Newsbrief: Bolivian Coca Growers Push Bill to Legalize More Coca 1/16/04

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Coca-growing peasants (cocaleros) from Bolivia's legal coca-growing region are preparing a bill that seeks to legalize more coca production and win government help in jump-starting markets for non-cocaine coca products, the Bolivian newspaper El Diario reported Monday. Under Bolivia's coca law, the much reviled Law 1008, coca can only be legally grown in the Las Yungas region in La Paz province and one tiny part of the Chapare. But even in Las Yungas, the law limits production to a little more than 5,000 acres (12,000 hectares), while cocalero leaders say they need 8-12,000 acres (20-30,000 hectares) just to meet the demand for legal coca products.

Las Yungas cocalero leader Luis Cutipa told the newspaper the bill is still in the works, with meetings among peasants and groups linked to the coca business set for coming weeks to draft final language. The bill will include language calling on the government to broaden markets for the crop, especially in neighboring Argentina and Chile. In the Andean north of those two countries are as many as one million traditional coca users, Cutipa said.

Because the Bolivian internal market alone requires more coca than allowed under Law 1008, Cutipa said, the law needs to be modified to eliminate "illegal zones." Under the law, in addition to the legal zone in Las Yungas, there is a "transitional zone" where the crop is illegal but eradication is voluntary, and an "illegal zone," where farmers face forced eradication without compensation. Aside from the limited, defined areas of Las Yungas and the Chapare, most of Bolivia is an "illegal zone."

The government has other plans. Government Minister Alfonso Ferrufino last month announced that he would seek a plan of compensation for voluntary eradication of excess coca in Las Yungas, but would put off for the moment eradication in the region.

Meanwhile, the head of the Coca Producers' Association (Adepcoca), Roberto Calle, told the newspaper that the group would petition the government of President Meza to approve more commerce in the leaf. Citing projects for developing the coca industry dating from the 1960s, Calle argued that broadening the legal coca market would ensure that "illegal" production was not funneled into the cocaine traffic.

The cocaleros are positioning themselves for the coming legislative season. With the Bolivian government caught between the prohibitionist hard-line emanating from the US Embassy and the powerful political currents represented by the cocaleros, it should be a very interesting season.

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