The U.S. "War on Drugs"
Is an Assault on South America's Poorest
by Benjamin Dangl, AKPress
www.alternet.org, April 12, 2007
[Editor's note: This is excerpted
from Dangl's new book,"The Price of Fire: Resource Wars and
Social Movements in Bolivia.]
I met up with coca farmer Leonilda Zurita
and her colleague Apolonia Sánchez in the Chapare town
of Eterazama in February 2006. Both of them wore the wide, pleated
skirts and white, wide-brimmed mesh hats common to indigenous
women in the Chapare. Zurita, a motherly but fierce social movement
leader, answered my questions with enthusiasm. Her charisma and
strength of spirit helped make her one of the most distinguished
organizers in the country, as well as an alternate senator in
the National Congress. Sánchez is a member of the union
led by Zurita and, in addition to producing coca, sells clothes
for a living. They brought me to the town coca market, which is
organized and monitored by the local union.
The market in Eterazama, situated on a
large concrete expanse underneath a corrugated metal roof, has
been operating for the past 25 years. Inside, the air was thick
with the rich, pungent odor of the coca leaf. Green piles of coca
up to four feet high were spread across the floor. Farmers' children
played in it, rolling around and throwing leaves at each other
while families unloaded tightly stuffed sacks of coca from cars
and bicycles to empty out onto the market floor.
Like elsewhere in the Chapare, Eterazama
is surrounded by small coca farms. The tropical climate allows
farmers to produce coca year-round, harvesting their crop every
three to four months. Most of the region's coca is produced by
small farmers who travel for miles by bike, car and on foot to
sell their leaves at legal, union-controlled markets in towns
like this. Coca purchased at town markets is usually resold in
larger city markets. The union controls sales as tightly as possible,
and those caught selling coca outside the legal, union-controlled
markets are not allowed back.
For many farmers in the Chapare, the alternative
to growing coca is unemployment and hunger. "We need to take
care of our coca as if it were a child so that the whole family
can survive," Zurita said. "The coca gives us food.
It takes care of our education and healthcare because here education
and healthcare are not free. When we sell coca, we are able to
buy school supplies for our children so they can study."
After my trip to the Eterazama coca market,
I took a bus to visit Zurita's home in the Chapare. The vehicle
was teeming with sacks of rice, cooking oil, and children in white
school uniforms. I squashed myself into the pile of people and
bags as we barreled down the dirt road, past a military encampment
where hundreds of security forces were stationed in tents for
eradication efforts. We passed countless coca fields and homes
with the green leaf drying in front yards.
Her house was one of the last before the
road turned into jungle foot paths. Like other homes in the area,
it didn't have electricity or running water. The two-story structure
was about 10 by 20 feet wide and had no walls or floor. A loft
constructed of logs lashed together and secured with wooden pegs
was topped by a roof made of intertwined leaves. Though Zurita's
family lives in conditions like thousands of other poor coca farmers,
she still remains connected to the outside world. When we arrived,
her cell phone was charging in her husband's car and rang constantly.
As she spread out rice to dry in the sun, and her husband chopped
wood, she answered interview questions on the phone. Afterward,
I asked her who the call was from. "Someone from BBC, London,"
she replied nonchalantly.
The next day we bushwhacked through a
thick forest behind the house to the family coca field. The main
pathway was flooded, so we hacked through swampy areas, pushing
through vines and clouds of insects. After a couple of miles,
the shaded forest opened up to a wide, sunlit coca field. After
packing golf ball-sized wads of coca in their cheeks, Zurita and
her husband began to spray pesticides on the coca from plastic
packs on their backs. Chewing coca, they explained, was something
they did everyday to give them strength while they worked.
When Zurita had finished spraying a section
of the crop, she sat down in the shade. Between gulps of water,
she told me of the mobilizations she participated in as a union
leader. She saw her life shaped by her struggle against militarization
and coca eradication. In a women's march from Cochabamba to La
Paz from December 1995 to January 1996, she told me, coca farmers
demanded an end to the violence in the Chapare. They also demanded
a meeting with President Sánchez de Lozada's wife, who
refused. "They didn't understand our situation, and so we
began a hunger strike, which lasted 12 days," she said.
Through coca unions, numerous blockades
and protests have been organized to defend the farmers' right
to grow coca. A highway that goes through the Chapare links the
economically booming city of Santa Cruz to Cochabamba and La Paz.
Blocking this important route puts pressure on the government
to meet cocalero demands. Blockades constructed out of dirt, rocks,
logs and tires are sometimes sustained for weeks, or are spontaneous
and mobile, harder for security forces to break up. Blockade committees
are developed by coca unions with a structure and leadership in
place that allows blockaders to coordinate their work and activities.
Yet coca unions have done much more than
protest. Zurita said that a goal of her work is "to bring
the women ahead, by organizing, empowering and orienting them
and setting up seminars. [Many] women in the Chapare don't know
how to read or write. So the best school for the women is the
union. There, we have empowered people. We learn about which laws
are in favor of us and which are not. This has all shown us that
the union organization is important to defend mother earth, defend
the coca and defend our natural resources "
The sun grew hotter. Her husband disappeared
to another part of the coca field and Zurita reached for more
coca. She knows the reality of the Chapare well, but she has a
second life that also occupies her time. This other life is one
of constant travel, union meetings, protests, speeches and interviews
with the media. "Sometimes I go for weeks when the only housing
I have is in the buses," she said. "I have to be in
one meeting one day and have to travel by night to get to the
next one the following day." In the coca field, this part
of her life seemed distant. Somehow she lives with a foot in both
realities: "I produce coca for my children, because if I
die tomorrow, they will be able to continue to eat, thanks to
this bit of coca."
Benjamin Dangl is the author of "The
Price of Fire: Resource Wars and Social Movements in Bolivia"
(AK Press, March 2007). For more information on his book and current
book reading tour, visit www.boliviabook.com
War on Drugs