The Contradictions of Coca Eradication in Bolivia
By Reed Lindsay
Narco News Authentic Journalism Scholar
February 15, 2003
The drug war in Bolivia has hit a brick wall. While the Bolivian government wiped out more than 70 percent of the nation’s coca production in the late 1990s, the U.S.-backed eradication program has ignited a firestorm of opposition from coca growers, called cocaleros, in the Chapare region of central Bolivia. A growing movement of coca growers has not only stopped the eradication program in its tracks, it has gained widespread popular support that nearly swept cocalero leader, Evo Morales, into the presidency.
Behind the failure of the U.S.-promoted eradication policy in the Chapare region is a gross misunderstanding of the use of coca leaves in Bolivia and elsewhere, say activists and experts attending the Out of the Shadows drug legalization conference in Merida, Mexico.
Coca leaves have been consumed and used for thousands of years in Bolivia for medicinal and religious purposes. Today, coca is primarily “consumed orally,” in a manner similar to chewing tobacco, but it is also used to make tea and in indigenous ceremonies.
“We chew this leaf at every party, in every ritual ceremony,” said Bolivian indigenous leader Felipe Quispe, as he stuffed coca leaves into his mouth in an interview at a Merida hotel. “Also in hard labor jobs, for example in the mines and in the fields. Students chew coca leaves to stay awake. But above all it’s used in place of food. If you’re malnourished, or if you haven’t eaten, you can eat coca to take away your hunger.”
The U.S. and Bolivian governments acknowledge this use – to a degree. A Bolivian law passed in 1988 allows for the production of coca on 12,000 hectares of land in the Los Yungas region near La Paz, which the U.S. government deems sufficient to meet domestic demand. The law rendered coca production in Chapare illegal, setting the stage for the conflict in the region that is raging today.
At the heart of the conflict, say cocaleros and other activists, is the unproven assumption that the 12,000 hectares of coca grown in Los Yungas is enough to meet local demand for traditional use. No evidence has been produced that demonstrates just how much coca is consumed in Bolivia and in surrounding countries. Moreover, the 12,000-hectare limit has not changed since 1988, while the population of Bolivia has increased by some two million.
For its part, the U.S. government has made misleading and false claims about the use of coca in Bolivia and elsewhere, which serve to reinforce the argument for eradicating coca in the Chapare region.
For example, officials from the U.S. government have denied that coca leaves are consumed outside of Bolivia. This may come as a surprise to those who know the northern Argentine provinces of Salta and Jujuy, where the chewing of coca is ubiquitous and the leaves are sold openly in their capital cities.
Ironically, the Central Intelligence Agency has acknowledged this consumption. According to a 1999 Joint Intelligence Report recently obtained from the Director of Central Intelligence Crime and Narcotics Center through a Freedom of Information Act petition, 35 to 55 metric tons of coca leaves are consumed annually in Bolivia, Peru, Colombia and Argentina.
The denial of consumption in Argentina is not the only spurious assumption providing justification behind the U.S.-backed policy to eradicate coca production in the Chapare region.
The United States government has also sustained that coca leaves from Chapare, which have a higher alkaloid content and are more bitter than those produced in Los Yungas, are not “suitable for traditional use,” insisting that all coca grown in the region is destined for conversion into cocaine.
This is patently false, says Alex Contreras, a journalist from Cochabamba who is writing a book on cocalero leader Evo Morales. According to Contreras, coca leaves from the Chapare region are sold throughout Bolivia. While it is true that the leaf from the Chapare region is less desirable for chewing, it is some 40 percent cheaper than Los Yungas coca, and thus is widely consumed by the poor, says Contreras. Retail coca leaf vendors often have leaves from both regions on sale, and in three of the nation’s poorest provinces near Cochabamba, Chapare coca is sold exclusively, he says.
Criminalizing the coca leaf has brought about grave social consequences in Bolivia, says Rosemarie Achá, a human rights lawyer from Cochabamba.
The law passed in 1988 that banned coca production in the Chapare also established long sentences for prisoners and held that people charged with crimes related to coca or cocaine would not enjoy basic civil liberties guaranteed by the constitution. For example, a defendant accused of selling or producing coca illegally could be kept in jail throughout the trial and appeals process, which could last up to six years.
This and other anti-constitutional elements were removed in reforms passed in 1996 and 2001, says Achá.
But the law still makes little distinction between the coca leaf and cocaine, between cocaleros and narco-traffickers. According to Achá, between 80 and 90 percent of the prisoners in Bolivia have been convicted of producing, selling or consuming coca or cocaine. Most, she says, do not consider themselves criminals, and they differentiate themselves from thieves, murderers and other inmates.
Most people who grow and sell coca in Bolivia, do so primarily out of economic necessity. Alternative crop programs funded by the United States have been rejected by cocaleros from the Chapare region. They say they will never be able to make as much as they can growing coca, which can be harvested as many as four times a year, is easy to transport because of its light weight, and fetches far higher prices.
“It’s important to demystify this idea that coca is a crime,” said Achá. “It’s quite possible that many detainees are narco-traffickers, but arresting them isn’t going to solve anything. Most are poor people and they need to survive.”
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