Habeas Coca - Bolivia’s Community Coca Control

Linda C. Farthing and Kathryn Ledebur

Executive Summary 

When Bolivian President Carlos Mesa challenged vocal U.S. opposition in 2004 and legalized the cultivation of small amounts of coca leaf by Bolivian farmers, it marked a sea change in supply-side drug policy in the Americas. Not only had one of South America’s poorest countries asserted national control after 20 years of U.S.-financed repression in its principal coca growing region, but the cato accord, as it was known, ended violent confrontations between police and small farmers. With the accord, coca farmers and their families achieved their longstanding demand to be permitted a subsistence plot of the coca leaf that plays such a central role in their economic survival and in Andean culture.

Just over a year later, the election of the leader of the coca growers’ union, Evo Morales, to Bolivia’s presidency consolidated the changes heralded with the cato. Under the slogan “Coca yes, cocaine no,” the new government committed aggressive interdiction of cocaine paste and cocaine, and announced plans for “development with coca” to industrialize legal products made from the coca leaf. Bolivia also recognized traditional consumption of coca for the first time in its 2009 constitution and pressed for international recognition of the country’s right to consume leaf within its borders, which it won in 2013.

In 2009, an innovative program known as community coca control was launched. Drawing on high levels of coca grower organization paired with sophisticated technological monitoring, land titling, and economic development, the community control program builds on deeply entrenched cultural values that emphasize the importance of community participation through peasant unions. As shown in Figure 1, Bolivian community coca control mechanisms are multidimensional, with various government entities responsible for implementation. 

Habeas Coca argues that Bolivia’s community coca control program is a cost-efficient and less violent alternative to the forced eradication of coca remains in place in Colombia and Peru. Over two decades of eradication policies have proven to be demonstrable failures in all three Andean countries, generating poverty and gross human rights violations. In addition, these failed strategies strengthened insurgent groups in Colombia and Peru—all without meeting their objectives of controlling the coca crop and diminish- ing the illegal cocaine trade. While Bolivia’s policy effectively shrank coca cultivation by 26 percent from 2010 to 2013, it is crucial to comprehending the policy’s reach to recognize that it is not designed, nor is it able, to limit drug trafficking. As leaf prices have risen, due in part to the current program, cheaper Peruvian coca and its derivatives have flooded through Bolivia to cocaine consuming and transit countries, such as Brazil. Demand, not supply, drives the drug trade, and originates almost completely outside Bolivia’s borders.

Bolivia’s initiative seeks primarily to reduce harm to coca growers by substituting the police- and military-driven forced eradication model with one that actively engages growers as citizens and increases the participation of farmers in determining their communities’ futures. The model is most effective in areas where residents support the current government, and needs further consolidation in areas without strong government influence, and where coca grower union organizations are in conflict with each other. 

In President Evo Morales’s region, the Chapare, the combination of the new approach with other government policies, has dramatically cut the number of coca farmer deaths and injuries related to forced eradication efforts, and has facilitated coca growers diversifying their sources of income. The initiative is structured around negotiation and the recognition of local organizations as partners, guaranteeing farmers a subsistence wage. This is combined with establishing their legal identities as registered coca growers, which in turn generates a newfound sense of citizenship rights that engages growers themselves in limiting coca cultivation and aids in producing transparent, verifiable results. 

The result is a program that the Organization of American States calls a “best practice... (worthy of) replication.” European Union (EU) Ambassador to Bolivia, Timothy Torlot, described the program as “...a success; you can see the impact in the effective and sustained reduction of coca production... the European Union’s first relatively promising supply-side pro- gram that broadly reflects the harm reduction principles in place in some countries on the efforts have on curtailing the demand for illicit drugs.  

Effective, pragmatic drug policy reform must move beyond the traditional yardsticks of eradication, seizures, and arrests, to more genuine, valid indicators such as respect for human rights, social welfare of affected populations, economic stability, citizenship, rule of law, demilitarization, positive engagement with the civilian state, transparency, and the ability to effectively monitor and measure impact and sustainability. 

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