enthusiasm for crop substitution in Guerrero in the lead-up to his election last year. And as far back as 1978, Alfonso Calderón, the governor of the northern poppy-growing state of Sinaloa, suggested that the government fund replacement for poppy crops destroyed during the U.S.-backed Operation Condor, a Mexican anti-drug offensive begun in the 1970s. Grandmaison and his co-authors suggest that such interest has so far come to nothing for two reasons: national politicians backing out of multiple promises and a top-down approach to rural economic development throughout the second half of the 20th century, which prevented local people from actually receiving seeds and equipment.

Any new crop will also need to be able to overcome the impacts of climate change on the mountains of Guerrero.

With the massive fall in returns on opium gum, Grandmaison, Morris, and Smith see a window for long-discussed solutions to finally come to fruition, although they warn that initial government efforts to promote crop substitution would not fully compensate for the economic losses suffered by poppy growers. Any new crop will also need to be able to overcome the impacts of climate change on the mountains of Guerrero, where ongoing temperature changes, soil erosion, and crop diseases worry farmers. Wildfires that burned throughout the state in May have affected some parts of La Sierra, causing the loss of over 200 hectares of pine plantation in Atoyac, a neighboring municipality to Heliodoro Castillo.

Another factor is the time it takes to grow new crops: For example, in areas where crops such as avocados and mangoes are the most suitable substitutes, the plants take years to begin to produce fruit. The local government would also need to guarantee—and in some cases construct—viable transport routes to markets from remote villages and ensure that the criminal organizations that currently control the land don’t exploit the assistance.

Now in office, López Obrador has promised to assist the campesinos of Guerrero in substituting poppy with corn, though real action has not materialized. In talking about crop substitution, López Obrador has often referred to the “nobility” of the struggling Guerrero peasant farmer, a narrative that suggests that the farmers need only return to their traditional roots of planting beans and corn. But there are other possibilities for the farming families of these mountains, many of whom still lived in entrenched poverty even when the poppy yields were at their highest. Along with corn, beans, and rice, La Sierra used to boast harvests of sesame, sugar cane, mangoes, bananas, and copra—coconut meat that is dried for oil extraction. Local coffee, now grown on a much smaller scale where the mountain range reaches the Pacific Ocean, has won awards for its flavor and quality. And, while marijuana and opium poppy now dominate the broader region, it remains home to orchards and fields of limes, avocados, peaches, walnuts, and apples. Without government neglect, and without cartel rule, Guerrero could be truly abundant.

Right now, however, the cartels appear unwilling to loosen their grip. Violence in the region continues apace as organized crime groups seek to shore up their control of territory for purposes other than trafficking heroin, such as extortion of the nearby mining and logging industries.

The federal government is currently providing humanitarian support to a small group of families, among them many poppy farmers, who were displaced by conflict among several organized crime groups in November 2018. This assistance is a small drop in an ocean of need. As the Desert Sun reported in early March, migration from Mexico to the United States may be going down overall, but the number seeking escape from the violence in Guerrero (and Michoacán, another poppy-growing state) is going up. Local and international media covering the area have reported that campesinos who remain in Guerrero are increasingly saying that if they can’t make a living from the opium poppy anymore, they will also attempt to migrate north.

The opium poppy is no longer an attractive crop—in this, the purveyors of fentanyl in the United States have done half of the Mexican government’s eradication work for it. Many farmers want to begin producing new and legal crops but need government assistance. The United Nations and other human rights authorities have said for years that ensuring that small-farmer households can adopt viable and sustainable livelihoods is essential to intervene in drug crop production and reduce the violence that attends it. Now is a chance to prove them right.

Whatever López Obrador plans to do, it is an unusually apt time to try a new solution for the drug cartel violence that has flourished with the complicity of the Mexican government, and to finally address the impoverishment and marginalization of the people who have been caught in its path.

Ann Deslandes is a freelance writer and researcher. Twitter: @Ann_dLandes

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