LA PAZ, Bolivia — On a hot December afternoon last year, 150 farmers in Chimore, a town in the Chapare region of central Bolivia, unloaded bananas and pineapples onto the Santa Cruz-Cochabamba highway. There was no market in sight and even if there was, the goods were not for sale. Rather, they were the building blocks of a road blockade.

The use of fruit as a barrier was purely symbolic. It is such produce that the Bolivian government has pushed, often forcibly, as alternative crops to coca, a leaf that for centuries has been used here for medicinal, cultural and religious purposes and from which these farmers have long made their living. It is, however, also the raw material of cocaine.

The outcome of this peaceful protest was two dead and dozens injured. As security forces set about dispersing the crowd, warning shots were fired. One of those killed was Casimiro Huanca, the leader of a local coca growers’ federation of which the farmers are members.

Dozens have died during such confrontations since the Bolivian government, influenced by the reward of international monetary aid in return for cooperation in the United States’ “war on drugs,” initiated plans to eradicate coca from the country.

In recent years, U.S. officials have pronounced Bolivia the “shining success story” of the drug war in South America. Yet, critics say such success is debatable: Some coca farmers have switched to alternative crops only to see them fail. As Bolivia struggles with deep economic recession and increasing poverty, protesting peasants are urging Bolivians to make a choice between the two greens: coca or the dollar.

“Fruit markets are too far away,” said one coca seller in La Paz, whose leaves are cultivated in the Yungas region, Bolivia’s only legal coca-growing zone located north of La Paz. “By the time farmers have spent their money getting produce to markets, they have nothing left. The Chapare region is littered with rotting fruit.”

Chapare is a dense jungle region some 300 km southeast of La Paz that has over the past decade become synonymous with coca and cocaine. With an estimated 45,000 hectares of coca plantations, not to mention hundreds of cocaine paste-producing facilities and clandestine airstrips, the region was once largely responsible for elevating Bolivia to the world’s second-largest producer of cocaine after Colombia.

During the 1980s, when economic recession left Bolivia with inflation that peaked at 8,000 percent in 1985, and 20 percent unemployment, farmers from poorer regions moved there by the truckload, lured by the improved incomes promised by coca farming, which was blossoming in light of the world cocaine boom. Bolivia’s total production of coca destined for the drug market was reportedly some 140,000 tons per annum, generating an income of between $700 million and $1.3 billion and involving almost 200,000 workers.

Efforts to suppress production began in 1988 with the passing of a law targeting the total eradication of coca. The only exception was a 12,000-hectare zone in the Yungas, which was set aside to supply coca for traditional uses such as “acullico,” a practice whereby the leaf is chewed (a wonder cure, incidentally, for high-altitude sickness.)

Meanwhile, Chapare became a “transitional zone,” where coca would be gradually destroyed and alternative crops provided to compliant farmers. Interdiction against traffickers, including the raiding and destruction of cocaine paste and base processing facilities, was largely conducted by U.S. officials.

Yet, concern over the economic and social impact of eradication ensured that for several years Bolivian leaders were reluctant to impose any major crackdown. When action was taken, it was often as a result of U.S. rather than domestic pressure.

A major tenet of the 1988 law was that eradication must be voluntary and no chemicals could be used. Compensation of $2,000 per hectare destroyed was offered to those who complied.

In the early ’90s, a lull in coca prices meant lines of farmers ready to sign away their crops in exchange for U.S. taxpayers’ dollars and alternative crops. Yet, with markets far away, and returns from alternative produce such as fruit being estimated at a fraction of that earned for coca, it wasn’t long before farmers were pocketing one green and then replanting the other elsewhere.

Interdiction also enjoyed little success. One obstacle was the large number of Bolivian antinarcotics staff who, after a year working under U.S. experts, then quit to work as well-paid informants for cocaine producers.

In 1998, however, the Bolivian government announced its “Dignity Plan” — swiftly drawn up after the U.S. threatened to cut aid to the country — to eradicate illegal coca by 2002. This time there was no compensation offered and U.S.-backed Bolivian soldiers simply stormed farms and uprooted crops by force.

Since then, some reports claim 90 percent of coca has been eradicated. After a meeting with Bolivian President Jorge Quiroga, U.S. House Speaker Dennis Hastert said that Bolivia was “virtually coca-free” and “the shining success story of the Andean region’s counter-narcotics effort.” The meeting took place on Dec. 6, the same day as the ill-fated Chimore protest.

The human loss aside, critics are doubtful of the extent of that success. Some point out that eradication in the Chapare has not only displaced crops to different regions within Bolivia, but also from one country to another.

While illicit coca production increased in the Yungas last year, Roberto Laserno, a longtime observer of Bolivia’s coca issue, says in nearby Colombia it “has expanded so much that there is today as much cocaine in the market as there was 10 years ago.”

Indeed, according to one report, Colombia’s coca crops have grown more than three-fold, from 50,000 hectares in 1995, to some 165,000 hectares in 2000. According to the United Nations Drug Control Program, the coca-cocaine business in Bolivia, Colombia and Peru is still worth about $3 billion a year.

“The goal of complete eradication is unrealistic and useless,” Laserna says. “Unrealistic because (the Bolivian government) does not have the means to impose control over the vast subtropical areas where coca can be grown. Useless because even if they achieve full eradication, it will make little impact on the war on drugs at a global level.”

According to Theo Roncken, a specialist on antinarcotics policy in Bolivia, this is one factor that angers local coca growers. “Coca is an ancient element of Andean cultures and should be treated as such,” he says. “While legal coca transportation and selling is being controlled, illegal transportation and selling have not really been affected by drug policies.”

Another factor riling local growers is that they have never been found to have been involved in cocaine production, which has traditionally been the domain of wealthy landowners. Yet, Laserna believes the pressures created by the drugs war may change this.

“Peasants are being pushed away from legality, which creates an environment . . . for drug trafficking. If the state and the formal political system reject 50,000 families from practical and legal options, where will they go in search of survival opportunities?”

The answer, it seems, does not lie in the alternative development projects so far suggested. According to the U.N., less than half of former coca-growing families have received assistance in planting alternative crops. And even when they do, most crops fail.

One reason for this failure is that alternative crops have been mistakenly designed on the assumption that farmers grow coca because of its high profitability, Laserna says.

“Peasants keep growing coca even if the price is low because it provides them with the cash to buy other things from the market,” he says. “In other words, coca represents a secure link to the market. Alternative crops have not been sought under this idea, but under the notion of high profitability.”

Indeed, alternative crops, such as rubber and macadamia nuts, can be more profitable than coca. Yet they require time (rubber takes up to 10 years to start producing) and capital — “two resources that are scarce for poor peasants,” Laserna says.

As a result, indignant coca growers are regularly seen staging road blocks, hunger strikes and coca “chew-ins.” “Coca or death” has become a popular slogan. Death is often the winner. In 2001 alone, 11 peasants were killed by security forces, and human rights abuses, including rape and torture, are rife, according to Amnesty International reports.

Yet, there are signs that the coca farmers’ efforts may not be in vain. A recent report by the State Department says that while coca production has been reduced from 48,100 hectares to 19,900 hectares between 1997 and 2001, “disturbances in the country (have) slowed down eradication and allowed farmers to replant illicit coca.” Illegal coca cultivation grew over 5,000 hectares between 2000 and 2001, the report says.

Ultimately, success of alternative development will be difficult to achieve while the Bolivian government remains at the beck and call of U.S. antinarcotics policy, experts say.

“Alternative development projects should never have been proposed as part of a repressive policy,” says Roncken. “One big reason for those projects not being successful is local farmer organizations have been treated from the start not as working partners but as a threat to those projects.”

Laserna, meanwhile, believes that eradication is part of a “mistaken policy” that “differentiates legal from illegal drugs on the basis of cultural prejudices.”

“If the goal was not total eradication, but to attain a sustainable level of crop control, the Bolivian government would be in a much better position to integrate farmers while prosecuting traffickers, thus regaining trust from the people and avoiding the interventionist pressures from the U.S.”

Local journalist Freddy Cespedes Espinoza says it is difficult for many Bolivians to stomach U.S. pressures while demand for cocaine remains high there. Cocaine use is extremely rare in Bolivia, yet around half of the world’s cocaine supply is consumed in the U.S., he says.

“U.S. policy has merely succeeded in hacking away a huge chunk of internal money. But the drug users are still there,” he says. “Many Bolivians believe the U.S. should be sorting out their own backyard before trying to clean up someone else’s.”

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