Editorial: Drug War's Backfire  

Editorial: Drug War's Backfire  
Posted by FoM on January 21, 2001 at 07:58:07 PT
By Mike Williams, American-Statesman 
Source: Austin American-Statesman 
The large wooden press that stands in the square of this rural village is a symbol of the central role that coca has played for centuries in the culture and economy of South America's Andean highlands. But for years, thanks to a U.S.-backed eradication effort, the press has stood silent, no longer used to bale coca leaves. A cooperative Bolivian government has outlawed coca in this region, dispatching teams of soldiers to scour the countryside and hack down the bushy green plants grown on small plots owned by poor farmers. 
``We used to trade the coca for potatoes and other vegetables, but now we don't have anything,'' said Jacinta Morales, 73, whose eyes fill with tears as she surveys the dead coca bushes lying in heaps in her barren fields near Villa Tunari. ``Now there's no work here. My son went to the city to try to find work but there is none. All of the campesinos (peasants) here are crying.'' Eradicating coca plants has become a central part of the U.S. war on drugs, with millions of U.S. taxpayer dollars annually poured into the Andean nations to stop the cocaine pipeline at its source. Last year, the program escalated dramatically as Washington pledged $1.3 billion to war-torn Colombia, where farmers raise coca under the watchful eye of leftist guerrillas who finance their insurgency with drug profits. Bolivia is much further along in its eradication effort. The nation of 8 million people, about 65 percent of whom live in poverty, provides troubling parallels that should serve as warning signs for U.S. policy-makers. With $800 million in U.S. money in the past decade, Bolivia has slashed its illegal coca crop from more than 100,000 acres to less than 5,000. Bolivian President Hugo Banzer pledges that the entire illegal crop will be wiped out by the end of his term next year. The effort has won Banzer praise from Washington, but it has carried a high price. Eliminating coca has stung the economy of the impoverished Chapare region of central Bolivia, where Morales lives. Alternative development programs aimed at getting farmers to switch to crops such as bananas or pineapples are scrambling to fill the void, but peasant leaders question whether other crops can be successful without more infrastructure to get the crops to markets in Chile and Argentina. Even more worrisome, as coca acreage has plummeted, social tensions in Bolivia have increased. Last year, outraged coca farmers -- called cocaleros -- joined groups upset about other issues in a blitz of protests that brought Bolivia's economy to its knees and threatened the stability of Banzer's government. Protesters in the Chapare region blocked one of Bolivia's main highways, paralyzing the bus and truck traffic that carries much of the nation's commerce, while bloody clashes with the army left a dozen people dead. ``The U.S. eradication program is provoking our culture,'' said Evo Morales, a fiery cocalero leader who is not related to Jacinta Morales. ``Coca is part of our identity, and to try to wipe it out is repression. They have criminalized the cocaleros. If the U.S. wants to stop the growing of coca, it's going to set off a war.'' An uneasy truce has prevailed since late October, when thousands of cocaleros gathered for protests in Cochabamba, the largest city near the Chapare. No new clashes broke out, but the tensions are still simmering. ``Something has to be done,'' said Marcelino Mamani, 60, a protester who grew coca for 30 years before his crop was eliminated. ``There is no market for other products. They have to listen to us. You can't let us all just die of hunger.'' Long before the first Spanish conquistador appeared searching for gold, the indigenous people of the Andes were growing coca, whose leaves are still chewed as a mildly narcotic antidote to the ravages of hunger, bitter cold and altitude sickness. Under the Spanish it took the name ``hoja sagrada,'' or sacred leaf. 'It's Good for You' Even today, visitors arriving at posh hotels in La Paz, the world's highest capital city at 12,000 feet above sea level, are often given a cup of ``mate de coca'' -- tea made from coca leaves -- to ease altitude sickness. The leaf is sold legally on the streets of La Paz and is chewed by peasants everywhere. ``It's good for you,'' said Liliana Lopez, an Indian woman who chews the leaf as she sells tourist trinkets on a La Paz street corner. ``Everyone here uses coca. It is only in the United States where you use it as an illegal drug.'' Indeed, Banzer's eradication plan calls for some 30,000 acres of coca in the Yungas region near La Paz to remain in production for domestic consumption. But the campaign to stamp out coca in the Chapare region has spawned smoldering resentment and economic disruption. A hilly, densely forested region that is more than 12 hours by bus over bone-jarring roads from the capital, the Chapare became a large-scale coca-growing region in the 1980s after thousands of peasants laid off from work in the nation's mining industry moved here. With little agricultural background, they turned to coca for the same reasons Indians throughout the Andes have always raised it: It grows like a weed, it can produce three crops a year, and there's a ready market. Cornelius Suarez, 43, grew up tending his father's coca plants on a small but thriving farm just outside Villa Tunari. Raising three crops a year, he earned as much as $1,000 annually, but insists he grew coca only for domestic consumption, not for sale to drug traffickers. Last fall, soldiers brandishing machetes hacked down Suarez's crop. ``They destroyed it all,'' he said, shaking his head as he stepped over the dead, bushy plants. ``They talk about other crops, but that's all on paper. They haven't given us anything. I can grow millions of pineapples here, but who is going to buy them?'' Seeking Recognition: President Banzer recognizes the problem, and recently called on the United States and other donor nations to repay his country for the economic damage it has suffered in eliminating the illegal coca crop. ``It's time the world took stock of the work we have done and translates it into investment to generate employment and replace jobs and revenue that were eliminated along with the coca,'' he told Bolivians in his annual New Year's address. Officials from Bolivia's alternative development program point to statistics that show weaning the cocaleros to other crops is working -- although slowly. Since 1986, alternative crop acreage -- bananas, pineapples, heart of palm and other plants -- has shot up by 186 percent. Some 17,000 families are now receiving alternative development funds in the Chapare region, many selling produce to three firms that export bananas and two that ship heart of palm. Steady progress is being made on Bolivia's infrastructure problems. The United States has funded the construction of some 30 bridges and the improvement of more than 500 miles of unpaved roads, along with the paving of nearly 50 miles of highways. But in a country as poor as Bolivia, where the daylong ride from the remote Chapare to the market in Cochabamba takes a toll on passengers as well as perishable crops, the challenge is extreme. Poor farmers will likely continue growing coca as long as they can get away with it. Mike Williams may be contacted at: mikew Source: Austin American-Statesman (TX) Author: Mike Williams, American-Statesman International StaffPublished: January 21, 2001Copyright: 2001 Austin American-Statesman Address: P. O. Box 670 Austin, Texas 78767 Fax: 512-445-3679 Contact: letters Website: Website: Articles - Bolivia
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Comment #1 posted by Ethan Russo, MD on January 21, 2001 at 08:47:29 PT:
No Cocaine Addicts in Bolivia
Coca leaves are a genuine herbal medicine. I have used them to fight altitude sickness in the Andean highlands. They are harmless, nutritious and beneficial in context. Cocaine is a useful pharmaceutical. Cocaine, especially the form of free base known as "crack" happens to be abused by some people in the USA and Europe. Whose problem is this? Why are South Americans being punished and their ecosystems ravaged because a hated minority in our country has a problem with a refined product that happens to come from a plant? Our policies are the height of hypocrisy, and will work for coca as well as they have for the opium poppy and cannabis, which is to say, not at all. The War on Drugs is a crime against humanity and sin against nature. It must be stopped.
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