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BOLIVIA
More coca, more cocaine
Jenny Manrique
9/25/2009
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Evo Morales´ government goes after drug-traffickers, not coca farmers.

The coca leaf is considered “cultural patrimony” under Bolivia´s new Constitution. But the leaf is part of a heated debate between its consumers: coca campesino farmers in the tropical Chapare region, considered the country´s cocaine producing center, prefer to chew leaves brought from Los Yungas region in the highlands of La Paz.

“Coca from La Paz is better because it´s thicker, it takes away your hunger and helps you get through the night,” said farmer Teodoro Hinojosa, 44, as he was buying a half-pound of it, for around US$3. “Chapareña coca doesn´t have the same effect.”

The same amount of leaves from the UN-estimated 9,500 hectares of coca crops in Chapare would cost $1 more.

In the local market in the Chapare village of Villa Tunari, Walter Viza, 52, says that in his business, both leaves are appetizing, but that it depends on the consumer´s taste.

“The important thing is that there are thousands of families here who live off of this crop, to eat, to work, something we´re never going to stop doing,” he said, balancing his tray, waiting for shoppers, who also buy corn and wheat from here, or tourists, who want to buy his rainbowed-checkered wiphala Andean flag from him. “It´s important we are not stigmatized.”

Varying quality
The debate over the best quality leaf stems from where the Chapareño product goes when it is not chewed by local residents.

“The leaf from the Bolivian tropics has harder veins and it cuts your gums when you chew it. That´s how you can speculate that a large part of the coca leaves here can go to drug-trafficking,” said Col. Óscar Nina, chief of the Special Anti-Drug Force, of Bolivia´s police.

According to Nina, close to 70 percent of Bolivia´s cocaine goes to Brazil, while the rest ends up on the streets of Argentina, Chile and Paraguay, if it isn´t consumed domestically. Nina adds that Bolivia is also a transit point for cocaine, since some 40 percent of its cocaine exports is Peruvian product.

Citing the ancestral importance of the crop, President Evo Morales sent a bill to Congress to increase the permitted legal area of coca crop area from 12,000 to 20,000 hectares. Lawmakers have not yet debated the law, although the majority in the legislature is controlled by Morales supporters, who in 2006 approved a bill to allow unionized coca farmers to grow 1,600 square meters of coca.

Deputy Defense Minister Felipe Cáceres says there are six unionized coca-growing federations in the Chapare valley that include more than 260,000 families.

Their members were tasked with providing security during a visit by Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva this past August, when he signed a $330-million deal for a stretch of highway linking Bolivia´s southern highlands with Amazonian northeastern.

While Morales closed his speech saying in Quechua, “causachun coca, wañuchun yanquis” (Long live coca, Down with the Yankees), Lula wore a coca leaf necklace and promised to let Brazilians buy Bolivian textiles duty-free, trade benefits that the United States suspended in 2008, citing the country´s poor anti-drug efforts.

Cáceres, who was once mayor of Villa Tunari and still owns a small coca plantation in the area, told Latinamerica Press that the two nations have “intensified simultaneous operations on the border where for decades there was no police presence.”

Brazilian-Bolivian cooperation
This year some 1,500 kilograms of cocaine have been seized in a bi-national effort that has included Brazil´s training of Bolivian officials in anti-drug technology and communications.

“Our policies, now with a regional focus, have aimed at destroying [drug] laboratories and attacking drug-traffickers,” Cáceres said, adding that was something neoliberal governments or even the US Drug Enforcement Agency, or DEA, didn´t do, having instead persecuted coca farmers. Morales expelled the agency in November 2008.

A recent study by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime last June said Bolivia is the world’s third-largest cocaine producer behind Colombia and Peru, but that the area of coca crop in the country increased 6 percent last year, while cocaine production increased 9 percent.

The UN agency says Bolivia´s cocaine producing potential increased by one-fifth since Morales took office in January 2006.

Morales says the figures are false and are trying to agitate the political arena ahead of the presidential elections in December. Morales is already leading in the polls. While he stands by his policy of “coca is not cocaine” and illegal markets are taking over the legal ones, the campesinos who have chewed the leaf for centuries look for their preference.

“Coca leaf is like beer: people chose the one they like to drink,” Viza said.
—Latinamerica Press.


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