Latin America: Bolivian President Wins Voluntary Limits on Coca Production 5/26/06

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Bolivian President Evo Morales, himself a former coca growers' leader, announced last weekend that he had won an agreement with peasants in the Yungas region to voluntarily limit their coca production. The move came as part of an emerging two-pronged strategy by Morales to deal with the coca issue. On the one hand, he has signaled he will continue to go after the cocaine traffic, while on the other hand, he is seeking to normalize coca production in a country where it has a long history of traditional use.

Evo Morales, probably holding a coca branch
"Never, never will there be coca zero," he told a crowd in the Amazon town of Caranavi on Saturday. "But neither can there be unrestricted cultivation," said Morales, draped in coca leaf necklaces. "Thanks to the unions, we've got rid of the zero-coca policies. Here it's about rationalizing production," he said.

In the Yungas, coca has been grown for thousands of years, and current Bolivian law allows for 30,000 acres to be cultivated there for traditional uses. Under the agreement with the Morales government, coca farmers in Caranavi have agreed to limit their production to one "cato," or about 1,600 square meters.

"This is a voluntary eradication and many comrades have already started. It's already on the way," Rene Coromi of the FAPCCA, a local federation representing farmers of coca and other crops including tea, citrus fruits and coffee, told Reuters.

"For us, a cato sometimes does not seem enough but we will follow it because we don't want to do anything wrong by our president," said coca and coffee farmer Carmelo Olori as he waved a banner reading "Viva Coca." He said he thought the region would back Morales, who gained 90% of the vote there in the December election.

The agreement is a limited first step dealing with one part of the Yungas. No agreements have been reached with coca growers in the Chapare, where no legal production is currently allowed. Even in the Yungas, the complexities of Morales' path were made obvious when he was criticized by other coca growers for announcing the opening of a third coca market where authorized Caranavi growers can sell their leaves.

Opening new coca markets is part of Morales' larger plan to create new coca-derived products as well as boost sales of traditional nostrums like coca tea. That plan is in turn part of his effort to "revalorize" coca, or see it recognized by the international community as a valuable and legal plant. Under the 1961 UN Single Convention on Narcotics, coca is defined as an illegal drug.

The United States is casting a wary eye on Morales' coca policies and has criticized his plans to open a third coca market. Bolivia is currently the world's number three coca producer, behind Colombia and Peru.

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Issue #437 -- 5/26/06

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