Development & Aid, Headlines, Health, Human Rights, Indigenous Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

DRUGS-BOLIVIA: A New Future for Coca Leaf

Franz Chávez

LA PAZ, Jan 10 2006 (IPS) - Criminalised in the international sphere, uprooted by hoe and machete in Bolivia, but venerated by Andean indigenous cultures, the coca leaf will seek a new future under the country’s first indigenous president, the leader of the coca growers Evo Morales, who takes office on Jan. 22.

Morales wants to change the anti-drug policy embodied in Law 1008, decriminalise the production of coca, but without completely liberalising it, and get coca removed from the United Nations list of controlled substances, Juan Ramón Quintana, advisor to the president-elect and possibly a future government minister, told IPS.

In Bolivia and the rest of the Andean region, coca (Erythroxylon coca) is legally used as an infusion to make tea, and for indigenous rituals, but outside the region, coca is classified as a prohibited drug. However, a complex chemical process including other ingredients is needed to convert it into cocaine.

Hundreds of coca growers are celebrating triumphantly these days, after the historic Dec. 18 election in which their leader, indigenous trade unionist Evo Morales, won a million and a half votes – 53.4 percent of the total – in an unexpected first-round victory.

One of the main proposals in Morales’s campaign was the legalisation of coca, in defiance of the anti-drug guidelines laid down by the United States, which has been trying to eliminate “surplus” cultivation in the Chapare region in central Bolivia. The United Nations believes there are 18,000 hectares of coca illegally cultivated in Chapare.

Coca growing is only allowed in the semitropical area of Los Yungas, in the province of La Paz, and is limited to 8,000 hectares for traditional consumption: chewing (in rural areas), infusions, and indigenous rituals.

Coca has been chewed by Quechua and Aymara Indians for centuries, to stave off hunger and fatigue.

But because coca is classified as a controlled substance, medicines, teas, soft drinks and other products based on coca cannot be legally exported.

In recent years, the U.S. government mobilised financial and technical resources to fight unauthorised coca planting, seeking to replace it with food crops. Considerable military aid has also provided to combat drug trafficking.

The U.N. adopted the Convention on Psychotropic Substances in 1971 and the Convention Against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances in 1988, in Vienna.

In the late 1980s, the U.N. classified coca as a controlled substance, while in Bolivia legal and prohibited zones for growing coca were mapped out. Police and military operations to destroy the crop followed, with heavy U.S. support.

According to press files, in 1980 Chapare was the centre of illegal cultivation, with a record 45,000 hectares planted in coca. But by the end of the second term of former dictator Hugo Banzer (1971-1978 and 1997-2001), the area under coca leaf was estimated at 6,000 hectares

Estimates of the cultivated area in that region today differ widely. The U.N. mentions 18,000 hectares, whereas U.S. diplomatic sources informed IPS that there were 5,800 hectares, although the area was increasing rapidly.

During the government of Carlos Mesa (October 2003-June 2005), coca producers won a concession that was opposed by the United States: the right of each family to grow coca on a patch of 40 square metres. Their political representatives were Morales, then a congressman, and his party, the Movement Towards Socialism (MAS).

The right to plant such an area, called a “cato”, alleviated tensions which had reached their worst peak of violence during the rightwing governments of Banzer and his successor Jorge Quiroga (2001-2002).

This measure adopted by the Mesa administration began to form the basis of a future policy on coca, supported by MAS, whose design is to be completed with a study on demand for coca leaf, financed by the European Union (EU), Quintana explained.

The viability of a flexible coca policy depends on the new administration’s ability to replace the aid now received from the United States and Europe by support from governments that are sympathetic to its cause, the director of the Latin American Scientific Research Centre (CELIN), Franklin Alcaraz del Castillo, an expert on drug dependency, told IPS.

The Bolivian economy is heavily dependent on foreign aid. The fiscal deficit, estimated to amount to 1.5 percent of the eight billion dollar gross domestic product (GDP), is covered by donations and loans.

The United States alone donates 150 million dollars a year, of which one-third is devoted to the drug war. The rest is invested in alternative opportunities for coca growers, economic development in other regions, public health and support for democratic initiatives.

The military and police crackdown on drugs is paid for by U.S. funds that finance helicopter, plane and river boat operations.

Morales will face the opposition of the United States and Europe to coca leaf legalisation as the president of a poor country with little political influence on the international scene, where coca is already classified as a prohibited substance, noted Alcaraz del Castillo.

Last week the president-elect met presidents Fidel Castro of Cuba and Hugo Chávez of Venezuela, and Spanish Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, before he continued on his international tour which will end with visits to Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva on Jan. 13 and Argentine President Néstor Kirchner on Jan. 17.

His aim is to drum up international financial backing to offset the influence of U.S. aid, although Washington has already spoken with Morales through its ambassador in La Paz, David Greenlee. The content of their conversation was not divulged.

Quintana also announced a government initiative to change the spirit of Law 1008, which denies the presumption of innocence to persons being investigated for alleged drug trafficking offences.

“This law violates citizens’ rights, and was used as a political tool to stamp out social movements,” said Quintana, who pointed out that Law 1008 was used to imprison dozens of people on drug trafficking charges, including many indigenous coca growers.

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