Turning Over a New Leaf

Evo Morales and Bolivia's Fight to Legalize Coca

By Paul Di Stefano | 2006-07-01 12:00:00

Since being elected president of Bolivia last December, Evo Morales and his ruling MAS (Movement Towards Socialism) party are proving to be anything but predictable. From wearing a striped jumper to meet King Juan Carlos of Spain to poking fun at George Bush, appointing a former maid as the Minister of Justice, and cutting his salary in half to pay for more public school teachers, the first indigenous president of Bolivia isn’t afraid to stir up controversy.

In Bolivia where he is called by his first name, he is a hero; rising from poverty to become the first indigenous leader elected to govern a Latin American country. Outside of the country, he continues to raise eyebrows, looked upon as an integral component of an emerging Latin American socialist bloc. Certainly, he has caught the attention of US officials who have expressed concerns about Morales’s stance on several issues. The most contentious of these is his desire to legalize the production and export of coca—the raw material used in the production of cocaine. The US fears the effects such legalization would have on America’s ongoing “war on drugs.” In fact, it is this issue that may end up making or breaking “Evo’s” administration.

Before being elected to the presidency, Morales—a former coca farmer—made a name for himself as leader of the Coca Producers’ Association in the region of Chapare where an estimated 90 percent of coca production takes place. As leader of the cocaleros, Morales worked hard to negotiate with the former government and to achieve some level of legitimacy for a plant that has been cultivated throughout the Andean region for centuries. Bolivians’ use of the plant is closely intertwined with indigenous culture. Approximately 70 percent of Bolivians are Aymara or Quechua and trace their lineage back to the original inhabitants of South America. It is estimated that South American indigenous groups have used the coca leaf for over 4500 years.1

When the Spanish conquistadors colonized the continent, they quickly seized control of the plant that was said to alleviate altitude sickness, reduce hunger, and stave off sleepiness, making it very difficult for the indigenous people to obtain.2 Later, when Bolivia was discovered to be a valuable source of tin, miners forced to work long hours in hazardous conditions, would be given adequate supplies of coca to complete their job. Eduardo Galeano’s Open Veins of Latin America explains how the coca leaf became an effective means of ensuring the exploitation of workers; “[The miners] All chew coca-leaf and ash as they work, and this too is part of the annihilation process, for coca, by deadening hunger and masking fatigue, turns off the alarm system which helps the organism stay alive.”3 Therefore, the Spanish were successful in converting an important cultural and religious symbol into a tool of exploitation.

The Poor Use it for Hunger Pains

Today, the importance of coca has not diminished; the poor use it to suppress hunger pains, agricultural workers in Bolivia chew the leaf during the day to keep track of time (two mouthfuls of coca since breakfast means it is close to lunchtime), truck drivers making long trips ensure they have a bag of coca nearby. Coca is also used as a key ingredient in the production of a variety of goods including tea, medicine, toothpaste, wine, gum, and soap. Although coca’s importance is the same, its status as a legal crop has been modified. According to Article 49 of the 1961 Single Convention of Narcotic Drugs and Article 3 (1) of the UN Conference on Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking, the cultivation of the coca bush is a mandatory offence,4 thus depriving South America’s poorest country, where close to 50 percent of people live on less than one dollar a day,5 of a potentially lucrative export commodity that could increase economic development.

Morales’s government hopes to establish a strong Andean bloc to campaign in Vienna in 2008 at the UN’s meeting of the Economic and Social Council to modify coca’s present status and, ultimately, have the coca leaf’s production and export legalized. He hopes to prove that coca can be used as the main ingredient in legitimate products, not simply in the production of cocaine. It is this campaign that has caused the ire of the US government, concerned that Morales and others are hindering America’s efforts at winning the “war on drugs”—a war the US has been fighting for decades, having spent over $40 billion in Latin America in the last 25 years; a war in which America has targeted innocents caught in the crossfire.

In Bolivia, this battle manifested itself in the creation of Law 1008, a law that America pressured Bolivia into signing on July 19th, 1988. The law made coca production illegal and characterized narco-trafficking as a crime against humanity.6 In effect, law 1008 is seen by the cocaleros as unconstitutional because it impinges upon the right to work, as outlined in the Bolivian Constitution. Article VII states that all people have the fundamental right “to work and to dedicate themselves to commerce, industry or to any activity, that does not harm the collective good.”7 Certainly, the production of coca—used for legal purposes and as a means of subsistence—fulfills the above criteria. Furthermore, Law 1008 was badly designed and has been badly administered since its inception. Roberto Calle, former director of the cocaleros states, “The law must be used to convict and punish narco-traffickers, not those who innocently produce coca to survive.” It is this law that Morales and MAS intend to modify this summer in the soon-to-be-formed Constitutional Assembly.

In 2002, the United States pledged $47 million towards “alternative development” schemes in Bolivia. Since then, coca farmers have been threatened by mass eradication campaigns similar to those the US urged the Colombian government to carry out as part of its Plan Colombia initiative. In Chapare—Bolivia’s most significant coca-producing region—it is estimated that 45, 000 hectares of coca are eradicated each year and alternative crops are being planted instead. In theory, alternative development means getting Bolivian coca growers to start producing other crops (pineapples, hearts of palm, papaya, etc.) that bear no potential connection to narcotics. In practice, for most farmers, alternative development was a miserable failure for a number of reasons. First, the alternative crops that were being planted were not as easy or cheap to transport as coca leaves, thus increasing the costs. Second, the alternative crops being planted in various regions produced different results on account of the soil. For example, farmers in the Yungas (Bolivia’s second largest coca-producing region), could not compete with the size and quality of those fruits and vegetables being produced in Chapare where the soil and climate are more conducive to agriculture. Third, the designers of alternative development did not take into account that most coca farmers were making enough to simply survive. It is estimated that the average coca farmer makes gross earnings of only $150 per month. Therefore, the move to less lucrative crops meant a significant reduction in income. Finally, the shift to alternative crops meant that, all of a sudden, the market was being flooded with goods that were already being grown elsewhere, thus reducing the price of the “alternative” produce even further.

A working document on the UN Conventions on Drugs sponsored by the European Parliament in 2003 states, “There is probably a world-wide consensus on the urgent need to reduce the amount of harm caused by drugs. However, there is much debate whether the methods chosen, being mainly measures to reduce the illicit supply and the demand for drugs, are effective.”8 In fact, in Bolivia, alternative development schemes may have achieved the opposite of their intended effect. Those farmers who previously grew fruits and vegetables—now unable to compete and survive due to the emergence of numerous “alternative development” producers and the subsequent decline in prices—may turn to coca production in areas where there was none before. Apollonia Sanchez, Coca Activist and Secretary General of the Bartolina Sisa Women’s Movement, asserts that in Chapare, “The alternative crops failed and people suffered greatly without coca.” So what has been the reaction of the United States after years of “alternative development”? Simple. With Morales’ government seen as an uncooperative ally in the “war on drugs”, the US is pledging to cut back its military aid to Bolivia by up to 96 percent.9

Why Coca but not Tobacco?

The Bush Administration’s perpetuation of the war on drugs begs some interesting questions. A 2003 Canadian Senate report on illegal drugs asks, “If there is so much concern about public health based on how ‘dangerous’ drugs are, one has to wonder why tobacco and alcohol are not on the list of controlled substances.”10 Bolivian coca farmers see the US’ war on drugs unfairly targeting them. Why should the government of the United States have the power to selectively eradicate a potentially economically viable resource if it is being used legally? And let’s remember, Morales has pledged to fight the war on drugs, not perpetuate it and he has repeatedly stressed that he is wholeheartedly against narco-trafficking. But, Morales is working against misunderstanding and stereotypes. Bolivians have tried hard to reduce the assumption that being a coca farmer means producing cocaine.

Feliciano Mamani, the mayor of Villa Tunari in Chapare states, “It is important to dispel the myth that we, in the tropics, are terrorists. We are simply working against the neo-liberal model to become owners of our land.” The absurd reality that outside forces dictate how Bolivians can use their land is also echoed by Julio Salazar, the Secretary General of the Tropical Federation Union of Bolivia: “We are poor because control of our resources is in the hands of others. We want that to change.”

Some progress to legitimize coca production was made in 2004 when Morales and the cocaleros managed to get Carlos Mesa’s government to allow each family to legally cultivate one cato of coca (roughly 0.4 acres). In 2001, the US warned the Bolivian government not to accept the one cato idea or it would face the consequences. And slowly it has. The difference now is that Evo Morales does not seem fazed by threats. Being a former cocalero himself, he understands the vast potential this simple plant holds. The task ahead will be arduous. Faced with growing pressure from the US, Morales must prove the benefits of legalizing coca for export. He must also keep his promise to fight corruption and narco-trafficking and ensure that the legalization of coca does not mean opening the door to cocaine production. After all, he has reiterated time and again, “No to zero coca. Yes to zero cocaine.”

In a country where corruption has run rampant and leaders are run out of office if they don’t keep their promises, the people are hopeful that Evo Morales is genuine when he says he wants to help the poor, develop the economy and “work hard to be the best president possible.” Let’s hope that he is given the chance to prove himself and, ultimately, to turn over a new leaf.

Paul Di Stefano is a Montreal writer.


1 Hurtado, Jorge and Sdenka Silva, “The Coca Museum”. La Paz. 1997.

2 Ibid.

3 Galeano, Eduardo, Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent. Monthly Review Press: New York, 1973.

4 “Report of the Senate Special Committee of Illegal Drugs,” available online at www.parl.gc.ca/37/1/parlbus/commbus/senate/com-e/ille-e/rep-e/repfinalvol3-e.htm

5 Iriarte, Gregorio. From a speech entitled, “The Critical Analysis of Truth.” March 4th, 2006.

6 “The History of Law 1008,” Andean Information Network. www.ain-bolivia.org/prison.htm

7 “The Bolivian Constitution.” 2 Feb 1967 at www.psr.keele.ac.uk/docs/boliv67.htm

8 “Working Document on the UN Conventions on Drugs.” European Parliament, February 4th, 2003 is found at www.europarl.europa.eu/meetdocs/committees/libe/20030211/488454en.pdf

9 Brinkley, Joel. “U.S. cutting military aid to Bolivia 96 percent.” The New York Times, February 9th, 2006.

10 “Report of the Senate Special Committee of Illegal Drugs” – see note 3 above.

Peace Magazine Jul-Sep 2006

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