Bolivia reaches goal of reducing land used to grow coca

Although a portion of Bolivian coca leaves are sold to produce cocaine in the illicit drug market, traditional medical uses of the plant help overcome fatigue, hunger, altitude sickness and other ailments. (Credit: Nick Jewell/Flickr)

In the latest evidence of the country’s success, a recent report from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) found that the area of land dedicated to coca leaf cultivation in Bolivia dropped from 20,400 to 20,200 hectares – 1 percent – from 2014 to 2015.

A one percent drop seems insignificant, but it means Bolivia has nearly reached the government’s coca crop-eradication goal of 20,000 hectares by 2015.

“Wide-scale changes like this take time, and Bolivia is making slow but steady progress in the right direction,” said Kathryn Ledebur, director of the Andean Information Network (AIN), in an interview with Humanosphere. She explained that in the context of reducing national coca production, massive or rapid changes aren’t necessarily a good sign.

The report also said that Bolivia is in third place with 15 percent of the world’s coca cultivation. Peru is second with 33 percent and Colombia first with 52 percent. But unlike the world’s top two coca producers, Bolivia allows the limited cultivation of coca, which has been a staple of Andean life for 4,000 years.

Bolivia began to use its current model in 2004, when the Bolivian government established the cato accord, allowing farmers to legally grow a limited and regulated quantity of coca leaves. Compared to forced eradication of coca, as seen in other countries in the region, the Bolivian government has worked with community leaders to understand the needs of the farmers and their communities.

Over the years, this coca allotment has helped improve farmer’s financial stability and allowed them to experiment with growing different types of crops.

“For farmers in the permitted production zones, [who are]the majority, a dramatic increase in coca prices has more than offset any potential losses from reduced growing,” explained Ledebur. Since the farmers who grew coca in national parks or in unauthorized areas have now lost the right to cultivate the plant, the average price of coca leaf in Bolivia is about nine times higher than in Colombia and about 2.5 times higher than in Peru, according to the recent UNODC report.

Still, the policy has faced opposition over the years. Critics point out that only 65 percent of the coca grown in Bolivia is commercialized for traditional purposes, according to most recent statistics, with the remainder sold to the illicit market for use as the raw material of cocaine.

Bolivian authorities have also faced fierce opposition from the U.S., Insight Crime reported, especially as Bolivia is is now mainly a transshipment point for cocaine and other drugs destined for other countries in the region, as well as for the United States, Europe and Asia.

President Evo Morales, a former coca grower himself, made efforts this year to crack down on Bolivia’s illicit cocaine industry and the growing presence of transnational drug-trafficking organizations. In an attempt to heighten control of the country’s borders, Bolivia and Peru signed an agreement this May to try to close down the air bridge linking the two countries’ trafficking organizations.

An estimated 200 tons of cocaine is flown into Bolivia every year from Peru, according to Insight Crime, and anti-narcotic agents have found more than 1,000 clandestine airstrips in the last three years along Bolivia’s borders.

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Lisa Nikolau

Lisa Nikolau is a Madrid-based reporter for Humanosphere, covering gender equality, indigenous rights and poverty in Latin America and worldwide. Find her on Twitter at @lisanikolau, email lisa.nikolau@humanosphere.org or see her latest work at www.lisanikolau.com