Bolivia Says Coca Yes, Cocaine No

This piece was written by Mary Stucky, founder of Round Earth Media, before the Next Generation Journalism model was established. To read more about the model, visit the main site here.

Read it in English
Originally broadcast on March 8, 2007


Mary Stucky:  Vitalia Merida trudges a well-worn path to her plot of coca deep in the jungle. This is the Chapare, the Bolivian subtropics where much of Bolivia’s coca that ends up as cocaine is grown. When Merida first planted her coca in the 1990s she was hiding it from a drug eradication effort funded by the United States. …called Plan Dignity.

Vitalia Merida:  “We couldn’t sleep soundly at night because they’d come at three in the morning. They had bullets and live ammunition. They shot holes in all my pots. The little radio that I had to hear the news, they burnt it. And they took all the clothes I had so I didn’t have any way to stay in that house.”

Mary Stucky: But for the past two years, it’s been legal in Bolivia for each family to grow one cato of coca. That’s about a third the size of a football field.

Vitalia Merida:  “This is the coca, here’s the leaf.”

Mary Stucky:  Coca has been grown in the Andes for more than a thousand years. People here chew its leaves to stave off cold, hunger and fatigue.  President Morales is promoting the cato program as a way to provide poor coca growers…called cocaleros ….with a subsistence income from coca…about 100 dollars a month. Morales himself was head of the cocaleros union. His government’s policy is Coca yes, Cocaine No.  Kathryn Ledebur heads a drug policy think tank in Bolivia. Ledebur has been critical of U.S. anti drug efforts in Bolivia. She says the cato program is working.

Kathryn Ledebur:  “There’s a willingness to reduce coca voluntarily, because there’s a logical system and something for subsistence.  In the past when all coca in the Chapare was subject to eradication, it was spread out and difficult to detect it. Now everyone is willing to condense it in a plot, which is highly visible. The communities are willing to be open to scrutiny and limit their coca crop and denounce drug trafficking because of this new guarantee of subsistence.”

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Mary Stucky: According to the latest available US State Department figures, Bolivia grew 8 percent more coca in 2005 than in the previous year. That compares to a 38 percent increase in Peru and 26 percent in Colombia, the other two major coca producers. Bolivia remains the world’s third largest producer of cocaine, according to US Ambassador to Bolivia Philip Goldberg. He says it doesn’t make sense to promote the legal cultivation of coca.

Philip Goldberg:  “The drug effort becomes so much more difficult when you aren’t dealing with the coca itself. Coca is not a drug but cocaine comes from coca and cocaine is the only real economic reason for coca to be grown.”

Mary Stucky:  But Goldberg concedes that since the cato was initiated some two years ago, there’s less violence in the Chapare. At one time, drug traffickers there took over entire towns.  Towns such as Shinahota. Godofredo Reinicke was the Bolivian government’s human rights ombudsman. He lived in the Chapare during the 1980s when the drug trade in Shinahota was booming.

Godofredo Reinicke:  “This was a cocaine production and sales zone. There were Brazilian rings, Columbian rings who bought the cocaine paste here in this town to sell outside the country. They sold cocaine paste right out on the tables here.”

Mary Stucky:  Now, the drug traffickers are gone. These days Shinahota is a quiet town….except for the occasional black hawk helicopter flying overhead.  They’re operated by Bolivia’s anti-drug police, part of the US supported effort against narco trafficking. The US gives Bolivia almost 34 million dollars a year for counter-drug efforts, that’s a about a twenty five percent reduction from the previous year. Morales says he wants the funding to continue. Colonel Rene Salazar Ballesteros commands the anti drug police in the Chapare. He says the coca growers are now cooperating in the effort.

Colonel Rene Salazar Ballesteros:  “Anyone who wants to have a cato of coca can’t have a cocaine factory on their property. So the people, the coca growers who benefit from the cato of coca, they don’t let drug traffickers into their communities. They turn in anyone that sets up drug factories.”

Mary Stucky:  Coca is still the most lucrative crop for desperately poor campesinos—it’s easy to grow and transport and can be harvested three times a year, though it doesn’t provide much in the way of legal income.

Vitalia Merida: “Sometimes I come back from the market in Sinahota with tears in my eyes. I run out of money. As a mother I suffer. Look at what my house is like. We don’t even have a decent chair on this farm.”

Mary Stucky:  Cocaleros like Vitalia Merida are pinning their hopes on President Morales’ proposal to develop commercial markets for products made from coca, such as shampoo, toothpaste and medicine. And there may be some financing for it, though not from the United States. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez recently pledged to fund Bolivia’s legal production of coca. But US officials remain adamant that legitimizing coca will only harm efforts to crack down on the production of cocaine.