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.


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)


Chile, Bolivia and Peru: territorial disputes and the ‘nitrate war’

The International Court of Justice has ruled on a maritime territorial dispute between Chile and Peru which concerns a large swathe of Pacific Ocean known to be host to abundant fish stocks. A redrawing of the maritime boundary has favoured Peru in terms of territory gained, although the area with greatest economic potential remains in Chilean hands.

This one of several territorial disputes in the region with Peru and Bolivia also contesting Chilean ownership of mineral-rich land along the coastline that was initially lost during the War of the Pacific (1879-1883).

Chile has retained most of the gains it made during the War of the Pacific
Chile has retained most of the gains it made during the War of the Pacific

Chile has always been known for its abundant copper resources and it remains one of the world’s prime exporters of the metal. In the late 19th century, however, copper production was falling as rudimentary extraction technology failed to sufficiently exploit Chile’s mines. In reaction, the Chileans began to take control of nitrate fields in territory nominally under the sovereignty of their weaker neighbours, Bolivia and Peru.

Nitrate was highly desired across the globe during the late 19th century for its use as a fertilizer. The dispute over the rights to the nitrate resources hijacked by the Chileans in large part contributed to the War of the Pacific. It resulted in an emphatic Chilean victory, deprived Bolivia of an access-point to the sea, and fixed the borders of western South America for the future.

Chilean nitrate colony
Chilean nitrate colony

Because of the UN Convention on the Law of the Seas (UNCLOS), which calculates a state’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) from its coastline, the territorial changes encompassed by the War of the Pacific have taken on greater significance. The Peruvians estimate that the annual catch in the territory disputed with Chile is £121m, a not inconsiderable sum.

Historical reasoning often forms the basis for modern territorial claims. The Chinese, for instance, partly base their claim over the entire South China Sea on the settlement of tiny islets by mariners in the fifteenth century. Some states in Africa, meanwhile, refuse to acknowledge territorial borders imposed by the forces of colonialism, instead abiding only by traditional areas of influence and settlement.

The reaction to the ICJ’s decision has so far been muted, although it is likely to be hotly disputed in the days to come. Both the Peruvian and Chilean governments have promised not to dispute the outcome and have urged their citizens to respond with caution.

The dispute arises from differing interpretations of each state's land border and its subsequent 200 mile EEZ
The dispute arises from differing interpretations of each state’s land border and its subsequent 200 mile EEZ

When economic dividends and nationalist concerns are at stake, however, such sentiments can only be admired.