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BOLIVIA
Coca products go to waste
Martin Garat
7/4/2007
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International restrictions on coca-based products angering some Bolivians.

Coca is a part of important milestones in some Bolivians’ lives — birth, baptism, high school graduation, engagement — says Beatriz Chambilla, of the Andean Oral History Workshop. “Coca is present in our lives from the time we are born until after the death — the All Saints’ Day we bring coca to cemetery,” she said.

Coca is an essential part of Andean culture. Inhabitants in the highlands of Argentina, Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru have chewed coca for thousands of years.

Chambilla says “akulliku” or chewing coca helps to get through the highlands’ bitter cold, fatigue and hunger in a harsh environment.
“During the colonial period, coca served as comfort in the forced labor in the mines,” she said. “We also use it in religious rites, as medicine and while conversing. We treat our visitors to coca as a sign of good will.”

1988 Vienna Convention against the Illicit Traffic of Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances, which reinforced the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs of 1961 and the 1971 Vienna Convention on Psychotropic Substances, classifies the coca leaf — as well as the drug cocaine, which is extracted from coca — as a Schedule I narcotic, whose traditional use is only permitted in Bolivia and Peru.

Coca farmers’ resistance
In the 1980s and 1990s governments backed by the United States battled coca crops fiercely. Coca farmers organized a resistance and sometimes paid for it with their lives. This very movement launched the political career of current Bolivian President Evo Morales, a former coca grower leader.

Since Morales took power in January 2006, the “zero coca” policy has been replaced by a “zero cocaine” program, as the leader has vowed to continue fighting against illegal drugs while promoting the value of the coca leaf (LP , Jan. 25 and March 8, 2006).

Instead of “eradication,” Morales’ government talks about “rationalization,” or a destruction of the crops only with a previous agreement with the producers. Every coca union member will have the right to cultivate a 1,600 square meter (5,800 square feet) plot of coca, called a “cato.”

“We’re going to create a control system by giving a production card to the unionized coca growers. The ones who are not affiliated can’t grow or sell coca,” said Richard Pérez, director general of Social Defense, an agency of the Interior Ministry in Morales government.

Since Morales took office, the Social Defense Vice Ministry has surveyed nearly 80 percent of the coca growers in the central area of the Chapare region and registered 42,000 unionized growers belonging to the Six Federations of Coca Producers of the Tropic of Cochabamba. The rest of Chapare and the other main coca-growing region, Los Yungas, north of La Paz, remain to be surveyed.

The United Nations estimates that there are 27,400 hectares (27,700 acres) of coca crops in Bolivia, equal to more than 171,000 catos, many more than the number of coca growers in the country.

Increasing number of cocaine seizures
Drug trafficking remains a touchy subject in Bolivia. Director of the Special Force in the Fight against Drug Trafficking, René Sanabria, says that the government is seizing an increasing amount of cocaine compared to previous administrations.

“It’s possible that cocaine production has increased, but we seize more because we are doing more operations. Our efficiency is greater now,” he said.

Sanabria says a main part of the country’s anti-drug strategy is to prevent cocaine-producing chemicals from entering. “We want to attack the drug-trafficker, not the coca grower,” he said, adding that impeding the entry of cocaine-producing materials has been so effective that many drug traffickers now produce marijuana, which doesn’t require chemicals.

The government decided to push for the industrialization of the coca leaf to export beverages, liquors, creams and other coca-based products.

Agronomist Germán Casassa is a partner of Coca Cookies, a small business that produces cookies with 8 percent coca flour and 92 percent wheat flour. The company produces 4,500 cookies in the shape of a coca leaf each month that sell for 4 bolivianos a dozen (about US$0.50)

He said that mostly foreign tourists, young people and students purchase the cookies. “They’re the most daring to try new products,” Casassa says. “The people know that coca is medicine, but they don’t know its nutritional value,” he said. “The government should give out information about how nutritious it is. That would help products like our cookies because there’s a lot of people who don’t like to chew the leaf.”

The local market is very weak and Coca Cookies barely breaks even with its production costs. The company needs to export to other countries if it expects to make a bigger profit, but that is not possible.

“We receive queries from Russia, China and India. But as long as the leaf is on the list of narcotics in the Vienna Convention, we can’t export,” he said.
The government has been trying to convince the international community that the coca leaf, in its natural state, is not a drug. Next year, the government plans to formally request that the coca leaf be removed from the list of Schedule I narcotics.

“Decriminalization is viable,” said Pérez optimistically.

But Casassa disagrees. He says that the government does not do enough to promote small businesses like his. “It’s true that the coca leaf is considered a drug by the Vienna Convention, but there are many countries that already allow our products to enter. We’ll have to look at the policy of each country and convince those who don’t want to import coca products,” he said.


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