Inside Story America

Has Bolivia’s coca-growing scheme worked?

We ask if the president’s move to reject US drug eradication policies was the best for his country’s coca farmers.

Evo Morales, the Bolivian president, came to power promising to defend the right of Bolivians to produce coca for traditional uses.

Himself a former coca-leaf farmer, Morales proved his commitment to that cause when he kicked out the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) in 2009, and began the country’s own system of regulating coca-leaf production.

In Bolivia, coca leaf is a traditional, medicinal, in some case religious product and it is the key to an entire culture of portions of Bolivian society. It’s really tough to just take it away and substitute nothing in its place. The problem is that coca is also by definition the base of cocaine, and it’s that linkage that has to be somehow broken…

– Eric Farnsworth, the vice-president of the Council of the Americas

The DEA leads drug eradication programmes across Latin America, but it is an often controversial partnership.

Morales’ move brought heavy criticism from Washington, and led the US government to conclude that Bolivia was failing to meet its commitment to fight the production of cocaine.

But a new report suggests that the country’s unorthodox measures are working, with a significant drop in coca plantings and without the violence associated with many aspects of the US war on drugs.

Speaking to Al Jazeera, Kathryn Ledebur, the director of the Andean Information Network who co-authored the report, explained how Bolivia went about rejecting US drugs eradication policies.

“The problem that you had with forced eradication is the forces would rip out the coca crop, people would have nothing to eat and coca would just move around the region and people would quickly replant.

“With the programme that they have now, because people know that they can have a small amount of coca and because there’s less coca in the country in these controlled regions, the price of coca is quite high.

“In fact it’s the same whether they’re in the legal and illegal markets. So it’s these kind of alternatives for people that they can put in place since they know they have the coca, that gives this a much better chance of being sustainable, and improved quality of life for these farmers.”

[Bolivia’s] model has much more to speak for sustainability than the forced eradication model, which led to replanting after replanting, displacement after displacement. This gives people a stake in the system succeeding, not just some guy coming in taking away their crops and livelihood and moving on. That was a recipe for unsustainability.

– John Walsh, Washington Office on Latin America

After Morales kicked out the US DEA in 2009, the country implemented a system that permits the cultivation of coca for traditional uses.

Growers are registered and allowed to grow on a stipulated area of land, and limits are strictly enforced – a second violation of the scheme means the grower forfeits the right to grow coca legally.

The government relies on growers policing each other, since multiple violations can lead to punishment for the entire growers’ union.

Both the UN and the White House say the total number of acres under cultivation in Bolivia dropped in 2011 between 12-13 percent.

By contrast the UN says that coca cultivation has increased in Peru and Colombia by five and three percent respectively.

Joining Inside Story Americas for the discussion with presenter Kimberley Halkett are guests: John Walsh, the senior associate for Drug Policy and the Andes at the Washington Office on Latin America; Eric Farnsworth, the vice-president of the Council of the Americas; and Sanho Tree, the director of the Drug Policy Project at the Institute for Policy Studies.

“If you want someone to stop doing something it’s important to understand why they’re doing it to begin with. Previous models and other forced eradication models around the world treat these farmers growing illicit crops as mere criminals … but in fact they’re family farmers. If you don’t understand why they’re growing these crops year after year, you do forced eradication and you force these families into food insecurity.”

Sanho Tree, the Institute for Policy Studies