Colombia is at a crossroads. In November 2016, the government signed a peace deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), bringing an end to decades of conflict. What’s left in the deal's wake is a new era of uncertainty—a vacuum of power in the Colombian countryside where the rebels once patrolled, as the government works to prevent new factions of organized crime from usurping the position.
In Cacua—a verdant, mountainous region in southwest Colombia—Pharmacielo hopes to create positive change. The Canadian Colombian company has roots in the flower business, but for the past four years, its CEO, Federico Cock Correa, has worked closely with the government to develop laws that will pave the way for legal medicinal cannabis cultivation.
Correa speaks of Pharmacielo with a humanitarian bent, focusing on the company’s desire to aid Cauca’s farmers toward a more stable life. He talks benevolently about “the wellness of the people,” and while speaking with VICE, he was preparing to fly to the Cacua town of Corinto after a mudslide caused three fatalities. He prioritizes building up the impoverished province.
“We got the license [to cultivate] to show that we want to invest in the region and to build relations with Cacua,” Correa explains. “Pharmacielo is going to transfer technology and knowledge to produce better products. We want [the farmers] to produce better quality [cannabis] and a higher yield.”
With more than 60 farming families already partnered with Pharmacielo, the company’s goal of being a fully functional cultivation center by the end of 2018 seems to be on its way to fruition. However, its glittering message isn’t sitting right with everyone in Cauca; farmers worry that Pharmacielo could end up resembling a less-violent FARC, leaving them just as exploited as before. Others—like indigenous group the Nasa—consider the Cauca region their ancestral homeland and are on a path toward reclamation. Growers who don't band with Pharmacielo and other legitimate cultivation operations run the risk of having their crops—as well as their livelihood—eradicated by the army.
Despite the risk and ambiguity, Correa remains hopeful. “I hope it encourages others organize and create small farms all over [Colombia]. We are a pilot for the country.”
VICE: How does Pharmacielo plan to build trust with the farmers and indigenous people of the Cauca region?
Federico Cock Correa: We got together with farmers from the Cauca region a year ago and started to dream of a possibility to work together. They believe in us and we believe in them. We are going to support and supply all the financial needs at the beginning. We’re basically creating a new industry with a lot of options.
We’re all new in the legal industry. There are many people from the Cauca region who have been growing [cannabis] for many years, but with the ways they produce and they contaminations that occur, they don’t have a good manufacturing practice. You have analytics to assure that the product is free of pesticides and heavy metals and that the medicinal components are correct, and that’s what we’re going to bring to them.
How will Pharmacielo protect workers from further exploitation?
We're going to give stability to people who have been in the middle of a war, been abused, and had a low quality of life. That’s what they’ve been sharing with us. They're going to have all the social benefits and rights that are legally approved by the government. We’re working under the labor law and regulations. Working with us means working with legal benefits: insurance, security, health, everything. They are included like partners in the company. They’re open to working with us, and we’ve been honest and open with them. It’s been a process of building trust, and we want to take care of them in the best possible way.
How will Pharmacielo benefit the Cauca region outside of legal job creation?
Part of what we’re doing is an analysis of the region. How’s the employment, the health, the education? We care about the wellness of the people. We set up a foundation in the region. I learned that in one of the towns there used to be 2,000 acres of coffee, but it wasn’t being processed correctly. So we’re looking for people to buy the product so people can stay in the coffee business. Through the flower business, we’ve worked with supermarkets in 80 to 90 countries around the world, so we can create fair trade opportunities. We don’t want to create a lot of expectations, but if we are able to develop this business, many options are going to come.
How similar will cannabis production and distribution be to the way the flower market functions today?
It’s totally similar, with some adjustments. We can adapt our flower cultivation technique to get higher, more efficient yields. That’s what the don’t have today. The additional thing is that we have the possibility to market and to sell the product with the right certifications to many supermarkets and many companies around the world.
If the army continues to eradicate poor farmers’ crops, what stops another force like FARC from forming to protect them?
Before it was not possible to have a legal business in medicinal cannabis, but the government has been putting in a lot of effort for three years and they didn’t only hand over the possibilities to big companies. People are realizing there’s a possibility to be legal.
If FARC and the government had never come to an agreement, could Pharmacielo could still exist?
Of course. It’s a governmental thing. The agreement was about the drug business, this is medicinal cannabis. The second law they approved was to incorporate the small growers affected. At the beginning, it was only to export and only for big pharmaceutical companies. We are not a pharma company. We are really a startup that began with the knowledge of many people from Colombia, the United States, Canada. We were really the first ones who started this conversation with the government four years ago.
It’s the reputation of Colombia. We have 99 percent of Colombians who are good people and 1 percent who create suffering. These possibilities are going to create a big option for the country. It’s showing the world that Colombia is responsible, that we created a new law to develop this business. We’re going to produce a plant that heals.
Do you think there’s a possibility for companies like Pharmacielo to coexist with farmers who want to cultivate cannabis independently on their own land?
Many things are going to come. We have the license to explore, just like we did with the flower business 50 years ago. There were production in other places, and now Colombia is the second-largest producer of flowers in the world.
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