Bolivia: coca discord

In Bolivia coca leaves spell conflicts and unexpected solutions.

Photo credits www.un.org

The indigenous people on the Bolivian plateau have been chewing coca since before the Incas. Acullico, which means keeping the coca leaves between gums and  cheek, dulls hunger and fatigue and helps to conquer the effects of altitude - La Paz, at  11,975 feet  above sea level is the highest capital in the world.

Coca leaves play a central role in Quechua and Aymara cultures, and is considered sacred. Offerings to Pachamama, Mother Earth, every 1 August in thanks for  what she gives include coca leaves. The Spanish colonizers decided to ban it, but allowed it again as soon as they realized that natives worked harder, especially in the mines, when chewing coca leaves.

From coca leaves is derived, of course, also the alkaloid used to produce cocaine. Cocaine production in the region always happens following the "balloon effect". That is, when in an area, in this case Colombia, production shrinks, it must increase somewhere else. Over the past 15 years this was Peru and Bolivia. According to UN figures, since 2000, cultivation fell in Colombia   by 65% ​​whereas  in Bolivia it increased twofold (to 32,000 ha).

Estimates of how many hectares of coca plants are needed for local consumption of  the leaves by  indigenous people vary much —  some say 12,000 hectares, others much less. At any rate, since planted acreage exceeded the figures over three  times, it didn't take long  over the past decade for drug traffickers and their technicians to move  down  from Colombia into the  Bolivian jungle.

Temptation for many cocaleros, coca growers, was  irresistible. Shortly thereafter numerous corridors for the trade of crystals, the alkaloid liquid or coca paste opened up  along the borders with Brazil, Argentina and Peru.

In South America, DEA, the US agency to combat drugs, is present wherever cocaine producing and smuggling can take place. Its officers encouraged governments, providing also aid, to destroy plantations by having them  eradicated by ground troops or spraying the areas from the air.

In Bolivia, however, DEA's pressures came up against the very compact organizations of the cocaleros, that were strong enough to be able to send one of them to power  in 2005. Evo Morales, of Aymara descent and the first native president of the Plurinational State of Bolivia, as a first go step got coca leaves included in the in the Constitution. Then he made of resisting the US and its way of fighting drugs his forte. The slogan was "Long live coca, death to the Yankees." In 2008, DEA's was expelled from the country.

Morales initially wanted to decriminalize coca leaves in international fora, but failing to do so, he settled with Bolivia becoming  exempt from the prohibition of planting coca leaves for local consumption — a unique case in the world.

In mid-August, the representative of UNODC in Bolivia, the UN Office on Drugs, Antonino de Leo, said at a press conference in La Paz that the number of hectares cultivated in Bolivia with coca had come down compared to 2013 by 11% from 23,000 ha to 20,400 ha. This implies still a total of 33.1 tons of coca leaves, 60% of which were sold in the two formal markets. These days the slogan goes "Coca yes, cocaine no".

The decrease is a success, especially because it happened "peacefully and respecting human rights", said de Leo. Morales can ascribe it to himself, and to his working closely with the cocaleros unions. He urged, for example, farmers not to plant coca in national parks, in order not to tarnish the country's image abroad.

Furthermore, monitoring the  extension of cultivated areas was  entrusted not to the army but to neighboring coca growers. This important mechanism operates already in 80% of the ​​Cochabamba region.

In Bolivia, not everyone is happy with  these successes. Congresswoman Norma Piérola, and with her several other unions, such as butchers, continue to argue that coca growers are being favored, for example, by not paying taxes. "They consume resources, and live just fine. Just go to visit [the region of] Chapare."

Not all coca growers are convinced of the advantages of switching to cultivating  coffee. Nor has the eradication of coca plantations happened always peacefully. All Over time many were killed, especially in clashes with the army.

Away from the forest, victims fell also in the top floors: the general arrested last year in Panama while about to send 300 pounds to  the United States was not  just like any other general. He was the head of the government's anti-narcotics agency. Same thing happened to a former girlfriend of Morales and to her sister. Opponents argue that the high profile of these arrests indicate at least an ambivalence of the government with respect to drug trafficking.

According to statistics, 93% of the coca leaf produced in the regions of Yungas go to the verified market in La Paz, but of the Chapare crop, only 10% is sold for use for chewing and infusions.

The question remains: what happened to the other 40% of the 33.1 tons produced? The answer lies in clandestine laboratories in the jungle. With the globalization of cocaine cartels, production could not but reach the Bolivian Andes, where the presence of military forces is scarce. This resulted in a sort of whack-a-mole game. As soon as the military destroys one, not so far away another pops up. Bring them down  is easy because they consist just of small wooden structures and a basin inside which two people at a time pound the leaves. The liquid obtained is then filtered and decanted to produce pasta or crystals for the international market.

Evo Morales, who received Pope Bergoglio hanging around his neck a chuspa, the pocket used to carry coca leaves, ignores critics and says himself satisfied. Leaving aside cocaine production and the corruption that goes along with it, from an economic and social point of view he could. Bolivia is one of the few countries that grew in the past nine years steadily by more than 5% per year, reducing extreme poverty from 38.3% to 17.8% of the population. Many call it "Bolivia's miracle."

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