Coca Controversy: Bolivia and the War on Drugs

By Xie, Nancy | Harvard International Review, Winter 2011 | Go to article overview

Coca Controversy: Bolivia and the War on Drugs


Xie, Nancy, Harvard International Review


The coca plant, or Erythroxylum coca--the source of cocaine--has long been a controversial crop. Over the past two decades, the United States has pushed for rigorous coca eradication policies in Latin America to stem the supply of illicit cocaine to US soil. Yet for thousands of rural coca growers, this cash crop is a source of medicine, and more importantly a means of survival. As a result, they have led a series of violent resistance efforts against eradication. These domestic problems have been especially acute in Bolivia, the poorest country in South America but also the world's third largest producer of coca. With the current Bolivian government supporting local growers through opposition to anti-narcotics policies, however, an easy solution can hardly be found--for the War on Drugs has become an intense war of politics with severe economic consequences.

During the Clinton administration in 1995, the United States announced that it would only certify Bolivia as a coca grower under certain conditions, including immediate eradication of 1,750 hectares (ha) of coca and submission of a long-term eradication plan. The provisions of this "ultimatum" were soon made clear once the United States threatened to stop aid and multilateral bank loans to Bolivia. Pressured to comply, the Bolivian government had no choice but to adopt more aggressive counter-narcotics policies. In a mere five years, coca production fell from 48,600 ha in 1995 to only 14,600 ha in 2000, according to the UN 2010 World Drug Report.

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While the United States insists on the success of coca eradication, these policies resulted in severe consequences for coca farmers in the Northeast regions of Chapare and Yungas, the chief coca-producing areas. In 2001, more than 35,000 coca-growing families were forced into abject poverty following government demands to destroy their crops. The Human Rights Watch and the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) have even cited incidents of human rights violations by the government's anti-narcotics police, such as arbitrary detention and use of force. Ironically, many of these allegations have come from the very countries and groups that pressured Bolivia to increase eradication without taking economic and cultural influences into account.

As eradication continues, many farmers have attempted to cultivate alternative crops, but their attempts have been generally futile for several economic reasons. First, coca can be harvested several times a year and at a faster rate than most other crops. Second, farmers have a traditionally secure market for coca due to the well-established relationship between producers and buyers, for the coca has long played a major role in the local economy. Third, and most importantly, these small-scale farmers simply cannot compete with large corporations in exporting agricultural products at low prices. Although the United States continues its rhetoric in support of alternative agriculture in Bolivia, it simultaneously closes its markets to those agricultural products. Thus, many local farmers have little options other than selling cocoa to drug dealers on the black market.

Recent years, however, have witnessed better times for these coca farmers, ever since President Evo Morales took office in 2006. …

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