HTTP/1.0 200 OK Content-Type: text/html Bolivian Coca Farmers Defy US-Bolstered Ban on Crops
Pubdate: Sun, 23 Mar 2003
Source: Boston Globe (MA)
Page: A4
Copyright: 2003 Globe Newspaper Company
Author: Reed Lindsay, Globe Correspondent


HAPARE, Bolivia - Two years ago, the US State Department praised
Bolivia as "the model for the region in coca eradication," saying
that illicit production of the leaf used to make cocaine had fallen to
negligible levels in this jungle basin. US-funded Bolivian
antinarcotics forces wiped out 70 percent of the nation's illegal coca
fields between 1995 and 2001.

But the war on drugs in Bolivia has sparked a backlash: tens of
thousands of defiant coca growers who refuse to cooperate.

While they can do little to stop the pace of eradication, the coca
farmers, called cocaleros, have doggedly replanted fields after
antinarcotics troops destroyed them. As a result, coca production in
the Chapare jungle of central Bolivia, one of the country's two
principal coca-growing areas, has increased from 1,400 to 13,000 acres
from 2000 to 2002, according to US government statistics.

Meanwhile, the farmers, operating in tight-knit syndicates, have
brought the government to its knees by blockading the nation's most
important highway with logs, rocks, and arched, tire-popping nails.
Authorities have had limited success dispersing the cocaleros, who
defend the highway and their coca fields with sticks, slings,
dynamite, booby traps, and pre-World War II-vintage Mauser rifles.

In January, nine civilians, a police officer, and a soldier were
killed in clashes between cocaleros and authorities.

Fiercely anti-American, the farmers might represent the greatest
threat to the fragile mandate of President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada,
who is clinging to power after a police strike in La Paz, the capital,
last month turned violent and resulted in 33 deaths.

"There is no other force in the country that has the coherence, the
discipline, and the ability to mobilize like the cocaleros," said Ana
Maria Romero de Campero, the nation's ombudswoman, who has mediated
negotiations between the government and coca farmers. "Not giving the
government some room to maneuver with the cocaleros is tantamount to
causing its downfall."

Caught between the farmers' ultimatums for partial coca legalization
and US insistence on continued eradication, the government appears to
be looking for a way out. In recent weeks, authorities have hinted
that they may be willing to bend to demands to legalize and regulate
the production of coca in Chapare.

According to Ernesto Justiniano, vice minister of social defense, the
government is considering a proposal that would allow cocaleros in
Chapare to continue cultivating a limited amount of coca for six
months. During that time, a study would be conducted to determine
domestic demand for the coca leaf, a mild stimulant that is a staple
among Bolivia's rural poor and indigenous.

Bolivian law allows for the cultivation of 29,000 acres in the rugged
region of Los Yungas, some 150 miles northeast of La Paz, while
mandating a US-promoted policy of "zero coca" in Chapare.

If the study showed that domestic demand exceeded the amount
cultivated in Los Yungas, it could potentially open the door to
legislation allowing for the legalization of coca in Chapare.

For its part, the United States continues to oppose any pause in coca
eradication. "It clearly sets a bad precedent," said a US Embassy
official in La Paz, who asked not to be identified. "Once you permit
any legalized coca, it would probably multiply and never stop."

Looming behind any decision by the Bolivian government are
considerations related to the nearly $200 million in annual
counter-narcotics and development aid from the United States and the
sway Washington holds in international-lending organizations.

The coca farmers, most of whom chew leaves from their harvest daily,
insist that much of the coca they grow is not for conversion into
cocaine but for traditional use, bought by poor people who cannot
afford the more expensive coca from Los Yungas.

For the vast majority of families in Chapare, coca is their only
nonsubsistence crop, and their earnings go toward food, clothing, and
other necessities.

A US-financed program called PDAR, for the Bolivia Regional Program
for Alternative Development, that encourages coca farmers to grow
other crops has had lackluster results. According to the program
spokeswoman, Claudia Vargas, more than half of the some 12,000
families participating in the program also grow coca.

"We haven't been successful in putting money in people's pockets,"
Vargas said. "Coca is much more profitable than other crops, and
people here have no conception of its illegality."

For more than a month, some 200 Bolivian soldiers have been living in
Victor Franco's backyard. The soldiers, trained and financed by the
United States to eradicate coca in this jungle basin, arrived in
helicopters and set up camp a stone's throw from Franco's house, a
dirt-floored structure made of weathered wooden planks and a rusted
sheet metal roof.

At first, they left Franco's coca plants alone, instead eradicating
the crops of other families in the area. Then, within a few days of
the harvest, the soldiers chopped down Franco's coca.

It is the fourth time his crop has been eradicated, said Franco, 42,
his cheek bulging with coca as he squatted recently in the shade of a
mango tree.

"How can they cut down all our plants?" his wife, Gomercinda Franco,
sobbed in her native Quechua language, wiping away tears with her arm.
"I have eight children. What are we going to live on? All our coca is

Experiences like these, shared by many families in Chapare, have
served to strengthen the resolve of the cocaleros and to unify the
syndicates. Meanwhile, repeated human-rights abuses by police and
soldiers have further entrenched the farmers, who have responded to
clampdowns by forming self-defense committees and at times with
violence of their own.

The farmers have won sympathy from the majority poor and indigenous
population in this landlocked nation of 8.4 million. Last July that
sympathy propelled cocalero leader Evo Morales to within 42,000 votes
of the presidency.

"The war on drugs is failing," said Morales, an Aymara Indian.

"There is a legal market, legal consumption for coca here," Morales
said. "It could be industrialized, and this is what the United States
doesn't understand. They think they can spend billions of dollars to
reach zero coca, but this isn't a solution."
- ---
MAP posted-by: Richard Lake