Bolivia Has the Right to Grow Coca

(International Relations and Security Network, 17/08/2006)


A pillar of policy for Bolivian president Evo Morales is to defend his belief that the coca leaf is not a drug. His administration is dedicated to zero tolerance for cocaine, but defends the importance of the coca leaf to Bolivian culture, history and social well-being among the country's poorest farmers. Politicians in Washington choose not to make such a distinction, and will likely highlight their differences with the Morales administration when they choose whether or not to renew the Andean Trade Preferences and Drug Eradication Act (ATPDEA) later this year. It is a decision that could cut up to 100,000 Bolivian jobs and cost the country some US$320 million in annual revenue.


Since 2002, preferential trade access to the US market has been determined by the achievement of very specific US-set goals for coca leaf eradication in Andean countries, including Peru, Colombia and Bolivia. It is a policy Morales has publicly labeled as blackmail. While his language is less than diplomatic, his reasoning is perhaps more sound than Washington decisionmakers would be willing to admit.


The current Bolivian administration knows that past efforts at heavy handed eradication policies catalyzed clashes between police forces and coca farmers, resulting in human rights abuses as well as an increased gap in understanding between the Bolivian leadership and the coca-growing population in Bolivia.


Under Morales, the Bolivian leadership has never been closer in understanding to Bolivia's coca-growing population. It is an opportunity to explore other policies for coca eradication that produce sustainable results within a climate that respects human rights, Bolivian culture and deep history.


It would behoove US decisionmakers to look past unrealistic eradication targets and create an opportunity to forge closer ties with Bolivia by supporting Morales' policy of rationalization.


The Morales administration began using the word "rationalization" to replace "eradication" and move beyond a past dominated by the negative social impact of a forced eradication strategy. The rationalization policy claims that half a hectare of coca plants is sufficient for coca-growing families, and promises to reduce the amount of land dedicated to coca growing by 5,000 hectares by the end of 2006. This number may be small by US government eradication standards, but much of the eradication will be done by individual coca farmers. This represents a method of sustainable self-eradication that other countries in the Andean region have not achieved.


Bolivian coca minister Felix Barra, who will oversee Morales' rationalization policy, is from the Yungas highlands, one of Bolivia's most conflicted coca-growing regions. His connection with the growers there will help manage open communications with coca growers and the Bolivian administration - a far cry from the gulf of understanding between previous Bolivian presidents and coca farmers.


In the Yungas region, where up to 12,000 hectares of coca is legally allowed, coca cultivation has grown to a little over 18,000 hectares in the past few years, according to a 2005 UN report. This phenomenon is largely due to heavy eradication efforts in Bolivia's lowland Chapare region, which forced many farmers there to migrate to the Yungas and begin small coca farms. Barra, who is from the Yungas region, will oversee what the Bolivian government calls a gradual and systematic process of coca cultivation reduction.


Meanwhile, Bolivian lawyer and US State Department consultant Omar Barrientos told The Washington Post in a 27 July report that Morales had "democratized narcotraffic." Omar believes that Morales' policies to curb eradication in favor of sustainable rationalization has removed narcotrafficking from larger mafias and placed it in the hands of small producers, which makes it harder to control.


Barrientos has likely seen the news that Bolivia's Special Force to Fight Crime and Narcotraffic (FECLN) uncovered some 2,000 cocaine processing laboratories in the first six months of this year, compared to some 2,575 labs uncovered over the course of 2005. Such statistics can lead to the conclusion that cocaine production is up in Bolivia until one realizes that interdiction efforts have increased only since stability has returned to the Bolivian executive branch. The proper question to ask is how long have these labs been in place? It is likely that most of them were set-up long before the Morales administration took office.


Reports that makeshift cocaine processing labs are popping up in areas where heavy eradication had removed many coca plantations, such as the Chapare, may be accurate, but they fail to note an important fact. Many more labs have been created in Argentina and Brazil, two countries where an increase in the demand for cocaine and crack places more demand on coca leaves from Bolivia than any large mafia from Colombia, Mexico or elsewhere has in years.


These labs that mysteriously pop up in Bolivia's lowlands have more to do with porous borders and cocaine demand from Bolivia's neighbors than any policy supported by the Morales' administration. They will continue to exist, as will the black market supply of cocaine, as long as there is a strong worldwide demand, which for Bolivia starts with her neighbors. Brazil is second only to the US for cocaine demand.


If Bolivia must be judged for its role in the so-called war on drugs, it must be done within a reasonable and fair context. First, the Morales administration has had very little time, relative to the decade of failed eradication policies forced upon the region, to prove its policies will work. Second, Bolivia is behind both Colombia and Peru in coca cultivation and cocaine processing. Finally, Bolivian coca growers represent a history and culture that must be respected, not dismissed as the democratization of narcotraffic.


Any decision not to renew the Andean Trade Preferences and Drug Eradication Act should be dictated by the trend to negotiate free trade agreements (FTAs) with individual Andean countries, rather than treat them as a sub-regional collective that will enforce strict and socially damaging coca eradication policies in exchange for preferential access to the US market.


Already, Colombia and Peru have concluded FTA negotiations. If the US Trade Representative office approaches the Morales administration with ideas for an FTA, it would be a positive step toward a new relationship based on real trade and not "blackmail" tactics.


The Bolivian and US governments have an opportunity to create an economic alternative that will ensure sustainable farming options to support the Morales administration's rationalization policy.


If the decision not to renew the Andean Trade Preferences and Drug Eradication Act is not followed up with an offer for FTA talks and is based on the Morales administration's proximity to characters such as Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and Cuban leader Fidel Castro, US decisionmakers will lose Bolivia to their detractors in Havana and Caracas.


Whatever the reasoning for US Congressional decisionmaking, Bolivia should not be singled out and judged for coca growth and cocaine production simply because Morales does not supplicate himself to demands made by US officials who continue to support outdated and failed policy positions.

Cocaine production is clearly a regional problem, exacerbated by US demand for the drug, not a Bolivian farmer's right to cultivate coca leaves.