Bolivia Wiping Out Coca, at a Price

New York Times, 23 Oct. 2000

Leonardo Marca is down to his last acre of coca, and he has no intention of giving it up without a fight.

When soldiers took machetes to his fields two years ago, he begged them to leave him something to support his family. Perhaps it was the big military tattoo on one arm, left over from his army days, that persuaded the soldiers then to spare him all that is left now, a single patch covered by a thick jungle canopy.

"I know they are coming back," said Mr. Marca, 43, a man of sheepish manner but fiery words. "The government says it will take our land and send us to jail if we persist in growing coca. We will have no alternative but to defend ourselves, like in Colombia."

The coca farmers of the Chapare region of central Bolivia are down to what amounts to their last few acres after an aggressive, mostly American-financed campaign to eradicate what was once the world's largest coca-growing area. In the last three years, thousands of families who once grew coca have fled the Chapare and thousands of others have grudgingly given up coca to cultivate legal crops.

"We are not going to retreat one centimeter," said President Hugo Banzer in a speech last week. "Our firm commitment is to leave Bolivia without drugs by 2002, totally outside the drug circuit."

American and Bolivian officials say Mr. Banzer is nearer than ever to fulfilling that goal, which would make Bolivia the first country in the history of the modern drug wars to effectively eliminate itself as a producer. But that victory has brought a steep cost here and few of the benefits American officials had hoped for.

Mr. Banzer's government has been rattled by explosive protests and simmering small-scale insurrections, and the effect on the overall supply of cocaine reaching street corners in the United States, the main consumer of the drug, has been virtually nil.

As the coca fields have shrunk drastically, the resistance of a hard core of about 2,000 families has grown more fierce. Coca farmer union leaders have stepped up threats to farmers who have chosen to switch to other crops. Coca growers have set booby traps in the remaining coca fields and even ambushes, arming themselves with old Mauser rifles left over from the Chaco War of the 1930's in a last-ditch effort to stop eradication.

One antinarcotics policeman was found buried the other day with acid poured on his face, and four members of the security forces and the wife of an antinarcotics policeman have been missing for two weeks and are presumed dead.

About 25 coca growers have been arrested in recent weeks.

A three-week-long road blockade by the coca growers that ended last week did serious harm to American and Bolivian efforts to encourage alternative agricultural development. Losses to alternative development projects came to $1.25 million, according to the American Embassy, and hard-earned relationships with Argentine and Chilean importers have been badly strained.

Meanwhile, Chapare coca growers have been hoarding coca seeds, which can sprout into flowering bushes in just two and a half years, with an eye toward returning to cultivation at the earliest opportunity.

What the coca growers are waiting for, they say, is a change of government in 2002. One leading candidates, former President Jaime Paz Zamora, used to wear a pin on his lapel showing a coca leaf as a sign of resistance to Washington.

Several major leaders of the coca growers are threatening armed conflict if they are not permitted to grow at least small amounts of coca.

Most military experts do not believe the coca growers can put up serious military resistance, and they point to a small rebellion in 1998 that was easily put down. But with other Aymara-speaking Indian peasant groups becoming increasingly militant over a variety of land issues, Bolivian officials express concerns that peasant and labor turbulence could threaten the country's economic and political stability.

Only three years ago, coca fields were as plentiful in the sweltering mountain valleys of the Chapare as cornfields in Kansas. So much money flowed that peasants were buying French perfumes and cognac at the kiosks that had sprouted up in this farming town and some even sent their children to private schools.

But those days are over. Now, as the local economy has stumbled, peasants are once again drinking cheap fermented corn juice as their beverage of choice and neighborhood stores say sales are off by half.

More important, over the long term, many of the coca farmers show no interest in giving up coca for good and cultivating alternatives like black pepper, pineapple and heart of palm.

The coca growers are primarily former miners who lost their jobs 25 years ago when the government privatized the mines. They have little farming experience. The other coca farmers are peasants who fled the highlands because of drought and soil erosion. There, they grew corn and potatoes far easier crops to grow than the tropical fruits that have been promoted as alternatives.

The transition from cultivating coca, which needs almost no tending, to learning how to deal with fertilizers and pesticides is daunting for many. Coca is also far more lucrative than fruits and vegetables. Moreover, waiting for traffickers to come by and transport their coca harvest is a lot easier than finding credits and ways to get legitimate crops to markets.

Moreover, coca strips the soil of nutrients. The land of the Chapare, never that fertile to begin with, is so poor from years of coca growing that the farmers have a tough time competing with farmers from other areas.

"We lack roads, much of the land isn't good and there isn't enough financing or government help," said Moisés Alguilar, 52, a former coca leader. "And coca is a tradition. Its part of our culture." As he spoke, Mr. Alguilar reached into his pocket to pull out a plastic bag full of coca to chew.

"After coca comes what?" asked Carlos F. Toranzo Roca, a Bolivian economist at the Latin American Institute of Social Investigations in La Paz. "To sustain zero coca, you need an economic plan. And we still haven't seen that plan."

Nevertheless, of the 78,400 acres in the region under coca cultivation at the beginning of 1998, the aggressive eradication campaign has left only about 4,000 today, according to the American Embassy. Even those are due to be eliminated soon. Drug Enforcement Administration agents have been cut from 35 to 2 as Bolivia, once the second leading producer after Peru, has become a minor player.

Despite the costs to the Chapare region and even Bolivia as a whole, the shift has had little or no impact on the overall supply of cocaine being brought to markets, as traffickers have nimbly shifted growing and production to Colombia over the last five years.

Bolivian officials promise that virtually no coca will be left in the Chapare by January and that they will then move on to the Yungas region outside La Paz, a smaller but more traditional coca-growing area with 6,125 acres of illegal coca plants in tiny plots.

The Yungas, rugged and rainy, will potentially be more difficult to denude of coca than the Chapare. The peasants there are very attached to their crops, which serve traditional medicinal and ceremonial purposes. And the region is served by a single-lane mountain road that officials worry will be an easy site for ambushes.

By Clifford Krause

© 2000, New York Times