Military Sowed Conflict for Bolivia’s Coca Conundrum: traditional production vs drug trafficking

The EU is funding a $1.3m anti-drugs centre in Yapacani, a city on the edge of Bolivia’s Chapare region. Chapare is a major production area for coca, the raw material used in cocaine. Whilst the anti-drug centre will focus its work against traffickers, indigenous people worry that their involvement in coca production for traditional purposes will see them targeted.

Chewing coca is part of Bolivia's cultural heritage
Chewing coca is part of Bolivia’s cultural heritage

Coca production and consumption has been a feature of Andean life for thousands of years, with the plant used both as a medicine and as a stimulant against altitude sickness. Whilst limited coca production is permitted for some indigenous groups in Bolivia, the line between legal and illicit harvesting has become increasingly blurred, particularly as some farmers have become involved (forcibly or otherwise) with drug cartels.

The inauspicious-looking coca plant
The inauspicious-looking coca plant

The involvement of indigenous populations in the cocaine industry became embedded in Bolivia during the period of military rule between 1964 and 1982:

With military collusion, a trade in coca leaf was developed by drug cartels which paid poor Indian peasants to grow the traditional leaf for processing into cocaine in Colombia…Many desperate ex-miners and landless peasants migrated to the eastern lowlands, especially the Chapare region near Cochabamba, to grow coca leaf for the drug trade (Williamson, 2009, p. 604)

The economic devastation caused by military rule left many Bolivian peasants and itinerants with no option but to involve themselves in the drug trade. This subsequently precipitated the intervention of American-backed president Hugo Banzer in a brutal ‘cocaine war’ to eradicate coca production sites. (Patton, 2002, p.3)

Whilst the intention to eradicate Bolivia’s link with the cocaine trade was understandable:

Eradication hit the peasant growers very hard because compensation for the loss of their crops was inadequate and alternatives fetched much lower prices. (Williamson, 2009, p. 605)

Evo Morales, Bolivia’s current president and former leader of the coca-producing federation, has tried to allow increased indigenous production whilst simultaneously limiting the influence of the drug cartels. Such a goal, unfortunately, is almost impossible, as drug gangs and indigenous coca-producers have become inextricably linked in the cocaine supply chain.

Evo Morales has blamed drug use in the West for causing Bolivia's coca conundrum
Evo Morales has blamed drug use in the West for causing Bolivia’s coca conundrum

To eradicate coca production altogether would alienate the indigenous base on which Morales rests his legitimacy. To allow it to flourish inadvertently increases the power of the cartels.

It is an unenviable situation, one caused by Morales’ predecessors and Western habits, where the president is torn between choosing one of two evils or allowing the destabilising status quo to persist.

Sources

Patton J, ‘Counterdevelopment and the Bolivian Coca War’, The Fletcher Journal of Development Studies (Volume XVII, 2002)

Williamson E, The Penguin History of Latin America (St Ives, 2009)

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Author: Stefan Lang

An interested observer of current affairs, researcher and writer

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