Food rise has Bolivia's coca farmers planting rice instead of cocaine

SINAHOTA, Bolivia — Soaring food prices may achieve what the United States has spent millions of dollars trying to do: Persuade Bolivian farmers to sow their fields with less potent crops than cocaine's raw ingredient.

The unlikely advocate for change is Bolivian President Evo Morales, who as leader of a powerful coca growers union fought U.S. crop-substitution programs for two decades.

However, rising grain prices and food shortages have made him reconsider.

He's now asking coca farmers to supplement their crops with rice and corn as a way of holding down coca production while helping to feed South America's poorest country.
U.S. programs have often banned the planting of coca, a small green leaf sacred to Andean peoples and the base ingredient of cocaine, as a condition for farmers to receive aid to try new crops.

In his own twist on alternative development, Morales is willing to split the difference: Growers can maintain up to one "cato" of coca, or about 0.1 hectare, which earns them about 720 bolivianos (US$100) a month while they receive a loan to plant other products.

The cato limit in practice since 2004 is seen by U.S. drug officials as a questionably legal concession to drug smugglers.

It has become the linchpin of Morales' strategy to fight narcotics while supporting the leaf's traditional use as a mild stimulant with medicinal qualities.

"There won't be zero coca, but there won't be free cultivation of coca either," Morales told thousands of cheering peasants in the small town of Sinahota last month.

Then Bolivia's first indigenous president raised his left fist and switched to the Quechua language: "Viva coca! Death to the Yankees!"

The Chapare region's coca growers union, of which Morales is still president, is requiring each of its 35,000 members to plant one hectare of rice this year each.

It's part of a government plan for coca farmers to plant 50,000 hectares of rice. The region, a stretch of central Bolivian foothills, now raises just 9,000 hectares of coca.

Experts say Morales' plan may help keep growers afloat while alternative crops have a chance to take hold, and global food prices continue to climb.

Republished from Canadian Press

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