stunted coca plant in garden at Machu Picchu
Peru is, according to both United States and United Nations figures, the world's second largest producer of coca and cocaine, behind Colombia and ahead of Bolivia. In Colombia, the current bread basket of Andean coca production, coca growers face a hostile government and festering civil war. The odor of chemical herbicides fills the air in the country's coca growing zones, and Washington salutes President Alvaro Uribe for doing its bidding.
In Bolivia, where coca has been part of life for thousands of years, the coca growers' movement has blossomed to the point where one of its leaders, Evo Morales, has now ascended to the presidency and is taking an active role in defending the "sacred leaf." Morales is also pushing the industrialization of the coca leaf and is working with the Venezuelan and Cuban governments to push the process along. And he has responded to the clamor from coca growers in his native region of the Chapare by de facto expanding the size of the permitted coca crop.
In Peru, where coca also has a long history of traditional use, the coca growers (cocaleros) movement is neither as beleaguered as in Colombia nor as advanced as in Bolivia. While the government of President Alan Garcia continues its US-endorsed policies of forced eradication of excess coca and embracing alternative development as an option for coca growers, it also at least pays lip service to the notion of coca as a legitimate crop with numerous medicinal, alimentary and industrial uses.
Unlike Colombia, Peru recognizes the traditional market in coca and has created a national monopoly, ENACO, to buy up the legitimate crop. But the legitimate crop is only a fraction of the coca leaf produced in the country, so farmers there continue to face eradication campaigns and legal repression. More than 30,000 acres of coca fields were forcibly eradicated in 2005, and while final 2006 numbers are not yet in, that figure seems sure to be higher yet.
So Peruvian coca growers are in a feisty mood. They have clashed repeatedly with Peruvian police, soldiers, and civilian crop eradicators, they have held local strikes and national protests against forced eradication and what they see as crooked alternative development efforts, and now, some of their members are reaching positions of political power within the Peruvian government and regional political organizations.
Nancy Obregon, speaking at DRCNet's 2003 conference in Mexico, holding up coca leaves
"Nothing has changed with the new government," said Nancy Obregon, a former leader of the country's largest coca grower union, the National Confederation of Agricultural Producers of the Coca Fields (CONCPACCP), who was elected to the Peruvian congress in 2005. "It is a bad policy, very repressive, and now they are doing forced eradication again in Tocache and San Martin," the region she represents. "The government has a double discourse. It talks about valuing coca, but then eradicates it. Garcia is supporting the North American policy, but we are trying to achieve a more sensible and humane one, not one that represses the poorest while the rich businessmen in the drug trade go free."
While Obregon said she and allies in the congress are working to advance pro-coca legislation, the going is tough. As a member of the Nationalist Party of defeated presidential candidate Ollanta Humala, she and her allies are in the opposition.
"We cocaleros are people who live in extreme poverty and we have to grow the sacred leaf to survive," said current CONCPACCP head Nelson Palomino. "We are honest, hard-working Peruvians, and we are not guilty of anything for growing the coca plant to subsist," he said, chewing coca leaves as he spoke. "What are we to do? Alternative development has failed. The foreign money that is supposed to come to the valleys goes into the pockets of functionaries in Lima," Palomino complained. "We hope the world will understand that our intentions are good."
Nelson Palomino, with coca leaves
While CONCPACCP is the country's largest coca growers' union, it is not the only one, and some think that is a problem for the movement. The cocalero movement does have its problems, Palomino conceded. "We have a leadership that is isolated and radical, but shouting simple slogans like 'Gringos, No!' isn't going to solve our problems, nor is putting rocks in the highway," he explained. "Every struggle has its phases. First, the hard line, then the democratic part."
In Palomino's home area, the Ene River Valley, cocaleros have taken power precisely by democratic means. "In my valley, all of the 70 municipalities are ruled by cocaleros, and the government is worried. We have a democratic presence in Ayacucho and the Ene Valley. Now we have to put a stop to the stupid policy of eradication."
But that will require increasing the unity of the national cocalero movement. While Palomino claimed that CONCPACCP represents 90% of all Peruvian cocaleros, there are divisions and rivalries both within the confederation and between it and other coca grower leaders. Analysts familiar with but outside the cocalero movement accuse not only Palomino, but other leaders, such as Obregon and Andean Parliament representative Elsa Malpartida, both former CONCPACCP leaders, of falling prey to personalism and other political sins.
Meanwhile, in Monzon in the Upper Huallaga Valley, cocalero leader Iburcio Morales follows his own, radical path. "The situation is very complex," said Palomino. "We are very respectful of democracy and we can't dictate to other regions, but Iburcio walks alone because he doesn't listen to anything, and he talks to anybody -- the government, the Shining Path, you name it."
"The cocalero movement is isolated, subordinated to the general policies of the Peruvian government, uncoordinated, selfish, and unable to build a collective agenda to tackle the real problems of poverty, the environment, cultural issues, and the international political situation, particularly with the US," said lawyer, human rights activist, and drug and defense specialist Ricardo Soberon in a withering critique. Soberon also saw the electoral victories of Obregon and Malpartida as coming at a cost to the organizing process that had previously relied on their hands-on leadership.
"The movement lost good leaders when Nancy Obregon and Elsa Malpartida [both former CONCPACCP leaders] were elected to the Peruvian congress and the Andean Parliament, respectively. The Peruvian government is smart enough to know about the movement's inability to work together, and it plays them against one another. The government invites one leader, but not the other; it gives money to some, but not the others, and the cocalero leaders are so busy sniping at each other that they can't see the forest for the trees. I blame all four of the national leaders for this situation," said Soberon, who had been an advisor to Obregon but quit in frustration.
While Palomino scoffed at such criticisms, he qualified the democratic cocalero movement as "gestating." A "premature birth" would be a disaster, he said. "If this doesn't work in a democratic manner, we will see a lot of blood," he warned. "We are trying to prepare the ground; we want to do this right, we want to save the life of the coca plant and we want to save ourselves. We are not going to die of hunger," he vowed.
coca waiting by the side of the road to go to market, Ayacucho province, last month
Obregon also downplayed the criticism. "I am not a traditional politician; I am a peasant and a cocalero leader," she said Wednesday. "I don't have enemies within the movement, but there are comrades who have their own work and their own leadership. We have had failed leadership in the past, but we have to continue to strengthen ourselves and overcome those failures of leadership. It is difficult work, but we are making progress," she added, pointing to the election to office of herself and Elsa Malpartida.
While Obregon acknowledged back-biting and intramural sniping within the movement, she attributed it largely to human frailty. "There is envy and egocentrism, like there is everywhere," Obregon said. "We are also under attack by the yellow press, which misrepresents our actions. And, as women leaders, I think Elsa and I face a certain machismo. Yes, there are different national leaders, and some are more favored by the peasants than others, but there is no controversy within the movement," she maintained.
Although the Peruvian and US governments are quick to draw connections between coca growers and the lingering guerrillas of the Shining Path, Palomino was careful to deny any link between coca growers and the guerrillas, who gestated in Ayacucho in the 1960s and 1970s, then launched an attempted revolution that killed nearly 80,000 Peruvians in the 1980s before running out of steam. On the highway between Ayacucho and the VRAE, the ruins of villages burnt by the Shining Path are visible reminders of their brief and bloody reign. But the Shining Path still has a presence in the VRAE, where in recent months it has attacked and killed police and drug eradication workers.
[Editor's Note: At least, that's the official version. Cocalero leaders in the town where five policemen and two civilian eradication workers were killed earlier this year denied it was a Shining Path action. Instead, they said, the police had been accosting and robbing coca growers, and local residents took matters into their own hands.]
"CONCPACCP is against subversion, either on the part of the government or the clandestine forces," Palomino said. "We are a peaceful and democratic movement, and we would like to see an efficient policy toward the narco-traffic and toward subversion, but your drug war is not working. Your intelligence agencies are working without intelligence, and the police are likely to detain us as terrorists, but we cocaleros are not responsible for that."
For Palomino, a correct coca policy is one that does not attack coca, but one which concentrates on the drug traffic and on going after consumers in the First World. "A sincere policy would attack the chemicals used to make cocaine, and there is no drastic policy against the consumers," he maintained. [Editor's Note: At this point, your reporter had to interrupt to point out that in the US alone, more than 500,000 people are imprisoned in the drug war.] "The US doesn't go after the big chemical factories," Palomino continued. "The corruption and the drug trade is managed by the United States, the men in suits and ties, while they go after us, the humble peasants."
Eradication is definitely the wrong policy, Palomino said. "The Peruvian government is following the lead of the North Americans, but this policy is killing us. This is why we become a pole of resistance. We aren't a colony of the US, we aren't crazy, we chew coca all the time, and we are neither terrorists nor narco-traffickers, we are just trying to survive. We cannot permit forced eradication of our crops."
"The current policy is a disaster," agreed psychologist and coca expert Baldomero Caceres from his apartment in the upscale Lima suburb of Miraflores. "Nothing has changed under Garcia. Public opinion has begun to shift in the sense that the coca leaf is now beginning to be seen as a valuable natural resource, but the government hasn't acted on its own conclusions because it doesn't want to irritate the North American government. We are going to need a miracle, because the political establishment doesn't want to talk about this."
Soberon was largely in agreement on what needs to be done on coca policy in Peru. "First, we have to put a stop to the current things being done by the Peruvian state -- eradication, interdiction, militarization," he said. "The government goes along seizing ten or a dozen metric tons of cocaine a year and arresting 10,000 or 12,000 people, but most of them are just consumers who have to be released, and this is very inefficient. We need to have an assessment of what the current policies have achieved," he argued.
"Second, we need to leave the cocaleros alone. I would use the resources on the coast to get the cocaine leaving the country," he suggested. "We also need more transparency in alternative development. The peasants have been completely mistrustful of Lima for decades, and we have to show we trust the peasants. Finally, we have to fundamentally revise our relations with the US. What are our Peruvian priorities?"
Palomino and CONCPACCP look with hope toward the UN General Assembly Special Session on Drugs in Vienna next year. "We are fortifying our cause for Vienna in 2008. We will work together against the drugs, but when they talk of coca, we demand that they legalize it and decriminalize it as an indigenous plant -- not a drug -- and promote it for industrial and nutritional use."
As for removing coca from the UN treaties' list of proscribed substances, Caceres was not hopeful. "I continue to be pessimistic about the prospects for change at that level," he said. "The Peruvian government isn't doing what needs to be done to present a case for change to the UN, and I don't think Bolivia can go it alone. That is the only useful route to affecting change, but I don't think it is time yet."
For Caceres, legalizing the coca plant would be only an interim step toward doing away with the global drug prohibition regime. "I believe that ultimately we need to work toward the legalization of both the plants and the pharmaceuticals derived from them," he said. "As with coca, so with marijuana and the opium poppy. But there is no reason to have hope that will happen in the foreseeable future," he lamented.
Soberon also had a sobering view of the prospects for change at the UN. "I think 2008 will only bring more of the same," he said. "Now that I have some idea how that bureaucracy works, I don't think things will move on that level. They may throw us a few bones, but at the end of the day, the drug issue is a political tool for the US to intervene in foreign countries. And while Morales in Bolivia may push things, Bogota will always do what the US wants, and so will Lima."
Peru's cocalero movement is strong and vibrant, but also divided and isolated. Beset by internecine rivalries and a difficult international conjuncture, it has so far been unable to fend off the worst of the repressive policies directed from Washington and Lima. While leaders like Nelson Palomino would like to achieve the stature of Bolivia's Evo Morales, none has yet managed to do so. Yet, the cocalero movement is by no means going away. The stakes are too high; for cocaleros it is not just a plant or a crop that is at stake, but their very culture and way of life.
When asked what he would say to the American government and people, Palomino extended a hand of friendship. "I would send a fraternal and democratic salute from the cocaleros. We are not your enemies, but your friends and brothers. But you need to change your international policies. We need alternatives that reduce poverty, not increase it, and we want to live in peace. We also transmit to your land the hope that our culture does not disappear. The very thought makes our blood run cold."