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Providing news and analysis on business, economics, and drug prohibition
Issue 3: Spring 2006
A shift in coca policy in Bolivia

The Morales Government Proposes Domestic and International Changes in Coca Policy

By Kathryn Ledebur

The election of coca grower leader Evo Morales in Bolivia has radically shifted South America’s poorest nation’s national policy toward the coca leaf. Coca leaf has been chewed for centuries in Bolivia and Peru. However the U.N. Single Convention on Narcotics of 1961, reflecting colonialist attitudes, outlawed the practice of coca leaf chewing effective no later than twenty-five years after the Convention went into force (December 13, 1964), namely December 1989 (Article 49.2(e)), and the production, manufacture and trade in coca for such purposes must be outlawed.

Past Bolivian administrations bowed to intense U.S. pressure to carry out aggressive eradication campaigns to eliminate what the U.S., and Bolivian antidrug “Law 1008” stipulated, was an “excess crop” which the U.S. argued was used to manufacture cocaine for illicit consumption in the U.S. and the rest of the world.

Soon after the election granting Morales one of the largest popular mandates in Bolivian history, over 53 percent, he set out a two-pronged broad government coca policy: providing legal permission for limited coca production within the Chapare region, and commencing an international campaign to remove coca leaf from the 1961 United Nations Single Convention on Narcotic list of controlled narcotics. 

Within its borders, the new administration has vowed to continue to shift the focus of Bolivian drug control programs away from targeting subsistence farming families, dependent on sale of the leaf to feed their families, to the interdiction of cocaine in all stages of production.  But pledging to end the “zero coca” campaign, and shifting to a “zero cocaine” strategy, has ruffled the feathers of staunch U.S. drug warriors. They are convinced that the forced eradication program should continue, although under that program coca production in Bolivia increased steadily since 2000 and the U.S. street price of cocaine has gone down. 

To understand this issue, one must know that the coca leaf has been consumed for centuries in the Andes to alleviate hunger, to relieve stomach ailments, and is embedded in cultural rituals and religious ceremonies.  Most Bolivians regularly drink coca tea. Many farm families, transportation workers and even soldiers in charge of eradication chew the leaf on a daily basis.  Although U.S. government officials claim that Chapare coca is unfit for chewing, the cheaper leaf is a less expensive alternative to chewers unable to pay for the higher-priced Yungas variety.

A budding industry of coca-based products such as wine, gum, toothpaste and other products provide possible additional legal uses for the crop.  Use as a diet aid with no negative side effects has been discussed. The Bolivian Secretary of State raised eyebrows by suggesting that schoolchildren eat coca products for breakfast, but U.S. scholars have documented a high nutritional content for the leaf.

Andean residents are not the only people who have a well-developed taste for coca-based products.  Coca-Cola still contains elements of the coca plant, although it no longer contains the cocaine alkaloid. The Stepan Chemical company is registered with the U.S. government to purchase the coca leaf to extract alkaloids for pharmaceutical use. Until 2002, using the AlboExport Company, Stepan and Coca-Cola purchased large quantities of coca leaf from the Chapare region, although the U.S. considered all production there “illegal.”

Although the proposal to decriminalize growing coca leaf appears radical, and risky to US policymakers and the American public, limited coca production has been permitted in the Chapare region since late 2004.  A dramatic increase in cocaine production or uncontrolled coca growing -- feared by US policymakers -- has not occurred. In fact, this landmark agreement between the Bolivian government and Chapare coca growers’ federations, led by Morales, defused the cycles of violent conflict in the region. The eradication missions carried out by the armed forces had led to the deaths of 33 coca growers and 27 members of the security forces since 1998.

How much coca is enough?

It is unclear how much coca leaf is necessary to satisfy the internal demand for chewing, for teas and for industrial production.  Bolivian anti-drug Law 1008, the anti-drug law, passed as a result of intense U.S. pressure in 1988, provides that 12,000 hectares of coca are permitted to be cultivated to supply traditional consumption. Yet, U.S. embassy officials admit that this amount is merely a “guesstimate.”  Subsequent studies, funded by the U.S. government, estimated that legal consumption was lower than the supply from 12,000 hectares. These studies were used to justify U.S. pressure to eradicate coca in the Yungas region in 2001. This initiative was abandoned after widespread popular opposition to military eradication. This U.S.-funded research has been broadly discounted as politically skewed and unreliable because it downplays the extent of non-narcotic use of coca.

Since 2002, Bolivian coca growers have sought an unbiased market study of the demand for coca leaf and its non-narcotic derivatives. A similar study in Peru demonstrated that traditional coca use there was much more widespread than expected.  Although the Bolivian government, and even the U.S embassy, supported this proposal, it was only agreed upon in October 2004, as part of the accord to permit temporary coca production in the Chapare. Although the agreement stated that the legal market study should be concluded in one year, and both parties agreed that the European Union would be the best neutral funder, political pressure on the Mesa administration to meet other policy goals pushed the study to the back burner.  Chapare coca growers, satisfied with increased income from permitted cultivation (between 80 to 120 dollars a month), and an end, at least temporarily, to the recurring conflict, did not press for the study.   Both the government and the coca growers appeared to recognize that postponing the study could effectively deflect U.S. pressure to renew forced eradication. Renewed eradication would have undoubtedly further destabilized the government.   After President Mesa resigned, his successor stated that the agreement of permitted coca in the Chapare would be extended beyond one year, because the study had not yet been completed.

Soon after Morales’s inauguration, his Administration affirmed that that their long-term policy on coca cultivation would be based on the results of the study. But support in principal for the study does not ensure acceptance of its results. Little information has been available to explain the proposed methodology or scope of the research. Unresolved issues include whether to include the widespread chewing of Bolivian coca leaf in northern Argentina as a licit use as part of the legal market, because cultivation and export of coca leaf for chewing are prohibited by the 1961 U.N. Single Convention on Narcotics. Direct Bolivian government participation in the study, while giving the research greater domestic credibility, may spark international concern about the validity of its findings. To project the value of the export of coca products is a potential flash point.

Although the removal of coca leaf from the U.N. list of narcotics is clearly an uphill battle, unsuccessfully pursued by previous Bolivian governments, diplomatic officials have already begun consultation with international entities and nongovernmental organizations to meet this goal.

After conversations with the Chinese ambassador, Morales and Chapare coca producers are hopeful that they will be able to sell some of their crop to China. Anticipating higher prices for industrialized export of coca products, growers have begun to improve the quality of the leaf in their small, permitted plots. 

With the electoral victory of Evo Morales -- inconceivable just a year ago -- many Bolivians have started to question precepts believed to have been “carved in stone.” For example, must Bolivia unconditionally accept U.S. drug policy dictates to maintain bilateral and multilateral economic assistance? Is it impossible to export coca leaf products to provide income for tens of thousands of farming families?   The adoption, within Bolivia and in the international community, of innovative, pragmatic coca policies based on a genuine assessment of the demand for the leaf and its licit derivatives, is indispensable for the development and political stability of South America’s poorest nation.


Kathryn Ledebur is the Director of the Andean Information Network in Cochabamba, Bolivia. Email Kathryn at kledebur@ain-bolivia.org or visit the AIN website at www.ain-bolivia.org




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