GETTING TO KIMBIRI FROM LIMA takes at least twenty hours by car. The road is dusty and full of potholes. On my way there in November, our driver had to stop several times to clear the way of rocks that had fallen from the cliffs. As we approached, the rural landscape was covered with hectares and hectares of coca plantations, interrupted by small cascades. Along the road, little boys carried bags filled with coca leaves, and entire families worked at spreading them out to dry on canvas sheets. In Kimbiri, the facades were flaking, the market consisted of only three stalls, and there was just one paved street. There was none of Peru’s famous gastronomy here—Kimbiri had only a single restaurant where “you won’t get food poisoning,” according to the owner of my hotel, a simple house whose major luxury was an electric fan.
Kimbiri, with its 16,430 residents, is one of the main towns in the Apurimac, Ene and Mantaro River Valleys—a mountainous and riverine region in south-central Peru known by its Spanish acronym, VRAEM. The majority of people here earn less than $282 a month—Peru’s minimum wage. When I met 34-year-old CheldoPérez, I quickly realised he wasn’t one of them. He drove a new motorcycle, wore stylish, clean clothes, and carried around a laptop while most residents of Kimbiri fought for a computer in the town’s two internet cafes.
As a child, Pérez remembered he used to walk and play between coca plants in some of the fields near the town. As he grew, he saw farmers who planted coca begin to earn much more than those who seeded cacao or coffee. Compared to those crops, coca fetched higher prices, and four harvests a year. Soon coca farmers had big trucks and motorcycles, while other farmers struggled to feed their families. So, at age 17, Pérez bought a hundred square metres of land and started growing coca himself. In the time since, most of the fields in the VRAEM have also surrendered to the plant.
Already a subscriber? Sign in