By Helen Murphy
TORIBIO, Colombia (Reuters) - For farmers like Angel Escue, Colombia's bid to end half a century of war with Marxist rebels may come at too high a price.
Stripping leaves from an illegal coca bush at his small plot in the mountains of central Cauca department, Escue says a peace deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, could sink him deeper into poverty even if it ends almost daily firefights in the area.
"We pray for an end to the violence, but not at any cost," 61-year-old Escue says as he hunches over the bright green coca scrub in Toribio, a rebel stronghold that processes the leaves into cocaine. "They want us to switch to crops that won't bring enough money to feed a family; we can't do that."
Three months before the presidential election, government envoys and FARC commanders are working through the third item on a five-point peace agenda - the illegal drugs industry, and how to rid Colombia of coca.
Negotiations to end the conflict that has killed more than 200,000 - mostly civilians - since the 1960s is a campaign battleground ahead of the first round of voting on May 25.
President Juan Manuel Santos is favored to win a second term and continue the peace talks that began in 2012, although he will be hard pressed to match his comfortable victory in 2010 given criticism of the talks and his economic policies.
This is the first election held during a peace process, so convincing farmers like Escue and others that an end to the conflict will also bring jobs is key.
The scion of one of Colombia's most powerful families, Santos says investors are awaiting the talks' outcome before pouring cash into the Andean nation.
His biggest challenge comes from right-wing contender Oscar Ivan Zuluaga, an ally of conservative former President Alvaro Uribe who says he would scrap the FARC talks. Leftist candidate Clara Lopez, Marta Lucia Ramirez of the Conservative Party, and Enrique Penalosa from the Green Alliance will also run.
Santos is seeking to compensate millions of people displaced by the war and has returned land stolen by the FARC and right-wing paramilitaries. The measures helped bring the rebels to the negotiating table, although many of those he has pledged to help are unlikely to vote for him.
Farmers from across the country last year led violent protests against a free-trade deal with the United States and other reforms they say have left them even poorer than before.
Coca farmers worry they will be pushed into growing coffee, rubber or cacao, which they say require additional workers, costly fertilizers and generate less income.
"We only just make ends meet with coca," says Escue's sister Teresa of the weed, which needs little water and can earn double what legal crops do for each of its three annual harvests.
It also has a regular buyer in the FARC, which sends rebels to farms such as Escue's to purchase the leaves.
Negotiators at the peace talks in Cuba have already reached partial agreement on agricultural reform and rebel participation in politics. Still on the agenda is an end to the conflict - including a ceasefire - and reparations for war victims.
While most Colombians are desperate for peace, many are wary of how much Santos is willing to offer the rebels for them to put down their weapons. That may play against him in the election.
Zuluaga and Uribe - a one-time Santos ally - are furious that FARC leaders could be handed light sentences for their crimes, and perhaps even given seats in Congress.
"We won't accept that FARC leaders who have killed soldiers and police in cold blood, recruited children, kidnapped and extorted - killed defenseless Colombians - are awarded a place in Congress tomorrow," Zuluaga told Reuters.
Almost a third of voters still say they will not mark the ballot for any candidate, pollster Gallup said recently.
The war-torn region of Cauca remains off limits for most Colombians. Violence can flare at any time, forcing villagers to hide and dodge bullets and the rebels' homemade cylinder bombs.
Two-thirds of Cauca's 1.4 million people live on $3 a day and dirt roads to market are frequently washed away. Subsistence farmers depend on growing coca to survive.
Many here sympathize with the FARC, trade with it and have family in its ranks. They have little faith in the government and are deeply skeptical about peace talks and the election.
"It's all just empty promises ahead of the vote. What will peace really bring here? There are no jobs to replace coca and other crime gangs will just move in after the FARC leave," said Manuel Bonilla, 62, who lost his right arm when the rebels detonated a bus bomb in Toribio's central square.
"I'm voting blank."
Bonilla's wife, Marta Lucia, scratches a living by trimming and bagging marijuana on the porch of her crumbling adobe shack. She feeds her family of seven with sugar water, plantain and rice with the $2.50 she is paid daily.
"I wish I'd died. That way there would be one less mouth to feed," says Bonilla, struggling to mend an old motor with a hook fixed to his stump. "This election will bring us nothing new."
As an outlet to the Pacific, Cauca is used by the FARC and criminal groups as a corridor to smuggle cocaine and marijuana to Central America and Mexico and then to the United States.
The FARC is believed to control about 60 percent of cocaine output in Colombia, one of the world's biggest producers, netting the rebels as much as $1 billion a year, the government says. FARC leaders deny involvement in drug trafficking but accept their role in coca production.
Founded in 1964 as a Marxist movement that fought to defend the poor, the FARC later turned to cocaine, kidnapping and extortion.
At its height, the FARC had some 20,000 fighters but a U.S.-funded military offensive has whittled them to as few as 7,000.
While details of negotiations in Havana remain secret, the government has said it wants total eradication of the coca crop.
Critics question how the government would teach new skills or fund subsidies for hundreds of thousands of coca farmers.
Santos has suggested he would help farmers substitute coca for coffee, fruits and pepper and that peace would attract fresh private sector investment, meaning new jobs.
"It's evident that the eradication or substitution of coca will have a cost because the families that are in this activity should have an alternative. They can't be put in a vulnerable position," Finance Minister Mauricio Cardenas told Reuters. "But with the same logic we can say that there are resources that today we are using for war that we could redirect to peace."
About two hours down winding roads from Toribio, sugar cane companies such as Bengala Agricola are waiting for the outcome of the talks before making million-dollar investments to switch to pineapple cultivation.
Safety concerns are vital, says Bengala executive Mauricio Lopez, since pineapple requires more on-the-ground management.
"We could double the hectarage planted with pineapple to 200 by the end of 2014," he says of the plantation close to Pradera, where two months ago the FARC killed a civilian and injured 30 in a motor-bike bomb. "It depends totally on the peace process."
Military leaders in the area say social change is key to a lasting peace, no matter who wins the election.
Colonel German Lopez, commander of the heavily guarded 14th mobile brigade stationed in Caloto, says his work is 60 percent social and 40 percent military.
"It's logical and understandable that they don't believe in the peace process," said Lopez, dressed in battle fatigues. "But they have to understand that the world is changing and they have to create a new culture away from coca and conflict."
(Additional reporting by Luis Jaime Acosta; Editing by Daniel Wallis, Kieran Murray and Lisa Shumaker)