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DRUGS-PERU: Cocaleros Carve a Niche in Congress

Milagros Salazar

LIMA, Jul 24 2006 (IPS) - Long represented in Bolivia’s political institutions, another cocalero movement has gained a formal foothold in the Andean region – this time in the legislature in neighbouring Peru.

Nancy Obregón, one of the group’s top leaders, will take her seat Jul. 28 as a parliamentary representative for the Union for Peru (UPP) party, along with nine other legislators-elect who support the struggle of coca farmers.

The cocalero movement has recently gained a higher profile in various political strongholds. Elsa Malpartida, another cocalero leader, was elected to the Andean Parliament as a candidate for UPP – the party that backed nationalist Ollanta Humala’s bid for president.

Both women told IPS that they would use their positions to fight for “the decriminalisation and industrialisation of coca leaf” as well as official recognition of the crop as “cultural patrimony.”

Their position is echoed by a number of fellow Congress members who also represent the country’s major coca-leaf producing regions, including six additional UPP members, two social-democratic Peruvian Aprista Party representatives and one congressman-elect from the Alliance for the Future, ex-president Alberto Fujimori’s former party.

Thus, a pro-cocalero bloc is poised to take its work to the legislature. “From Congress, we will be able to promote a broader debate on the coca leaf. We know we have to adopt a clear agenda in terms of agriculture, and that coalitions with Bolivian cocalero movements have to be forged,” said Obregón, who has extensive union experience.

In October 2005, she met with cocaleros from Andean countries at a National Confederation of Coca Farmers in Peru (CONPACCP) meeting in La Paz. Also present was Iburcio Morales, leader of another faction of the movement, who hails from the Monzón valley – a major coca-leaf producing area in the country’s eastern Huánuco jungle region. The link was Bolivian ex-deputy Dionicio Núñez, of the Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) party, to which current President Evo Morales belongs.

Participants in the meeting agreed to fight as a unified bloc to remove coca leaf from Appendix 1 of the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, which considers the leaf a controlled substance and classifies the habit of chewing it as a form of drug addiction. This push forms the essence of what campesinos mean by decriminalisation.

Coca’s use in medicine, food and rituals is part of the Andean region’s history. But its notoriety as the raw material for cocaine has eclipsed its cultural roots, leading to criminalisation and stigmatisation.

Until now, with no direct representation in the government, the grassroots base of the Peruvian cocalero movement was unable to firmly place the issue on the political agenda.

In contrast to Bolivian growers, who started with incursions into municipal government, Peruvian cocaleros went straight to the national legislature. Obregón and Malpartida ran for Congress and the Andean Parliament backed by Humala’s party, with the blessing of then-imprisoned CONPACCP head Nelson Palomino.

Palomino served three and a half years of his sentence, convicted of kidnapping a campesino in 2003 during a protest. In early June, Peruvian authorities ordered his partial release, and the leader has just formed his own party. The new name – the Quechua word Kuska, which means “united” – is a direct message to critics who have suggested that the cocalero movement is becoming divided.

The campesino leader describes Kuska as “a pluralist project born from the heart of the cocalero movement, which will fight on behalf of marginalised people.” Palomino told IPS that he is going through the processes to ensure the party’s participation in the regional and municipal elections scheduled for Nov. 19.

His goals include building political support in coca-growing areas in the country’s central and eastern regions, such as Ayacucho, Huánuco, San Martín and Ucayali. He also aims to woo Nancy Obregón, Elsa Malpartida and other legislators back from the Humala camp over to Kuska. Palomino hopes to unite the cocalero movement under one banner, something he could not do from prison, and prepare the cohesive party for the 2011 presidential elections.

“Unlike in Bolivia, which has a 15-year history of cocalero political representation, in Peru coca growers have only recently created a foundation for taking their political action from the streets to a formal state apparatus – a move sparked by the government’s inability to address their demands,” expert Ricardo Soberón explained to IPS.

But the President of Peru’s National Commission for Drug-Free Development and Life (DEVIDA), Nils Ericsson, considers the cocalero emergence onto the political scene “outrageous.”

“Exhibiting shameless hypocrisy, they are demanding that surplus coca-leaf production be legitimised, ostensibly for the purposes of industrialising it, even though they know it’s not viable. Allowing this kind of argument in Congress will only bolster drug trafficking,” Ericsson told IPS.

Soberón, however, pointed out that the campesino legislative representatives will push for laws that would move government away from “the repressive crop-eradication policy dictated from the United States that to date is considered a failure.”

The latest United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) report, published in June, stated that Peru’s 2005 coca-leaf production totalled 106,000 metric tonnes, covering 48,200 hectares. This makes it the Andean region’s second-largest producer, after Colombia and ahead of Bolivia, which is reported as cultivating 25,400 hectares of coca leaf.

However, only 9,000 tons of Peru’s output are earmarked for traditional consumption, and its commercial uses are largely restricted to tea, according to the National Statistics Institute (INEI) survey on coca-leaf consumption. The remainder is classified as raw materials for drug-trafficking – the target of official eradication programmes.

ENACO, the national coca agency that has monopolised the legal trade and merchandising of the plant in Peru since 1978, last year purchased only 3,044 tonnes, of which 111 tonnes – a mere one percent of total production – were exported and used in commercial products.

However, Palomino claimed that more than 9,000 tonnes of coca leaf were traded in the formal market, and demanded that the Peruvian government conduct a census in the coca-growing valleys. “These figures have been manipulated. So we rural cocaleros are starting to do our own assessments,” he said.

Soberón said “the United States needs to tread lightly. In Bolivia their repressive policy has already triggered a backlash that led to the rise of Evo Morales; they do not want to repeat the experience with Nelson Palomino.”

The U.S. has a major economic presence in Peru’s anti-drug campaigns. DEVIDA told IPS that of the 124 million dollars the government allocates to the task, 120 million comes from the international community – and 90 percent of that comes from the United States. Peruvian state coffers contribute only four million dollars.

Ericsson said that as long as Peruvian authorities fail to increase funding to combat drug trafficking in the country – which moves 19.6 billion dollars annually – the United States will continue to intervene wherever it pleases.

Oddly, no alternative-crop programmes are under way in the Monzón Valley, the second-largest coca-producing hub (15,633 hectares).

The new pro-cocalero bloc has announced it will submit bills within the framework of an anti-drug trafficking programme that also addresses development in coca-growing regions, plagued by high poverty rates.

According to the INEI, in the Huánuco region (now represented by Nancy Obregón), 77.6 percent of the population lives in poverty, while 49.6 percent survives in conditions of extreme poverty. In Ayacucho, Palomino’s birthplace, 64.9 percent of the population is poor.

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