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Drugs

Bolivia breaks the mold in 'war on drugs'

Instead of ruining farmers' livelihoods by eradicating their coca plots, Bolivia is applying "social control." It's led to a drop in the plant's cultivation in a country the US blames for being a source of illegal drugs.

Instead of ruining farmers' livelihoods by eradicating their coca plots, Bolivia is applying "social control." It's led to a drop in the plant's cultivation in a country the US blames for being a source of illegal drugs.

"In this part of Cochabamba it's mainly the coca leaf that supports families - there are other products, but they don't have markets," said Marcela Lopez Vazquez, a former coca union leader in Cochabamba who was on the front lines of the fight against coca eradication. "It's a sacred leaf, and a natural resource in its natural state. For us it's not a drug."

Closeup of coca plants after a rainstorm in a small town in the Chapare region of Bolivia.
(Photo: Sara Shahriari)
Photo taken July 2012, Chapare, Bolivia
Bild geliefert von DW/André Leslie.

The coca plant has a long history in Bolivia - its medicinal use goes back thousands of years

The small, tapered coca leaf grows on a tall, spindly bush cultivated in Bolivia for thousands of years. Silver and tin miners working deep underground chew the leaf, cafes brew it into tea, and indigenous holy men offer it to the Pachamama, or Earth Mother, during religious ceremonies. Sold in Bolivian supermarkets and on street corners, coca is a mild energy boos for a long shift at work, a remedy to treat a host of ills and a sacred plant all in one.

There are even more coca products in the works. Bolivia's president, the coca union leader Evo Morales, pursues a policy of coca yes, cocaine no, and encourages expanding coca products available on the market - so far colas, ointments and cakes made with coca flour have made their debut.

But the coca leaf it is also the base ingredient needed to produce cocaine, a fact that has made Bolivia and its fellow Andean nations, Peru and Colombia, a key part of the United States-led 'war on drugs' for decades.

Coca and cocaine

Cocaine and its less expensive derivative crack became a major issue in the United States in the 1980s and '90s, when a rise in violent crime was widely attributed to crack. Planning to curb the tide of addiction and violence at home by dismantling the drug chain at its source, the US pushed for large cuts in coca production. In Bolivia that meant eliminating coca cultivation in the country's central Cochabamba region through a combination of forced eradication and alternative development.

However, alternative development failed to find crops with markets that could compete with the steady and relatively high income gained through coca. Driven by economic crisis, indigenous migrants flowed into Cochabamba from the country's highlands and resisted Bolivian government forces' attempts to eradicate their coca. The coca farmer unions grew stronger and protested eradication forces with roadblocks and mass demonstrations that sometimes turned violent, leading to deaths on both sides.

During that era of conflict a young coca union leader, Evo Morales, was on the rise. When Morales was elected president of Bolivia and took office in 2006, it signaled a time of change.

Bolivia 'nationalizes' drug policy

Bolivia expelled the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) in 2008, and in 2011 withdrew from a United Nations convention that labels the coca leaf in its natural state a narcotic substance, thus beginning the process of nationalizing the country's anti-narcotics efforts.

A woman, Marcela Lopez Vasquez, stands in front of a tree near her office in the Chapare
Copyright: Sara Shahriari
Photo taken September 2012, Chapare, Bolivien
Bild geliefert von DW/André Leslie.

Marcela Lopez Vazquez says coca is sacred, not a drug

Those moves drew criticism from the US, but Bolivia's break with the status quo also highlighted the need for new initiatives, such as a Bolivian government program called "social control," which began in 2008 with support from the European Union. That program seeks to limit coca cultivation through collaboration with coca farmer unions, harnessing the unions' power to help limit each registered coca farmer to a small plot called a cato of coca.

Lopez Vasquez, the former coca union leader, is now on the front lines once again. But this time instead of fighting for the right to plant coca, she works with a program that supports social control to limit cultivation. She says getting the program off the ground was not easy, but many people who lived through years of conflict eventually embraced the idea of growing a cato in peace­ - especially if it helped the Morales government.

"It was hard to make our people understand, because no one had heard of social control before," she said. Despite those challenges, the unions eventually took up the responsibility of policing their members. "Our organizations considered how to not make the government look bad, how we could help and how we can stick to the cato of coca."

Along with the collaborative elements of social control, satellite monitoring and a grower registration system are used to track crops. Coca planted outside permitted cultivation zones, or planted in excess in those zones, is still eradicated - but now the unions don't fight the process.

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