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Colombians Turning to Lingerie for Cash

December 2, 2003

BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) _ At first they grew coffee. But after prices for the crop collapsed, many of the farmers in the steamy jungles of western Colombia turned to growing coca, the raw ingredient used in cocaine.

And now, hundreds of rural Colombians, hoping for a better living, are trying their hand at making racy lingerie for a French retail chain under a new U.N.-backed program.

The wispy G-strings, revealing bras and lacy garter-belts went on sale Saturday at Carrefour’s 11 stores in Colombia. The undergarments will be sold at its overseas outlets in coming months.

``We are opening up a universe of new possibilities for Colombia’s rural communities,″ said Gabriel Silva, head of the Colombian Federation of Coffee Growers, which along with the French Embassy, the U.N. drug office and Carrefour is promoting the alternative development project.

The project was conceived when farmers in the coffee-growing region began cultivating drug crops, which swelled the ranks of Colombia’s leftist rebel and right-wing paramilitary groups that control the trade. Colombia produces 70 percent of the world’s cocaine and most of the heroine sold in the United States.

Alarmed by a sharp rise in poverty and crime in southwest Colombia’s coffee-rich Valle del Cauca region in the past few years, the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime tried to find jobs and markets for the poor farmers.

``We searched for projects that we believed could reduce illicit activities,″ said Thierry Rostan, the UNODC representative in Colombia who led the effort. ``What people needed were jobs and places to sell their products.″

After touring Valle del Cauca, Rostan identified a local cooperative, Integrated Industries, that trained poor families in new skills. But with little access to markets, the cooperative was struggling to find enough work for its employees, and needed a major company like Carrefour to broaden its reach.

Carrefour’s underwear label, Symphony, hooked up with the cooperative, which has 12 production centers scattered across the province.

Those centers have good access to roads, overcoming a problem that has bedeviled other development projects.

About 800 women, many of them heads of families, are making the lingerie. Their salaries are paid by Integrated Industries and they take home about $280 a month _ or about double the minimum wage and far more than what they could make growing coffee. They also enjoy health benefits and paid vacation.

Coca growers, in comparison, make about $70 more, but they also need to pay off the illegal armed groups.

This year alone, Carrefour has spent about $63,500 on the lingerie project. It is projected to spend another $106,000 in 2004.

On Wednesday, top models paraded the products to disco beats and flashing lights along a catwalk in Bogota’s French Lycee in front of business executives, politicians, lawmakers and French Ambassador Daniel Parfait.

``Violence and unemployment have brought misery to rural Colombia,″ Edilma Arango, of Integrated Industries, told the gathered dignitaries last Wednesday. ``You are bringing hope.″

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