Bolivian coca production rising under Morales

A coca market in Villa Tunari, Bolivia.
A coca market in Villa Tunari, Bolivia. Jack Chang / MCT

SHINAHOTA, Bolivia — Vitalia Merida grows as much coca as Bolivian law allows her to — four-tenths of an acre, or a “cato,” as the measure is known here.

And that’s the problem. Because she obeys the legal limit, she’s stuck in dire poverty. The average yield from her field, hidden far back from a direct road, brings in just $70 to $100 a month.

Now Merida and many fellow coca farmers are looking for relief from Bolivian President Evo Morales, who once grew coca not far from Merida's little plot and remains the leader of the coca growers union in the Chapare, the tropical region that's the center of the fight to rein in Bolivia's production of the main ingredient in cocaine.

“We’re still planting the cato, but we want to grow more,” Merida said. “We believe President Morales is conscious of what we need and will help us.” Morales has called for expanding the permitted area devoted to the leaf’s cultivation from 30,000 to 50,000 acres and finding new legal uses for it — including turning it into toothpaste and tea.

The proposals worry U.S. officials, who’ve been pressing for Bolivia to eradicate more, not less, of its coca crop.

“Our belief is that if we could eradicate all coca, we could eradicate all cocaine, because it is the basic ingredient for cocaine,” said Christy McCampbell, the State Department’s deputy assistant secretary for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement.

On Monday, the State Department certified Bolivia as doing enough to fight narcotics to keep $34 million in U.S. anti-drug aid, though McCampbell called Bolivian cooperation “uneven.” She acknowledged that Bolivia appears to be on track to meeting its commitment to eradicate about 13,800 acres of coca this year.

The big unanswered question is whether an increase in coca cultivation will mean more cocaine production.

Morales’ administration has insisted that most coca leaf produced in the country is used legally, while opposition politicians accuse the government of turning Bolivia into a budding narco-state.

“With the United States, there are problems because there’s been an alarming growth in the production of coca and cocaine,” said Samuel Doria Medina, the head of the opposition National Unity party.

Morales’ anti-drug chief, Felipe Caceres, himself a former coca in the Chapare, said the government has made aggressive moves against cocaine manufacturing, seizing facilities and chemicals used to produce the drug. Bolivia’s anti-narcotics police find more than a dozen such factories every day, he said.

Col. Edward Barrientos, the commander of the anti-drug police in the Chapare, said his forces have seized about 1.2 tons of cocaine paste so far this year and will likely confiscate more than the 1.5 tons seized last year. They found only about 20 pounds of crystallized cocaine this year, suggesting that the paste is being processed elsewhere.

Much of Bolivia’s cocaine crosses into Brazil, Paraguay and other neighboring countries, with some ending up in Europe.

Caceres said the Bolivian government is also moving against illegal coca growers, eradicating coca found in prohibited areas such as national parks. Last September, soldiers killed two coca growers in Carrasco National Park.

Nevertheless, coca cultivation has increased, both in the Chapare, a tropical lowland that wasn't a traditional producer of coca until unemployed miners from the highlands began moving here 30 years ago, and in the Yungas region near the mountain capital of La Paz, where the crop traditionally has been cultivated. About 70 percent of Bolivian coca is grown in the Yungas region.

According to United Nations estimates, coca production in Bolivia grew by 8 percent between 2005 and 2006, to about 68,000 acres. In the Chapare, where much of the production is believed destined for cocaine manufacturing, production jumped by 19 percent in the same period, to more than 20,000 acres.

How much coca Bolivia might need for traditional uses, such as coca tea and leaves that indigenous Bolivians chew to relieve hunger and the effects of high altitude, is an open question. A much-anticipated European Union study of the issue has yet to begin.

In the meantime, the Venezuelan government is helping to fund Bolivia’s first industrialization plant in the Chapare, which will make coca-based tea and other products, even though U.N. rules prohibit Bolivia from exporting products containing coca-based alkaloids.

To Kathryn Ledebur, the director of the Bolivia-based nonprofit Andean Information Network, the Morales strategy may not have stopped cocaine production, but it has at least brought peace to the Chapare.

Five years ago, the Chapare was a major battleground between Bolivian troops and coca growers who resisted the U.S.-financed effort to eradicate illegal coca fields.

Ledebur pointed out that coca acreage had risen during the last years of the forced eradication campaign.

“Is drug control in a source country easy?” Ledebur asked. “No, it’s not. It’s always been complicated. But now, no one’s been killed this year, and coca is not the big dividing issue it was.”

Chapare residents such as Merida are hoping for better days.

With the government’s decision in 2004 to allow coca production here, even at reduced rates, calm reigns in the Chapare, and coca is grown and sold openly. Merida hopes that soon she’ll be able to plant even more of it.

“There are no soldiers who show up at 3 or 4 in the morning with tear gas to take away your crops,” she said one afternoon as she rested in the shade of a tree. “We have Evo now, and he’s protecting us.”