How One Skincare Line Is Changing the Lives Of Former Cocaine Farmers in Colombia

Zue Beauty

Despite President Juan Manuel Santos efforts to bring peace at last in Colombia, the war on drug is still a constant battle. With a record 12-ton cocaine seized just one week ago – the biggest in Colombia's history –  it's safe to say the drug trade is still infiltrated in the lives of many, including farmers. 

In 2017, coca-growing in the South American country was at an all-time high. The Colombian government is said to be offering monthly payments of $325 to the first 50,000 families who give up cultivating coca for a legal crop. And while the government is still trying to convince farmers to give up their main source of income, a Colombian beauty brand is helping some farmers find a new way of life. 

Meet Zue Beauty. The skincare line includes products like facial scrubs, toners, and creams all formulated with quinoa. And while you might be thinking quinoa should only belong in your kitchen pantry, it turns out it has amazing skincare properties that improve and preserve the health and appearance of the skin.  Not to mention it's gluten-free!

The company has been empowering former coca farmers in Colombia to harvest ingredients such a quinoa that are fundamental to their products. We recently sat down with husband-and-wife power duo, Gabriel and Nathaly Maya, who talked about how they got started with the line, how it's impacting the lives of farmers, and more.

Read it all in our exclusive interview below.

MORE: How One Latina Is Helping Single Mothers in Colombia, One Sole at a Time

How did the idea of Zue Beauty start? 

Zue Beauty began in 2013 in Colombia. Before we worked with some indigenous communities, we used to work in a pharmaceutical  company. At that company, we did some stuff with natural ingredients. We had a few connections with indigenous farmers in developed areas in Colombia and so we decided to start our own company. We started seeing that in this area there was a lot of exploitations and farmers weren't  able to cultivate the highest quality ingredients from their lands. At the time they were just like harvesting anything they could just to survive. So if there was someone that wanted to purchase onions they would start to harvest onions in order to sell them. However, they never had like a constant revenue. We knew we wanted to do something but didn't know what. We started talking to them and seeing which ingredients they had that could be used on the skin or could actually use as food since we were not sure what we were going to develop them. They started talking about quinoa. Quinoa is something they've been harvesting for the years. It was originally from Bolivia and Peru but it came to Colombia around 100 years. They talked about quinoa and we started doing our research about it and discovered some pretty amazing properties for the skin. We looked into those discoveries and tested them and then we went to a local contest in Colombia. It was from the government so we competed around against around 2,000 other companies for sort of a loan. The way the loan worked was that they would give you the money but if you were able to achieve your metrics or objectives then the government gave you the money for free. We actually were able to get that money for free. We managed to comply with all the metrics and all the requirements and showed how we started the manufacturing  facility and we started doing beauty products based on quinoa.  

How is your brand impacting the drug trade in Colombia?

That's a great question. There were two things that happened. The first one was that when we actually got to the area we started seeing that the easiest thing for the farmers to harvest was cocaine or marijuana crops. Why was it so easy? Because in that area, in southern Colombia, there's a lot of jungle. That area was abandoned by the state a long time ago and the rebel groups and drug lords started gaining force. They really started becoming powerful in those areas and they started paying farmers and motivating them to harvest these crops so they could win money. But the thing that these drug lords and paramilitary groups weren't doing was empowering the farmers. So when we got there we said, "how can we actually compete with drug lords. Are we risking our lives? Are we risking our company? How do we do to compete?" The farmers not only want money because it was a source of income to live and to survive, they also wanted more acknowledgment for their work and to be recognized for the labor they were doing. We started training them and empowering them. We wanted to let them know that someone else around the world was going to purchase a product that was  directly from what they were harvesting. We were changing their mindset to not grow something that was negative for the world. We started showing them the negative impacts of cocaine, but not just on someone's health but also it's impact on families.

We did training practices with them. We started training them on how to harvest the land better, how to be more productive with their lands, and how to harvest organically. We also raised tools from agricultural companies. We would tell them about the work we were doing and they started giving us the tools for agricultural practices. They gave us shovels, axes, and tools to cut and pick up the crops. We were able to give these tools out to our farmers. They were really happy that someone was finally acknowledging their work.

It was all going well until we received a letter that said that if we didn't stop doing what we were doing, our families would be killed and also we would be killed. That was like a horrible blow for us. That was a breaking point in our lives. We have two options. The first option was to shut down everything and just go home and try to hide out in our house for a couple of years. The other option  was to continue to take the risk. We didn't know what to do. We loved what we were doing. We were able to change society. We were actually shifting the mindset and changing a region but we didn't want to risk our families. What actually happened was that in that moment Colombia started the peace agreement with the FARC and that was huge for us because in that moment peace arrived  to that area. Since they were in the peace process, they couldn't continue doing what they were doing. We were able to continue our work with the community.

How many lives you've impacted with your brand?  

Initially, we started working with 20 farmers then we raised our impact to 110. Nowadays we are working with more than 1,130 farmers.

On your website, you have something called The Give Back. Can you tell us a little bit about that? 

We created The Give Back  program. The intentions were to empower people and let them know about amazing social and environmental causes around the world. Obviously, this required their attention. So, we actually started printing codes on the back of each product. Each of our products has a unique code on the back so when you purchase one of them, you go to the website and you can enter the unique code. You'll find that we are supporting three social or environmental causes at the moment through our website. You can choose anyone you want. You can read about it. You can contact them. The idea is that we start supporting them through achievable and short causes or objectives. For example, if you purchase one of our exfoliating facials you can choose to support the dog shelter. At the animal shelter, we are donating toys, food, and medical supplies. The best thing about the Give Back program is that we will send you a video showing you how your donation made an impact to one of the causes. 

Are there any exciting things coming up for Zue Beauty?

Actually, next year we are launching something pretty interesting. We've been doing research with our farmers about some specific beauty ingredients and we are creating special blends which are really unique from South America. They have amazing benefits for the skin. One of them is garlic. You might say, "Wow garlic. That's crazy!" The other thing we're doing is that we're actually launching a campaign through Indie Go Go. We are going to sell our products but the main purpose of selling these products is to be able to certify each of our farmer's land as organic.

I mean, who doesn't love products that are organic?!

Exactly! All of our products contain ingredients that are organic. They're organically sold but they're not organically certified. We really want to give our farmers the possibility of having their lands certified. Like what else could empower you than knowing that your land is recognized. We are trying to get at least 500 farmers certified, which is pretty hard because you have to get each piece of their lands certified. It's not just one huge piece, it's individual pieces. It's actually crazy because you have to pay a lot of money for each small piece of land. What companies nowadays do is that they purchase their organic ingredients from one supplier that has an important piece of land and is already certified. We are actually creating that process from scratch with the people who need it the most.  

Colombia has a diverse array of fruits to offer. Are you guys looking to possibly incorporate some of them in the future?  

Yes! Colombia has a big important chunk of the Amazon  and we're incorporating some important fruits and plants we found there with the garlic. The purpose is always going to be to use products from our farmers and incorporate them with other magnificent  ingredients from South America.