Bolivia resists global pressure to do away with coca crop

Despite its use in cocaine production, the mildly narcotic leaf enjoys a treasured cultural place in Bolivian society
Chrystelle Barbier

One by one, Bernardo Tarquino carefully harvests the green leaves growing on the bushes on his farm at Minachi, Nor Yungas province, Bolivia. “We’ve been growing coca here for generations,” the old man says with a smile, assuring us that “his” crop is for acullico, which in the Aymara language means chewing the leaves to extract their full benefit.

“Coca quells hunger and gives strength to work,” Tarquino, 75, says, adding that it also eases altitude sickness that often affects visitors to the nearby high Andean plateaus. The leaf, which was sacred in the days of the Incas, has long been highly valued by people living in the Andes, on account of its nutritional and medicinal qualities.

But coca contains alkaloids and is used to produce cocaine, a drug causing worldwide devastation. Given the two possible uses, coca leaves are a major challenge for producer-countries such as Bolivia, the world’s third-largest source of coca (23,000 hectares), behind Colombia (48,000 hectares) and Peru (49,800 hectares).

Before he was first elected president in 2006, Evo Morales – who has been re-elected twice since – used to grow coca in Chapare province, in south-eastern Bolivia. It is a tropical region and the country’s second-largest source, after Yungas. He has always defended this crop, against governments at home and abroad, and their “no coca” policies, which sought to destroy the plants indiscriminately. In 1996 he was elected head of the six [cocalero] federations of the Tropics of Cochabamba, leading demonstrations chanting, “Viva la coca y mueran los yanquis” [long live coca, death to the Yankees].

So the question when he came to power was where he would stand on drugs. Nine years after his election the policies deployed by Morales, who retained his job at the head of the cocaleros union, enjoy the support of producers. They have also drawn the attention of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). Last year’s survey [PDF] showed a downward trend between 2010-2013 when coca cultivation dropped by 26%. “In 2013, Bolivia recorded the lowest area under coca cultivation since 2002,” commented Antonino De Leo, the UNODC representative in Bolivia, when the report was released.

The Bolivian experiment has been unique in several ways. “The suspicions harboured by the international community with regard to the changes initiated by Evo Morales are a thing of the past,” said Bolivia’s interior minister Hugo Moldiz, when he presented his country’s model for combating drugs at the 58th session of the Commission on Narcotic Drugs at the UN general assembly in March.

In order “to restore the dignity of the coca leaf”, the Bolivian government launched an international campaign in 2006 to depenalise coca and have it taken off the list of narcotics drawn up by the Vienna convention in 1961.

Bolivia has not yet succeeded in convincing the UN, but in 2013 it did obtain a specific clause authorising chewing of coca leaves on its territory. “Bolivia is the only country in the world with a clause of this sort,” says De Leo. Coca cultivation, using traditional methods, is currently allowed on 12,000 hectares.

Bolivia’s other success story, according to the UNODC, is its social control policy “by which the state dialogues with producers and upholds human rights”, De Leo says. The cocaleros have pledged to restrict their crops to authorised areas, but also voluntarily to reduce the amount of land used.

“We check that no one moves into the prohibited areas,” says Jesus Quisbert, a producer from Coripata, Yungas, who thoroughly approves of Bolivia’s radical policy shift since 2006. “Before we had to combat the authorities, who put pressure on us; now we work together with the government to control output.”

Quisbert also believes that “helping the government is also a way of protecting our traditional crops from narco-trafficking”. The officially approved Villa Fatima market in La Paz now sells 93% of the coca leaves produced in Yungas, confirming the claim that the region’s crop is used for traditional purposes. But in contrast only 10% of the output from Chapare passes through the legal market, according to UNODC figures. The rest is sold illegally, either on markets not recognised by the state but serving traditional consumption, or to drug traffickers.

It is hard to establish how many tonnes of leaves the cocaine trade absorbs. In 2013 the government destroyed plants on more than 11,000 hectares, following discussions with the local community.

This approach differs from the strategy of forced eradication adopted for a long time in Bolivia, with financial support from Washington, which only ending in 2008 when US agents were sent home.

Neighbouring Peru is still pursuing the same US-sponsored strategy.

One of the biggest headaches for Morales is keeping the cocaleros out of the natural parks. Between 2010 and 2013 coca plantations in protected areas were more than halved, but they are still a real threat. “You have to bear in mind that no crop can compete with coca leaves, which is by far the most profitable,” De Leo says. In 2013 the UNODC put the average price per kilo of coca leaves on the official market in Bolivia at $7.80, with total output an estimated 36,300 tonnes, adding up to $283m. Just under half this tonnage is sold illegally.

“Bolivia is also a country where cocaine is produced,” De Leo says, with the country’s annual production of the 100% pure drug estimated at 155 tonnes in 2012. Furthermore, “the eastern side of Bolivia is a transit zone between the world’s main area of production in Peru and the region’s main centre of drug consumption in São Paulo and Rio in Brazil”, says Ricardo Soberon, a former head of Peru’s Drugs and Human Rights Research Centre.He adds that many Brazilian cartels are operating in southern Bolivia, an established centre for narco-trafficking.

Republished from The Guardian

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