Independently of each other, three farmers of the Bajo Cauca – the lower Cauca river basin in the northwest of the Antioquia department – use the same words to describe their situation: “we have our backs to the wall.” They are referring to the plight of a civilian population which has endured the crossfire between guerrillas and extreme right-wing paramilitary groups: a fight for territory and power that has turned this department into one of the biggest producers of coca in the country.

For decades, the peasant-farmers had few choices to diversify their crops when facing drug traffickers and subversives, but pressure by the Colombian police and its anti-narcotics division, as well as the work of social organizations and their programs in the region, are reversing the coca tide.

To investigate, we travel to the Bajo Cauca, a region where you find the towns of Valdivia, Caucasia, El Bagre, Nechí, Tarazá, Cáceres and Zaragoza. We visited the farm run by the Valvidia Association of Cacao-Growers in the rural district of Palomas. Its administrator is Salomón de Jesús López, a 53 year-old farmer who, using only his hands and feet, quickly climbs to the top of a high palm to help us quench our thirst with some delicious coconuts. This warm welcome is typical of the people of Antioquia and made us feel at home at once.

“Everyone in the lands of the Bajo Cauca has been involved with coca in one way or another,” Salomón explains, while he recalled the wide variety of jobs he has held: farmer, driver of trucks and moto taxis, even a stint in advertising in Manizales, at a time when political violence displaced him and his family from their land.

“Despite its wealth and dynamism, working in the coca economy isn’t a good business. The insecurity and worry you feel do not compensate for the money you get, because everyone is always after you: the authorities, the subversives,” Salomón explains. In a word, he continued, “you’re a fugitive for everyone.”

Like many other departments of Colombia, Antioquia is now going through the difficult process of replacing illicit crops with legal ones and legitimate business enterprises. It is like changing the DNA of the country.

The initiative was started by the office of the Governor of Antioquia at the end of the 1990s, when a number of institutions woke up to the region’s strong potential for growing rubber and cacao beans. One was the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), which later joined in the effort by the departmental government of Antioquia. The UNODC has offered technical support through country schools where peasant-farmers learn to cultivate these crops using the latest technology. The requisites for entering the program are simple: keep your land free of illicit crops and make use of the technical assistance offered by the agro-forestry engineers working for the UNODC and the Office of the Governor.

Since then, these kinds of crops (along with speciality coffee and the production of panela – sugar cane blocks) have become a vital source of alternative development for farmers who are tired of planting coca. But the task isn’t easy. It may take between two to three years to reach the first harvest, a period during which the farmers must carefully foster their plantations without receiving any income, which means they must turn to other activities to subsist.

Nevertheless, those who participate in the project are firmly committed because once the production stage begins, they will yield rubber and cacao beans for two decades. “We will be able to retire on this,” one farmer said.

Similar enterprises are found in other municipalities, like Tarazá, which borders the department of Córdoba, and is a coca-growing zone dominated by paramilitary groups. Jostor Clímaco, the legal representative of Asculticaucho, an association of 74 peasant-farmers, told us about the pressures they faced when they became fed up with coca in the late 1990s and decided to turn to rubber as a legal alternative.

After opposing the change, the heads of the paramilitaries who had entered into the demobilization process, approached Jostor and asked him to help them establish rubber plantations on their lands and thus show that they were reinserting themselves into civilian society. Because of this, the guerrilla in the region declared war on all the rubber projects and charged small producers a rake-off of $5,000 pesos on each rubber tree they sowed.

Despite the difficulties, the peasant farmers who make up Asculticaucho managed to maintain their neutrality, protecting their lands without taking sides in the conflict. Meanwhile, the group has grown as more local farmers join.

In an age when most rubber is a synthetic by-product of the petrochemical industry, it is hard to believe that growing natural rubber is a viable business. “The production of rubber is very profitable and going to be more and more so, due to the shortage and high price of petroleum,” insists William, an accountant from Santa Rosa who worked his whole life in Medellín and has now retired to a farm in Tarazá, where he experiments with organic agriculture.

Although natural rubber was replaced by the synthetic kind decades ago, the demand for latex has revived, especially for the production of devices used in surgery. The association converts the latex into sheets which are sold as raw material for small and medium-size industries in Medellín which produce condoms and surgical gloves. Colombia currently imports close to 50% of all natural rubber used in the industry, which means that another advantage of the project is import substitution.

It may be that these crops will not bring as much “hard cash” to peasant farmers as coca did, but as they themselves point out, little has remained in their hands and the benefits they reap today far outweigh the violence associated with narcotics. The farmers of Antioquia are planting a sustainable future.