Monday, February 20, 2006

Shaping Bolivia's Coca Policy

During this past week President Evo Morales continued to show his support for Bolivia’s cocaleros, yet publicly he also displayed a more centrist tone towards the United States' efforts to limit coca production within this South American nation.

In a move that some called unconstitutional, Morales maintained his close ties to the cocaleros by accepting another term as leader of the country’s main coca-growers union. This will be Morales’ sixth consecutive term at the head of an organization that he has led for the past 18 years. Critics within the country contend that the position represents a conflict of interest with the potential for bias.

Yet Morales’ most recent actions have been disappointing to many of his cocalero supporters as his attitude towards the U.S. has been less harsh than during his days as a presidential candidate.

After meeting with U.S. Ambassador David Greenlee this past weekend, Reuters reported that Morales spoke of reaching "a common ground" with the U.S. in a story that was widely circulated by national media sources.

Bolivia's La Razon noted that Morales and Greenlee met for almost two hours discussing areas of mutual interest such as the defense of the democracy and the fight against drugs, corruption & poverty. Both sources state that neither country reached any agreement on a policy of eradicating excess coca plants - a fact that Morales cited as a potential point of conflict with the United States since it maintains a policy of 'zero coca'.

Since taking office Morales has stated that his policies will reflect "yes to coca, no to cocaine".

The Cocaleros and the U.S.

There is pressure upon Morales to increase the amount of coca that farmers are legally permitted to grow in Bolivia’s Chapare region, located in the cental part of the country. An agreement - unofficially recognized by the U.S.- was signed by former President Carlos Mesa in 2001.

The law permits families in this tropical region to grow no more than a cato of coca - approximately four-tenths of a acre. In the past growers have demanded an increase to the amount of coca that is permitted under Bolivian law.

Morales’ words to a group of cocaleros is Chapare last Saturday demonstrated that he was willing to limit coca production. He called for local farmers to adhere to the law. Morales suggested that obeying the law is the best way to support the government and get “the U.S. to stop talking badly about us.”

Claims issued by the U.S. government and the farmers in the Chapare region have long been contradictory. The U.S. states that most of the coca grown in the Chapare region is used for the illegal drug trade and cocaine production. Meanwhile poor farmers say coca is mostly used for traditional purposes as a natural hunger depressant and treatment against altitude sickness.

Some of these same cocalero voices also called for the deportion of the U.S. drug enforcement agents. However Morales declared that the U.S. can remain in Bolivia as long as the country’s laws and sovereignty were respected.

Bolivian troops assigned to eradicate coca fields halted their operations after Morales’s inauguration on January 22nd. The future role of the U.S. remains to be outlined by the current Bolivian government.

According to Jim Schultz of the Democracy Center, the U.S. views Bolivia as a "poster child” for its war on drugs and the U.S. government is reluctant to risk that progess. It credits eradication efforts undertaken since 1988 for taking Bolivia from the second largest coca producer to a distant third after Columbia and Peru.

Annually the U.S. spends more than $1 billion to fight cocaine in the Andean region. The U.S. State Department’s Andean Counterdrug Initiative includes Bolivia, Brazil, Ecuador, Panama, Peru and Venezuela and Colombia. Yet the U.S. remains the largest market for cocaine use, followed by Brazil.

Using the Coca Leaf

Currently the European Union is funding a study to determine the extent of coca's domestic and international markets. The study is scheduled to be completed in August of this year.

Officials in Morales’ administration believe there is a large Andean market for coca tea, known for its effectiveness against altitude sickness. Government officials are quoted as stating that they are currently looking towards countries like Argentina, India and China as potential consumers of coca products.

Morales announced plans to travel to India next month in order to obtain financial support from New Delhi for a project to make coca-based products and to secure funding for social programs.

Coca can be used in a number of consumer goods such as lotion, face cream, toothpaste, shampoo, soap and even flour. Its effectiveness as a stimulant and appetite suppressant has been known by indigenous people for centuries.

A Harvard study conducted in 1975 confirms that coca has beneficial properties. Researchers found that a 3.5 ounce coca leaf has 1,540 milligrams of calcium. The average glass of milk has 300 milligrams. The study also determined that coca contains protein, iron, phosphorus and vitamins A, B1, B2, E and C.

The findings provide some scientific support for comments made recently by newly appointed Foreign Minister David Choquehuanca. Dismissed by some as lunacy, Choquehuanca was quoted as saying that the “sacred leaf” is nutritious enough to be served in school breakfast.

For now Morales' supporters within the cocalero federation just want to secure the freedom to grow enough coca to provide for their families.