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Bolivia's New Coca Study Drops Estimate for Legal Demand

Bolivian farmers need to cultivate 57 square miles of the coca bush, not the 97 currently being cultivated for traditional uses according to new study.

Bolivian farmers need to cultivate 57 square miles of the coca bush to satisfy the country's demand for traditional uses of the leaf, a figure significantly less than the roughly 97 square miles currently under cultivation, according to the most comprehensive study of coca consumption ever undertaken in the Andean Nation. Preliminary results of the Integral Study on Coca Consumption, which was carried out by the Bolivian government with funds from the European Union, were released Wednesday, November 13 following years of delays.

The coca leaf is the raw ingredient required to produce cocaine, but it has also played an important role in Andean medicinal, religious and household use for thousands of years. The new consumption study notes that 30 percent of Bolivians, or more than 3 million people, regularly chew the coca leaf, or put it to medicinal and religious use.

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How much, if any, coca Bolivians should be allowed to cultivate has been a hot topic for decades, especially since the 1980s, when the United States-led war on drugs spawned unprecedented attempts to curb the use of cocaine and crack at home by eliminating the raw material produced mainly in Colombia, Peru and Bolivia.

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The new 57 square mile figure exceeds the permitted area enshrined in Bolivia's law 1008, which was adopted in 1988 under heavy pressure from the United States. But it's significantly less than the 77 square miles of coca cultivation the government currently allows, implying that portions of the excess, plus the 20 square miles illegally cultivated in 2012 despite the government's successful efforts to cut illicit crops, go to the drug trade.

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Reaction from coca growers is so-far limited. But the consumption study is potentially explosive, especially because Morales, who rose as the head of the country's most influential coca growers' union, a position he still holds, is expected to run for a third term as president in 2014.

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"The Bolivian government may have overestimated the amount required by traditional uses with their 97 square miles," says Kathryn Ledebur, director of Bolivia-based policy watchdog the Andean Information Network. But according to Ledebur that doesn't mean there will soon be a coca eradication push into what are now considered legal growing areas. "My feeling is that the government is not going to move in and eradicate everything down to 57 miles because it would ignite social conflict and bring poverty back into those coca producing regions," she says.

The government previously indicated it would rewrite the country's coca laws based on the results of the new consumption study, a plan that actually dates back to 2004, before Morales' first term. But now the President finds himself a year out from elections and engaged in an extraordinarily complex balancing act that requires addressing the new study to prevent it from fueling criticism from opposition parties, while also attending to the economic needs and conflicting demands of different groups that legally and illegally grow coca across the country.

In October one of those demands dominated national headlines when three members of Bolivia's security forces and a doctor were shot and killed when their team, which was eradicating illegal coca crops in the northwest of Bolivia, was attacked by farmers resisting the government-sanctioned work. President Morales called the attack "criminal" and "militarily planned." In the 1990s and early 2000s, violent confrontations between coca growers and eradication units that saw deaths and injuries on both sides were fairly common, but recently a period of non-violent, collaborative crop reduction with farmers has reigned. The recent violence is a sharp reminder that who is allowed to grow coca is still an incendiary issue in Bolivia–and one that will certainly play a role in next year's presidential election.