Bolivia: Coca Cero?

"Forced eradication" is a loaded term in Bolivia, and among cocaleros, it calls to mind the abuses and conflicts of the past few administrations. These days, the preferred word is "rationalization", used equally by government officials, military, police, and even the cocaleros themselves to refer to the limits placed on coca cultivation. Under president Evo Morales' "Coca Si, Cocaina No" plan, there's a rightful place and treatment for all kinds of coca -- whether it's grown in legal zones, in so-called "excess" areas, or in illegal zones.

Untitled_47 The coca grown in Los Yungas can now be planted without too many restrictions -- in fact, up to twelve thousand hectares of coca can be grown in this traditional region under the law, and by the end of 2008, the government will allow up to twenty thousand hectares in this area alone. Coca from the "excess" -- or non-traditional areas of La Asunta or Caranavi is to be "rationalized" -- the cocaleros themselves must eradicate their own crops, or else, face forced eradication at the hands of the Bolivian police and military. And the illegal crops, like those in the eastern flatlands of the Chapare continue to be eradicated by force, and without any advance warning. This is what we can see today in the coca policy books under Morales. But what's actually done in practice is a whole other ballgame. An increasing number of areas have been "colonized" with coca plantations in the last five years, surpassing the area limits established by the law.

Untitled_1 As a former cocalero and an active leader of Bolivia's federation of coca growers, Morales understands the plight of cocaleros -- whether they are growing legally or not. Above all, the Bolivian president sees coca farming as a traditional and profitable activity that has offered many health and social benefits to poor Bolivian peasants for centuries. Morales, like many of his coca growing peers, see coca as a means to survive, and not solely as the first step into making cocaine -- a trend that only started in Bolivia about twenty years ago.

But this view on coca couldn't be farther from the perspective of U.S. interests here.

Analysts in Bolivia and abroad estimate that more than half, and quite possibly more, of the coca produced in Bolivia is going into the production of cocaine. As far as the U.S. Embassy in La Paz is concerned, coca should not be grown in Bolivia at all. Since 1989, the U.S. State Department and the Drug Enforcement Agency have pushed for complete eradication of coca, and they still do. Through bilateral agreements, United States Agency for International Development (USAID) funding and military training, the U.S. government continues to tie economic aid to Bolivia to the "War on Drugs". U.S. drug enforcement officials are so convinced of the need for total eradication, that on a recent off-the-record interview with a U.S. official here, we were told that even doing the "akhulliku", or traditional coca chewing, should be eradicated as well.

Untitled_33 The Bolivia Consular Sheet in the U.S. State Department's website declares that -- "Coca-leaf tea is a popular beverage and folk remedy for altitude sickness in Bolivia". And yet: "Possession of this tea, which is sold in bags in most Bolivian grocery stores, is illegal in the United States". According to U.S. drug enforcement and embassy officials, alternative development is the only option against the production of coca. Through its USAID programs, the U.S. has encouraged -- and continues to push for -- the eradication of coca and its replacement with coffee, honey, banana, and citrus production.

Until very recently, however, the 100-count box of Bolivian-made "Mate Windsor" brand of coca tea was actually available for purchase on Under its benefits, the old posting stated that the tea -- "is great for PMS and menopause symptoms; has no chemical additives and with no addictive substances, according to the journal of the American Medical Association; helps with stress, blood pressure, altitude sickness, bi-polar symptoms, ADD and depression; alleviates irritation of vocal cords, prevents vertigo; regulates the metabolism of carbohydrates; and revitalizes, restores, and energizes". Peruvian-made coca products like tea and liquor, however, are widely available for purchase on the internet, thanks to bilateral trade agreements with the United States. Farmers in neighboring Peru are allowed to grow 30,000 acres of coca for the legal market, including about 100 tons of coca destined for the Coca-Cola Company.

Still, the U.S. Embassy in La Paz maintains that the potential legal coca market in Bolivia -- which could include anything from teas to the manufacture of lotions -- could never compete against the the ilegal market for cocaine. Currently, a kilogram of cocaine is believed to be sold for $1,200 inside Bolivia. According to our off-the-record interviewee, this same kilo will fetch $6,000 once it crosses the border into Brazil, and up to the astronomical price of $60,000 in the Middle East. And yet, amidst all this, there's a puzzling fact about Bolivian coca leaf cultivation and the costly U.S. efforts designed to eradicate it. According to U.S. official figures, only 1 to 2% of the coca produced in Bolivia will ultimately end up consumed as cocaine in the United States.