U.S. plan to eradicate coca crops in Bolivia
by Benjamin Kunkel and Lisa Kunkel
In These Times magazine, May 13, 2002
The lush, rugged Chapare region of Bolivia is home to some
35,000 families engaged in growing coca, a plant that has been
cultivated here since human settlement. Over the past 14 years,
the Chapare has also been the site of U.S.-sponsored efforts by
the Bolivian government to eradicate coca. This campaign, now
called Plan Dignity, intensified in 1998 and seemed successful
in December 2000, when the Bolivian government announced the total
elimination of coca in the region.
But that was only if you didn't look too closely. A month
later, officials stated that 1,400 acres of coca had been missed.
Nine months later, the number of acres under cultivation was estimated
at 9,900, and the potential Bolivian contribution to the world
cocaine market was placed at 66 tons, or 6 million grams.
The other apparent success on this front of the Andean drug
war has been, in the words of the State Department, to "enable
farmers to support themselves and their families without the need
to cultivate coca." The State Department's annual International
Narcotics Control Strategy Report claims that 16,167 families
have received American assistance to grow alternative crops, such
as bananas, macadamia nuts and oranges. But the Bolivian government
gives the number as 12,000, and many families growing other crops
have preserved their coca as well. As farmer Jotge Cala llto says,
"Surely I'm among the 12,000 beneficiaries the minister has
indicated, but I can tell you that I still have coca because that
is our only source of survival."
Coca is a hearty plant, resistant to rotting and disease.
Its use and sale as a dried leaf is traditional and legal in Bolivia;
refined into cocaine, it has proved an enduringly popular product,
particularly in the United States. Coca thrives and so do its
markets-advantages not enjoyed by anything else Chapare farmers
In December, when growers' unions set up roadblocks to protest
the elimination of their coca and therefore their livelihoods,
they also dumped rotting pineapples, bananas and other fruits
by the roadside. These crops may be legal, but Bolivia lacks the
infrastructure to transport them reliably, and the international
economy-with its mixture of agricultural protectionism and unstable
commodity prices-can't ensure regular access to markets at a decent
As in the past, the roadblocks and other protests led to bloody
clashes between farmers and security forces. Tensions increased
when the government issued a decree banning the cultivation of
all Chapare coca. In the past six months, 10 coca growers and
four soldiers have been killed, and more than 350 protesters have
been injured or detained. Six deaths came over three days in January
with the closure of the Sacaba coca market, one of 16 markets
the United States would like to see closed. In a measure of the
farmers' desperation, many of the wounded were found to be suffering
from acute malnutrition.
At least three protesters were shot and killed by members
of the Expeditionary Task Force, an irregular group of 1,500 soldiers
devoted to coca eradication, under Bolivian command but receiving
their salaries from the Narcotic Affairs Section of the local
U.S. Embassy. These deaths are being investigated, not by a civilian
court and in accordance with Bolivian law, but by a military tribunal.
Such tribunals have yet to find any soldier responsible for the
use of excessive force or to discover a single instance of the
widespread use of torture noted by Amnesty International in 2001.
Yet the Bolivian government may have less tolerance for carnage
than the State Department does. On February 9, the coca growers'
unions and the government of President Jorge Quiroga reached an
uneasy peace agreement. The coca-growing ban has been suspended,
allowing farmers to grow some coca legally, and the families of
injured or killed farmers are to be compensated. Despite American
displeasure, Quiroga's government may not attempt to close more
coca markets before elections in June.
Still, the peace is fragile. The U.S. interest in the elimination
of coca and the farmers' need to subsist can't currently be reconciled,
and the Bolivian government sits anxiously in the middle, always
betraying either its people or its patron. The drug war continues
to torment Bolivia while retaining, for the American government,
its ritual character.
All efforts to eliminate coca in the Andean region thus far
have failed miserably. When asked about the supply of cocaine
to the United States, Randy Beers, assistant secretary for international
narcotics and law enforcement, says: "I cannot tell you at
this point in time, based on available information, that the amount
of cocaine that comes into the United States is less."