FEATURE : Bolivia eradicates coca crops amid local grumblings

Monday, Mar 29, 2010, Page 7

“Keep moving … keep moving,” Lieutenant Wilson Santos bellowed at 50 sweaty soldiers as they hacked their way up a hillside through a sea of coca plants in Bolivia’s La Asunta region.

The army’s eradication campaign began earlier this month after La Paz decided to trim back the country’s overproduction of coca leaf, which can be processed into illegal cocaine or used for chewing or drinking in a centuries-old local tradition.

The eradication program — the government calls it “rationalization” — is supported by the US, the chief destination of cocaine trafficking, but frowned upon by the locals, who watch their livelihood being cut down amid uncertainty over their future.

The military hopes to slash 5,000 to 8,000 hectares of coca plantations per year until the world’s third-biggest producer reaches the legally sanctioned level of 12,000 hectares.

That’s how much coca leaf the country needs for traditional use as a mild stimulant either chewed or swallowed as an infusion, estimates suggest.

Harvesting coca leaf for the illegal drugs market, however, is a lucrative, mushrooming industry. More than 30,000 hectares are currently devoted to coca cultivation, the government said.

In Sud Yungas Province, at the foothills of the Andes 200km east of La Paz, much of the coca cultivation is deemed superfluous.

The authorities said it was not a forced eradication campaign, but one reached in agreement with coca growers who are offered substitute crops and government investment in local infrastructure, including roads and sanitation.

The agreement is fragile, however, and coca’s bad reputation does not sit well with La Asunta’s estimated 15,000 farmers, who mostly grow coca leaf for its yield of three crops a year, far more abundant than citrus fruit or coffee.

Locals chafe when people say their coca is snorted up in foreign markets. They say their plant has been used for thousands of years for chewing, drinking and in the religious ceremonies of the indigenous Aymara.

“This is a traditional coca-­producing area. What we grow goes to the legal markets of La Paz. It’s under control,” local farmers leader Emilio Mayta said.

Coca grown in Yungas is reputedly the sweetest and best suited for chewing. Farmers say the leaf for cocaine is best reaped in the central region of Chapare, birthplace of Bolivian President Evo Morales, who was a coca growers’ union leader before taking office.

They said Sud Yungas has seen precious little of the promised government investment: There are no bridges over the rivers, the roads are mined with potholes and the villages are powered by electric generators.

“The government is all confused,” farmer Severino Mamani said. “We need development right here, right now if they want us to switch from coca to growing some other crop.”

“Because if the government simply continues slashing away, what are we going to live on?” he asked.
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Source: AFP

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