Bolivia Coca Conflict Heating Up Again 5/9/03

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When DRCNet last week wrote about coca strife in Peru, we parenthetically noted that Peruvian coca growers (cocaleros) were looking to the example of Bolivia, where, we wrote, organized cocaleros had managed to secure "an end to forced eradication in the Chapare." That description mischaracterized events in the Chapare, where, despite negotiations between cocaleros, led by Evo Morales, and the Bolivian government in March to bring an end to the practice, forced eradication of unsanctioned coca crops continues.

This week, with negotiations at an apparent standstill and forced eradication ongoing, cocaleros in the Chapare are again mobilizing, and the government has sent reinforcements to the area to seek to prevent a recurrence of the civil strife over the coca issues that has claimed lives of anti-drug police but many more peasants, and which left the government shaken. And even as it prepares for renewed turmoil in the Chapare, the Bolivian government is making noises about expanding its eradication campaign to the Yungas region, where all of the country's legally allowed coca leaf is grown.

Morales and the cocaleros had sat down with the government in mid-March in an effort to win a limited reprieve from the burning of coca crops in the Chapare. (Morales, an invitee to the Mérida "Out from the Shadows" conference, stayed behind for those negotiations.) The government was considering a deal wherein peasants in the Chapare would be allowed to cultivate an agreed-upon amount of coca for six months. In the meantime, the government would conduct a study to determine what was the legitimate domestic demand for coca leaf, considered sacred and consumed by Bolivians for thousands of years. That could have led to renewed legal cultivation of coca in the Chapare.

But those negotiations have been stalled for more than a month, and eradication is continuing in the region. In an account published in the Baltimore Sun -- the only US mass media outlet to report on Bolivia's continuing crisis in recent months -- peasants Victor and Gomercinda Franco told how Bolivian soldiers set up camp on their property, pitching tents in their yucca field and cutting down the Francos' pineapple plants and a mandarin tree to make a helipad. At first, the soldiers begged small amounts of coca leaf to chew themselves, but then, as the Francos' small coca crop neared harvest, the soldiers cut it down -- for the fourth time, Victor Franco said.

"How can they cut down all our plants?" cried his wife, Gomercinda. "I have eight children. What are we going to live on? All our coca is gone."

The Bolivian government eradicates coca as part of a US-inspired "zero coca" program in the Chapare. US officials have pointed to Bolivia as an "Andean success story" because it has reduced coca cultivation by 70% in the past decade, but the cocaleros are stubborn, and cultivation in the region has increased ten-fold in the past two years, from 1,400 acres in 2000 to more than 13,000 in 2002, according to US government figures.

The "success" has also come at considerable political cost to the US-backed government of President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada, which was rocked by the cocalero protests in January and February. Like other Andean governments, Bolivia's is caught between the demands of substantial sectors of its citizenry for legal coca and the unyielding insistence of the US on continuing eradication of the crops. There is also the nearly $200 million in US aid and US votes on international lending decisions for the Bolivian government to consider.

And now, even as the Bolivian government braces for renewed conflict with angry growers in the Chapare, it announced last week that it was preparing to extend eradication into the Yungas region, where some 26,000 acres of coca are legally grown for the domestic and international markets. Yungas cocaleros and their representatives have not reacted well. Initial talks with the government over eradication in the Yungas broke down late last week after government officials announced the proposed eradication as a fact.

"This cannot be," said congressman Dionicio Núñez Tancara, a member of Morales' Movement to Socialism (MAS) party. "The coca grower federations will not allow the Joint Task Forces to eradicate any plants in the region for any reason. The government has no valid reason to try to eliminate coca en the Yungas," the congressman told El Diario.

Cocaleros will not allow the eradication "of even a millimeter" of coca in the Yungas, Núñez vowed. "We are on permanent watch in the Yungas, especially in the region of Asunta, where they have said the most excess coca is." But there is no excess coca, he said. "For us, excess coca is coca that doesn't have a legal market, but we have legal markets, including in other countries. It is the government itself that makes our leaf show up in cocaine factories," because the government coca agency, DIGECO, allows it to be diverted," he said. The eradication campaign is only an excuse for the government to increase the military presence in the region, he added.

Yungas cocaleros met earlier this week to plot strategy, but no reports on that meeting were available at press time.

For now, the government of President Sanchez de Lozada appears to be siding with its benefactor, the US, against the roughly 35,000 coca-growing families in the Chapare alone. This week, more police and Joint Task Force anti-drug troops swarmed into the Chapare to block another uprising, and Interior Minister Yerco Kukoc called the unrest "labor delinquency," a signal that the government intends to treat the demands of the cocaleros as a law-and-order problem, not a political problem.

But the government and its allies in Washington are mistaken if they think they can make coca go away in Bolivia, said Morales in an interview with the Baltimore Sun. "The war on drugs is failing," the cocalero leader who nearly won last year's presidential election said. "The United States thinks it can spend billions of dollars to reach zero coca, but this isn't a solution. All this social and political revolt is thanks to the coca leaf. The coca leaf is what is giving people consciousness."

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