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Coca Leaf Cultivation Drops in Bolivia as US Criticizes anti-Drug Efforts

The 'sacred leaf,' as coca is often called by indigenous Bolivians, has been cultivated in the Andean region for thousands of years. In its natural state coca is valued for its power to curb fatigue, thirst and hunger, and is widely chewed for that purpose today. The leaf finds medicinal uses too, and it is an important offering to Pachamama, the Earth Mother. But coca is also the raw material needed to make cocaine, a fact that places it at the center of international policy and conflict.

The Bolivian government permits a limited area of coca growth to meet the market for traditional uses–but much more is actually cultivated, some of which is processed into cocaine. Reducing that excess planting is a struggle with a long and sometimes violent history, but now a new United Nations report says coca cultivation in Bolivia decreased 12 percent between 2010 and 2011, the first drop in the Andean nation since 2005.

Part of the reason for that decrease is social control, a Bolivian government program backed by the European Union, that works with coca farmer unions to limit cultivation.

Sacred Leaves and Illegal Drugs

The Andean countries Bolivia, Peru and Colombia became the center of the United States-led war on drugs in South America in the 1980s, when cocaine, crack and the violence and addiction that goes with them began to sweep through the United States. For many years Bolivia followed a policy that planned to end coca cultivation completely in the country's central Chapare region, and limit total coca cultivation to 46 square miles confined to the Western Yungas area.

Executing that plan proved expensive, difficult and sometimes violent in the Chapare, where migrants from Bolivia's highlands, mainly Quechua and Aymara Indians, settled seeking an escape from poverty. Crops like pineapples and oranges, which were meant to provide an alternative to coca, failed to find markets or equal the income generated by the leaf, and growers increasingly resisted eradication forces leading to deaths on both sides. President Evo Morales, a former coca farmer himself, rose through the coca grower unions in those tense times. Morales said the U.N. report, released September 17, was a particularly positive moment for Bolivia because the crop reduction was accomplished without casualties.

"The most important thing about this reduction of coca cultivation is it was done without deaths," Morales said. "I remember before sometimes we'd have three people killed by bullets in a day during coca eradication."

Social control is just part of the changes Morales put in motion after he won the presidency in 2005–in 2008 Morales ordered the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration out of Bolivia, and in 2011 withdrew from a UN agreement that limits chewing the coca leaf.

"Bolivia is a tiny country that challenged a giant," said Kathryn Ledebur, director of Bolivia-based advocacy group The Andean Information Network (AIN). "A lot of people didn't like the way they did it, but anti-drug efforts have not fallen apart–it shows there are different paths that all nations should explore."

A New Plan for Bolivia

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Under social control unions work to monitor their members' crops to make sure no one plants more than a cato, or about a third of an acre, of coca. Though it may seem strange that unions agreed to cut back on a valuable crop, some people in the Chapare say that growing a cato in peace is a welcome resolution to decades of conflict and doubt.

Marcela Lopez Vazquez works with a program that supports social control through workshops and meetings with coca farmer unions. At first, she said, it wasn't easy to get social control off the ground, and some farmers believed that a coca farmer as president gave them free reign to plant more.

"It took a lot of work to get people to understand it, because nobody had heard of social control before," she said. Despite those difficulties, Lopez Vasquez thinks the situation in the Chapare today is an improvement over past violence. "There were terrible times, confrontations, fights, roadblocks and marches," Lopez Vasquez said. "All that fighting was to defend our right to coca."

Social control also combines satellite imagery, a crop registration system and a registry of farmers authorized to grow coca in order to separate legal from illegal plots. Illegal plots are still destroyed by pulling the plants out at the root, but because the unions are onboard with eradication it doesn't meet the mass resistance or result in the violence it once did.

Questions and Challenges

Nicolaus Hansmann, Attaché to the Cooperation Section of the European Union in Bolivia, has a decade of experience working on coca and alternative development. He says Bolivia is now on a path to forming its own coca and counter narcotics policies, a process that was held back for years by the dominant influence of foreign policies that focused on eradicating coca as the easiest way to end cocaine.

"There is still much to do in the fight against drug trafficking." Hansmann said. "But the process here was crippled, the legal system, the laws, the institutions, were bent toward forced eradication, based on the belief that the bottom link on the cocaine chain would be the easiest, cheapest and weakest to break. But 30 years later we know that wasn't true."

However, not everyone thinks Bolivia is going down the right path. Like the U.N., U.S. data also shows a decrease in coca cultivation in Bolivia from 2010 to 2011, but in an annual presidential memorandum released in September the U.S. found Bolivia "failed demonstrably during the previous 12 months to adhere to their obligations under international counter narcotics agreements," and decertified Bolivia for the fifth consecutive year. Decertification can affect the flow of some kinds of U.S. aid, but over the past years Bolivia, one of Latin America's poorest countries, has received a waiver that allows aid to continue.

Morales criticized the decertification, saying it was politically motivated and failed to recognize Bolivia's efforts in coca reduction and drug seizures. He also criticized the U.S. for cocaine consumption.

"The United States has no moral authority to decertify. First, if they want that authority, why don't the eradicate the drug market in the United States," Morales said. "The moment the cocaine and other drug markets are done away with, our coca leaf won't be diverted to illegal markets."

In the end, while coca production has gone down and cocaine production remains a question, no one doubts there is still a great deal of work ahead in Bolivia to combat drug traffic–including fighting internal corruption and further investment in social control. Yet the U.N. report raises the possibility that Bolivia has started down a road toward forming successful anti-drug strategies while embracing the cultural importance of the coca leaf.