Cochabamba, Bolivia – Small and landlocked Bolivia is one of the poorest countries in Latin America.
For centuries, its majority indigenous population has grown and chewed the coca leaf – much like other people around the world drink coffee or tea – to increase productivity and stave off hunger while working in the fields.
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An estimated one-third of Bolivians today consume the leaf in its natural form.
Coca, of course, is also the main ingredient in cocaine. Because of growing demand, coca production expanded exponentially in the 1980s, much of it flowing into the international cocaine market. This set the stage for three decades of US-financed eradication programmes in Los Yungas and especially the Chapare, Bolivia’s two main growing regions.
Peasants became the main target of military and US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) missions, yet the violence, killings, and political instability continued – and overall cocaine production fluctuated, but did not decrease.
Lean and tall, Carlos Perez – a cocalero or coca farmer with more than 20 years of experience planting, harvesting, drying and selling coca – remembers the military repression that took place as a part of Plan Dignidad in the late 1990s, in which the US paired up its counter-narcotics aid with debt relief.
But he would rather recall the time in 1994, when former coca grower Evo Morales joined a march of thousands of other cocaleros, demanding an end to the forced eradication of their crop. Perez marched too, walking the 130km from the cloud forest of Chulumani to the capital, La Paz.
“Around that time, we would regularly throw the military and DEA out of town,” he said. “People organised through the local community radio and kicked them out of our coca-producing villages, one by one.”
From cocalero to president
Events took an unexpected turn in 2005, when coca union leader Evo Morales was elected as Bolivia’s president on a platform granting basic rights to the country’s indigenous people.
Coca is not cocaine, he insisted. Morales dubbed his initiative “Coca Si, Cocaina No” and established a system legalising small plots of coca in some areas such as the Chapare, where it had been targeted, while encouraging farmers to find ways to prevent the leaf from entering the drug market.
It was a landmark statement: A poor Latin American country dared to stand up to the US and its “war on drugs” strategy, forgoing millions of aid dollars in the process.
Now, nine years since “Coca Si, Cocaina No”, Bolivia is claiming victory.
It is even presenting itself as a model to neighbouring Colombia and Peru, the first and second-largest producers of cocaine, respectively.
“Bolivia’s success in decreasing coca cultivation is implemented in a way that rejects the basic premise of a militarised war on drugs,” said Kathryn Ledebur, director of the Bolivia-based Andean Information Network and co-author of the Habeas Coca report, published by Open Society Foundations in July.
“That old premise saw supply-side control as viable, saw farmers are the enemy,” explained Ledebur. “It really shifts it back to the priorities of farming families and the reasons they grow coca: subsistence.”
The report found that Bolivia slashed its illicit coca production by 34 percent over the past four years. According to UN data, coca production was about 27,500 hectares at the time of Morales’ election.
In fact, coca production in the country is now the lowest it has been since 2003, when the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) started using satellite imaging to monitor crops.
“I think Bolivia has demonstrated that in terms of reduction of coca cultivation over the past four years, the results are very encouraging and very positive,” said Antonino de Leo, UNODC’s Bolivia representative.
“Of course, there is room to improve counter-narcotics enforcement efforts to combat drug trafficking in the 21st century.”
Currently, Bolivia is a major trafficking country for Peruvian cocaine, and an estimated one percent of cocaine sold in the US can be traced to coca grown mostly in the Chapare or Los Yungas.
Long gone are the days of violent confrontations between police and farmers.
Additionally, almost 10,000 hectares of coca have been voluntarily removed since 2011. Voluntary or “cooperative” reduction is at the heart of the programme’s success, according to de Leo.
Coca growers must register with the government and cultivate only up to one cato of coca – 1,600-2,500 square metres, or about one-third the size of a football field. Any coca grown beyond one cato is eliminated, and compliance is enforced by the local growers’ unions.
It is a model widely supported by coca growers because it legitimises their trade, and it is difficult to find people in Bolivia who oppose it.
The policy has been a boon for the legal coca market, where a kilogramme of the dried leaf fetches $8 – way more than any other agricultural product sold in Bolivia, and higher than its price before Morales’ programme was implemented.
Coca in Bolivia sells for almost eight times the going rate in Colombia – $8.30 per kilogramme compared to $1.10 per kilogramme, according to the UNODC.
Roxana Argandona, a mother of four from Chapare, said coca has always been an important economic mainstay. Alternative crops introduced in the 1980s and ’90s as part of eradication efforts never came close to generating as much income as coca.
“The Americans would come here pushing other alternative products – things like camu-camu [a so-called ‘superfruit’ that grows in the Amazonian rainforest], cacao, and mango, for example. But these other products bore no fruit; there were no markets. It was a waste of time and money.”
Authorities in the US, the world’s biggest market for cocaine, oppose Bolivia’s coca policies.
|Bolivia fights illegal drug production|
The US state department’s 2015 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report criticises Bolivia’s government, saying “it has neither maintained adequate controls over licit coca markets to prevent diversion to illegal narcotics production, nor has it closed illegal coca markets… In addition, Bolivia should increase its level of international cooperation to prevent the production and transit of illicit drugs and precursor chemicals.”
In 2008, the Morales government expelled the DEA from the country, and a few years later, the United States Agency for International Development was asked to leave, too.
The move left a diplomatic mess in its wake. Last year, the state department criticised “Bolivia’s insufficient law enforcement efforts to disrupt and dismantle drug trafficking organisations and inadequate controls to prevent the diversion of ‘legal’ coca production to illicit cocaine production. The country’s narcotics control performance failures are due in part to the 2008 expulsion of the US Drug Enforcement Administration, which provided assistance to Bolivian counterparts.”
This political tit-for-that has strengthened Morales’ support among Bolivians, and especially among cocaleros. Today, Argandona said she has thrown her full support behind the president, and she is betting on his continued re-election until 2025.
Thanks to him, she said, she can grow a cato of coca and harvest about three to four times a year – bringing in roughly $1,500 a year, or the equivalent of a year’s minimum wage. Then she can dry the leaves in the sun and take the crop herself to the legal coca markets set up by their unions in Cochabamba.
“I’m sure some coca gets diverted to the cocaine market,” Argandona admitted. “But I wouldn’t know how or where. I’m a farmer, not a trafficker.”