ASAP Column – 2014 July/August (Grisaffi)

Co-operative Coca Reduction in Bolivia

Thomas Grisaffi (University College London)

Originally: Anthropology News (July/August 2014; pp. 29-30)

A cornerstone of US designed and funded counter-drug strategy in Latin America has been the eradication of illicit crops in the Andean region (mostly coca leaf, which is used to produce cocaine, but also opium poppy and marijuana). Crop eradication is generally carried out manually with teams of eradicators, accompanied by the police or military, entering small farmsteads to uproot crops. The process destroys local economies, provokes violent confrontations, and criminalizes some of the poorest and most vulnerable members of society. Moreover, there is no evidence to suggest that eradicating crops has an impact on the supply of drugs reaching US streets. The policy is thus both destructive and counterproductive.

In 2004, in the wake of a failed coca eradication campaign, the Bolivian government, in conjunction with the Chapare coca growers’ Federations, developed an alternative coca control strategy. The new policy allowed registered farmers to grow a limited amount of coca (1600 square meters), known as a cato, to supply the domestic legal market. The government enlisted the coca Federations as partners to ensure that farmers respected the agreement. On coming to power in 2006, President Evo Morales opted to continue with this policy and over the past eight years the government and the coca federations have jointly developed a sophisticated coca monitoring, control, and reduction system.

My long-term fieldwork provides some detail on how this new system works in the Chapare, one of Bolivia’s two main coca-growing regions. The area is a tropical agricultural zone where Quechua-speaking peasants, fired-miners, and factory workers from the highlands migrated in droves from the 1960s to 1980s. The 45,000 settler families established small family-run farms, cultivating rice, bananas, and citrus fruit. But it has been the income generated by coca leaf that provides many with their only source of cash, which is essential for survival. Coca represents a particularly suitable crop for the poor farmers because it is light and easy to transport, grows like a weed, and has a guaranteed market.

The Chapare is characterized by strong social organizations. At the grassroots are the sindicatos. These are territorially bound self-governing units of up to 200 members that are, in turn, grouped into federations. The sindicatos have the legitimacy, experience, and capacity to enforce the one cato limit.  Local leaders organize regular inspections of coca plantations. If they find excess coca, then they eradicate the entire crop and prohibit the farmer from replanting any coca for one year. If a farmer violates the rule more than once, then the sindicato imposes a life-time ban on growing coca. Farmers say that the new system is more effective than the previous US-financed “zero coca” policy. One man explained to me that under the old policy, when the military pulled up his coca he could replant without any immediate repercussion. However, he said that today it’s  “jodido” (really harsh): “…everyone knows how much coca you have – and they will denounce anyone who plants more than a cato.”

Farmers exert pressure on their peers to respect the cato agreement because they see it as being in their own best interest. They understand that if coca cultivation is restricted, then prices will increase: as one farmer put it “we work less, but make more money.”  Furthermore if a sindicato is not exercising adequate control, then it damages relations with the town hall that is dominated by coca growers. One local leader explained that the ability to solicit public works such as road improvements and the building of schools would be seriously hampered if the community did not comply with the coca regime. “If you go to the Town Hall and your sindicato has not respected the cato,” he explained, “it’s like having a criminal record. No one will attend to you.” Finally, the coca growers identify strongly with the goals of the Morales administration. I was repeatedly told by farmers that respecting the cato was important because it would support the government’s long battle to legalize coca for export in the form of diet pills, tea, toothpaste and liquor.

Previous USAID-funded projects made development assistance dependent on the immediate eradication of all coca. This development model was flawed because alternative crops such as coffee or cocoa beans take several years to mature. Thus farmers were often left with no income whatsoever and were forced to return to planting coca. In contrast, today the government promotes development with coca, and provides technical and financial assistance to diversify the local economy. A cato generates around $200 dollars per month and this economic safety net means that farmers are now more willing to risk investing effort, time, and capital in alternative livelihood strategies. Crop substitution (such as coffee, pineapples, and palm heart) and fish-farming projects are starting to reduce dependence on coca: for example, one woman told me that her fishpond generated twice the revenue of a cato and that she might abandon coca altogether. The coca growers’ war cry used to be “long live coca, death to Yankees!” but at one federation meeting I attended a leader shouted out “now we are not just cocaleros, but also bananaeros [banana growers], long live bananas!” The fact that farmers are now willing to experiment with activities other than coca marks an important subjective change.

Cooperative coca reduction seems to be working. The UN reports that coca acreage in Bolivia decreased by 19 per cent over the period 2010-2012, a far greater drop than in Peru were eradication was in full swing. Bolivia achieved this reduction while simultaneously respecting human rights, empowering local communities, and developing long-term economic alternatives to coca cultivation. In spite of these positive indicators, the US government has been highly critical of cooperative coca reduction. In 2013 the White House blacklisted (a process known as “decertification”) Bolivia for the fifth consecutive year, stating that the country had “demonstrably failed to comply with its obligations to tackle drug traffic.”

Rather than remaining committed to forced crop eradication, a policy that has proven to be harmful, ineffective and unsustainable, US policymakers would be well advised to learn from the Bolivian experiment. The Bolivian case illustrates that there are alternative policies that are more productive for the citizens of other countries and that also meet US interests to reduce coca acreage.