By Dialogo October 26, 2009 After years spent growing coca leaf, the raw material of cocaine, a hundred families have become promoters of rural tourism along the Colombian Caribbean. Celso Lopez, 53, is one of those benefiting from this new source of income, but he shows no shame in admitting that in the past he was deeply into illicit coca growing. He, like dozens of families, is part of a promising project to substitute livelihoods from illegal crops on the edge of the Tayrona Natural Park on the Caribbean by instead taking advantage of the great touristic potential of its spectacular scenery. A few years ago, after a government eradication campaign against illicit crops, these families welcomed a plan to change their way of life. They began to promote rural tourism by joining a government program called Forest Ranger Families for Social Action. This Colombian organization offers assistance to millions of displaced persons and to those hurt by the armed conflict that has devastated the country for more than four decades, as well as to those left homeless by natural disasters. With a sincere smile, businessman Lopez told Efe how after years of economic ups and downs, in a period of crisis he “interspersed” among his coffee plantations 2 hectares (nearly 5 acres) of coca. “Today I can say that I contribute more to peace in Colombia and to the tranquillity of my family” by managing country cabins for tourists in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountains, Lopez said. The 118 Forest Ranger Families began eradicating their own coca plantations, and since then have cared for the environment while saving half of the funds the government pays them in order to buy a piece of land. In that way the former coca growers acquired the San Rafael farm covering 354 hectares (874 acres), on which they built ecotouristic inns. These are cabins in the jungle near plantations of coffee, plantain, cacao and fruit trees. They have also installed ponds for fish farming. “We’re in the buffer zone for the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta to protect the water and oxygen for future generations,” Lopez said, adding that his new job lets him live “happier and more peacefully,” even though he only earns enough to survive. The Forest Ranger Families project has helped create a “new social fabric” and a “changed life” for hundreds of people, said Lopez, who alternates his main activity with that of a tourist guide. The Colombian’s five cabins are nestled amid lush natural scenery, with a crystal-clear river running along stone paths and routes that lead to dream-like prospects, to tropical rain forests, to birdwatching, all just a short distance from the Caribbean Sea. Others among these one-time coca families, also hurt in the past by the conflict and forced displacement, are now dedicated beekeepers. One of them is Oscar Naranjo, owner of 20 beehives on a family farm near the town of Bonda, close to Santa Marta and the Sierra Nevada. Naranjo sometimes prays that it doesn’t rain too much, but also that the summer doesn’t last too long. “Any extreme leaves the trees without flowers, and without flowers there’s no honey,” the beekeeper, who supports his family to a great extent on what the bees produce, told Efe. He, like Lopez, talks of the “happiness and tranquillity” that his work on the farm gives him, now that all his activities are legal.