New Internationalist

Growing The Stuff

Issue 224

new internationalist
issue 224 - October 1991


Growing the stuff
Coca growers are front-line casualties of the war on drugs in Bolivia.
Susanna Rance journeys through the battlefield to meet them.

‘We’re not growing coca any more – we can’t, it’s not allowed,’ Doña Inés told us firmly, hands on her wide hips, standing at the entrance to her roadside farm.

It seemed a sensible enough response to give to a couple of gringos nosing around armed with cameras and microphones. Behind her, spread on sackcloth, a huge carpet of fresh green leaves was hastily being swept up by a young man in shorts, a straw broom in each hand. The rush was on: all along the rutted mud track we could see coca growers packing their harvest into bundles to get it out of the zone before their planned road blockade – in protest against US-backed militarization of the anti-drug offensive.

Doña Inés came to the subtropical Chapare plains twenty years ago with her parents – farmers from Arani, a neighbouring province stricken by frequent droughts. They were among the first wave of migrants to leave cramped valley plots to clear farms out of the dense bush, struggling with a new environment where determination and hardiness were the most essential tools.

Now the colonizers face new difficulties: as coca growers, they have found themselves in the vortex of the anti-drug war, waged from Washington with increasing violence. ‘We’re farmers, not traffickers,’ protests Doña Inés. ‘But they call this area a “red zone” and treat us like criminals.’

Mama coca, for centuries a basic element of Quechua and Aymara cultures, has been controversial since the Conquest. Seeing that chewing the leaf enabled their serfs to withstand the rigours of high altitude, cold, fatigue, hunger and thirst, the conquistadores set about expanding the ancestral small plots into plantations, providing daily rations which are still a basic demand of miners and other workers in the highlands.

Those who use coca as a daily staple today have to bow to the new market forces created by the cocaine industry. ‘I chew a couple of ounces a day,’ reckons Dionisio Orellana, a farmer from the hillside community of Cochimita. ‘When there’s repression in the Chapare and the growers can’t get their produce out to the big buyers, they sell it locally, so it’s easy for us to get supplies – we can exchange 25 pounds of potatoes for a pound of coca. But when trade is going well for them, the leaf is more expensive for us.’

Deep in the Red Zone
In 1987 plantations were officially divided into three categories: ‘traditional’ areas, where growing was declared legal; areas with ‘excess production’ which had to be phased out; and new, ‘illegal’ zones exclusively catering for the drug trade, where crops were to be destroyed. Eterazema, where Doña Inés and her family have farmed for two decades, is now firmly within the Chapare ‘Red Zone’, the target for aggressive campaigns to push substitution of coca by other crops.

As well as fetching far higher prices than any other agricultural product, coca is the only Andean crop with an endless stream of eager buyers prepared to defy difficult conditions to pick up the three or four harvests each year directly from the growers. ‘We also plant citrus fruits, bananas and yucca,’ explains Néstor Bravo Arispe, leader of one of the five Chapare coca growers’ unions. ‘But with bad roads and no transport, it’s hard to get those products out of here. And when we do, prices are so low it’s not worth our while. Coca is easy to carry and it has a guaranteed market. The Government has tried to promote alternative crops, but they’ve always failed.’

A variety of substitution programmes have been attempted, some focussing on improving yields and markets for traditional exports such as coffee, while others explore new ventures into flowers, spices and strawberries. But only the hardy coca plant provides genuine incentives to growers. The real substitution drive occurring in past years has been towards coca and away from other crops. Coca’s contribution to the net value of Bolivian agricultural production increased from eight per cent in 1980 to 19 per cent in 1988.

Cash compensation offered to growers prepared to pull up their coca bushes has also failed to motivate eradication. The sum of $2,000 per hectare destroyed proved insufficient to allow farmers to generate a new means of subsistence. Moreover, producers were embittered by official commitments being repeatedly broken: bureaucracy and corruption resulted in few receiving the promised payment, even when their plantations had already been uprooted.

With market forces conspiring against coca eradication and crop substitution, armed repression is the next step. In May 1990, the Bolivian government, anxious not to lose foreign aid, succumbed to US pressure and signed an agreement to militarize the anti-drug campaign. In April this year, hours after approval was hastily pushed through the Bolivian parliament, 90 tons of equipment and 12 military advisers arrived from the US in preparation for the coca war. By November, 112 US army officials are to provide combat training for 2,000 Bolivian soldiers: ‘The same basic instruction a US light-infantry battalion would receive – only in a shorter time’, according to a US major supervising the first batch of recruits.

For the Bolivian military, drug repression is a profitable concern. Through President Bush’s ‘Andean Initiative’, US support to the Bolivian armed forces has leapt from $6 million in 1989 to $36 million this year. Many Bolivians, harbouring traumatic memories of the bloody 1980 coup by the ‘cocaine generals’, are concerned that strengthening the military will mean new threats to the country’s fragile democracy.

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Coca cushion
The drive to militarize uncovers a curious contradiction in Bolivian society: it is in almost no-one’s interest here to fight the trade in coca and cocaine, and the Government is no exception. The neo-liberal ‘New Economic Policy’ (NEP) introduced in 1985, designed to hasten debt payments, stop hyperinflation and cut public spending, rests firmly on a cushion of coca and cocaine dollars which equal the value of legal exports.

Coca income has eased social tension by providing a safety valve for thousands who have lost jobs through NEP austerity measures. While some have migrated to the Chapare, swelling the overall number of coca producers to an estimated 60,000, many more benefit indirectly through increased commerce and services in an informal economy which is largely sustained by laundered drug money. Two thirds of urban workers now depend on informal activities in the face of rising unemployment in other sectors.

The coca economy also supports a floating population of traders involved in peripheral activities in the production zones. ‘I came here two years ago with the idea of trying to get ahead in life’, says Ignacio, who lives with his wife and children at the end of the Red Zone in Isinuta. ‘I don’t grow coca; I’m a logger. But of course, everything I earn depends on the money generated by the drug traffickers – without them, there’s no cash circulating. I travel with my trade, so if business goes downhill I just clear out. For the growers, there’s no option – everything they have is here.’

For Chapare farmers the ‘big fish’ who run the Bolivian end of the drugs trade are almost mythical entities. ‘They’ have the power, the money, the arms – and the knack of keeping well clear of the area, especially when things get hot.

In a remote province of the northern Beni region, where ‘cocaine factories’ lie buried in the jungle, 44 small aircraft were impounded in three recent raids by anti-drug squads, who reckoned that their haul represented about a quarter of the fleet operating in the area. Predictably, no traffickers were captured. The hierarchy remains intact, with the big bosses at a safe distance, the dealers handling sufficient funds to pay off the police and the growers providing coca for the drug industry and cannon fodder for its enemies.

‘The Government has got to find a solution for the growers,’ muses Ignacio as his toddler plays under the rickety table on the mud floor of his bamboo shack. ‘If the military come in here, we can do nothing against them – they have arms, we don’t.’

Down the road at a bar-room table, a pack of Leopards play dice, laughing raucously, camouflage caps and machine guns by their sides. The self-styled ‘Leopards’ are really the UMOPAR, or ‘Mobile Rural Patrol’, a special US-trained police unit with the lucrative task of repressing coca producers and, more sporadically, the traffickers themselves.

‘A few months ago, we couldn’t even get into this zone,’ brags a young, fiercely moustached officer. ‘But now, we’ve got these people dominated.’ ‘These people’ shoot wary glances at them from the opposite end of the room. The barmaid serves them, efficient and unsmiling. Isinuta is occupied territory and the invaders are treated with hostile respect.

Cameras under our jackets, we hang around the doorway of the Leopards’ lair, a dingy shed, trying to look like innocent tourists who have just gone for a three-hour spin to the end of the Red Zone, undeterred on our jaunt by a few rivers whose muddy watermarks reach up to the windows of our Toyota taxi.

Chatting up the Leopards is a necessary prelude to getting some photos, and their egos are predictably responsive to flattery. We show due admiration for the charred wreck of a Colombian small aircraft shot down a month before with a cargo of cocaine paste.

‘Go on, pose like Rambo in front of your trophy,’ I venture as a last resort. The guard has obviously seen the movie and does a fair imitation of Sylvester Stallone, machine gun cocked at a provocative angle. That one photo compensates for the discomfort of the six-hour drive as we roar back to Cochabamba in the dark, filthy and shivering on squelching wet seats after taking the Toyota back through the rivers and out of the Red Zone.

In mid-June, 700 coca growers and their families left Villa Tunari to begin a month-long march to La Paz with banners proclaiming their cause: ‘Dignity and National Sovereignty’. After a week, the march was violently broken up by armed troops and police. Result: one dead, 20 wounded and 20 leaders imprisoned.

Growing union
The coca growers have one strategic arm in their struggle: their unions, affiliated to the national confederation of peasant farmers and to Bolivia’s central trade union organization, the COB. In the valley town of Cochabamba, a network of progressive non-governmental institutions has signed an agreement with the five local growers’ unions to jointly draw up and negotiate an alternative development proposal for the Chapare. Following the violent break-up of their march, the producers’ organizations declared: ‘No development is possible in the midst of a war, and it is still less viable if we are considered the enemy’.

‘In our view, official policy is totally hypocritical,’ says union leader Nestor Bravo bitterly. ‘If the US claims to be fighting against drugs, why is it the first nation to stuff Bolivia full of its own pharmaceutical products, its alcohol and tobacco – not to speak of the chemicals used to refine coca into cocaine? It seems to us that their real aim is not to combat the drugs trade. What they’re really trying to do is to maintain their own monopolies and keep us down with their power and arms.’

In May this year, Andean coca producers met in La Paz to share experiences and work on joint strategies to defend their culture and livelihood. Among the participants was Genaro Cahuana, farming union leader from Quillabamba in the Peruvian province of Cuzco. ‘This is a historic event for us, an encounter of Andean cultures which we all defend,’ said Cahuana. ‘We want to break down this barrier of misunderstanding – coca is not the same as cocaine, they’re quite different. If coca is wiped out, will drug addiction disappear? We don’t think so. And as for militarization – for us, that means violation of human rights, backwardness and poverty. We’re doing all we can to let people know, at home and abroad, that we have every right to defend ourselves against this unjust policy being imposed on us.’

Susanna Rance, a regular contributor to the NI, lives in La Paz, Bolivia.

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