Coca Production and ‘Progress’ in Bolivia

Doña Silvia, of the Federation of Organic Coca Producers, has to walk for hours and hours on foot through the jungle to reach her coca plantation. Roads, hospitals and schools promised by the government haven’t yet reached her community. Some, like Don Emilio, even allege that there has been intimidation of the Federation’s members – along with people calling them drug traffickers, Colombians, Peruvians, or even guerrillas. When the army tried to eradicate Vandiola’s coca plantations in 2006 (just as Evo Morales’ government assumed power), his Federation resisted and some people, including his own cousin, were killed.


Morales has indeed assisted coca producers after the discrimination and violence they faced in the 1990s and early 2000s, but not all have benefitted. The State has apparently been ‘disproportionately generous’ with cocaleros (coca producers) from the Six Federations of the Tropics of Cochabamba – the union Morales still leads today. In their region of Chapare, new roads are being constructed all over the place, along with schools, clinics, and new stadiums (many named after the president). Previously, this region had been marginalised and almost entirely ignored by the State.


The election of MAS, and Morales as Bolivia’s president, has been significantly influenced by the coca trade. However, this trade has also been very controversial because of the international cocaine trade’s need for coca production. In 1988, the MNR government tried to regulate the trade by approving a law (Law 1008) that legalised the production of coca in zones defined as ‘traditional’ by the law (i.e. where it had been cultivated since before Spanish colonisation). Outside these zones, production was seen as illegal, and the aim was to gradually help cocaleros to cultivate other crops (or to simply uproot trees without compensation).


As Chapare, Morales’ own region, was categorised as an illegal zone, cocaleros in the area soon began to resist government interference. In the absence of any realistic alternative source of income, they mobilised in an attempt to change the law. After years of failed activism, they started the MAS party and, with help from the delegitimisation of the traditional political parties and the subsequent power-void created during the turbulent period between 2000 and 2005, Morales became the first indigenous president in Latin America.


Since MAS came into power, Bolivia’s poor have clearly benefitted, and some neoliberal reforms have been overturned. Some state-owned enterprises – previously privatised – were partly re-nationalised, and salaries have risen slightly. Nonetheless, many workers, especially in rural areas, continue to live on or below the poverty line. The State, ultimately, continues to control society, and the police and the army are still used to defend government decisions. And when policies are driven by market logic or economic considerations, they do not always represent the voice of the people.


The TIPNIS highway, for example, is set to cross through a major Amazonian rainforest reserve. The opposition it has faced, and the pressure exerted as a response, shows the government’s willingness to use its power to implement market-friendly decisions without the consent of local indigenous communities. Although progress for the Bolivian people is the stated aim, resource extraction and capital accumulation often lead to collateral damage.


Don Emilio believes such decisions are the result of a ‘union dictatorship’, saying that, while the government states that “decisions have to come from the grassroots, not from above”, his Federation’s input is ignored. He also affirms that, when complaints are made, his cocaleros are soon called “medialunistas” (or right-wingers).


While Morales is under a lot of international pressure to reduce coca production, he cannot afford to lose the support of those who voted him into power. Implementation of Law 1008 could perhaps help to reduce production, but would disadvantage his own supporters in the process. The cocaleros of Yungas Vandiola, working in a ‘traditional zone’ (like those in Yungas La Paz and Apolo), fear the government will protect Chapare’s production and instead try to eradicate coca in other regions. This fear arises from the fact that the government recently sent its forces to Apolo to eradicate crops – inevitably leading to clashes with local producers (and casualties) in the process. The government, however, claims that they were Peruvian drug traffickers.


The government’s dilemma was cemented by a 2009-2011 study on coca production and consumption, co-funded by the EU, which didn’t reveal the government’s desired results. They had hoped to prove that the demand for coca-related products (traditional, cultural, medicinal etc.) had risen, which would justify keeping production at the same level. However, the results didn’t do this, and the government has subsequently tried to delay the publication of the report.


The report apparently shows that there is only demand for half of the 46.469 tons of coca leaves produced in the country. Faced with both demands from his support bases and international pressure to reduce coca production, Morales finds himself in a difficult position. This situation also helps to explain the paranoia of cocaleros in ‘traditional zones’, who fear that Morales will protect the members of his own Federation at the expense of others.


The creation of a Federation of organic coca leaves was an attempt by cocaleros in Vandiola to both defend their rights and to offer a chemical-free alternative to what is produced by most other cocaleros. As they can get a fair price on the organic market, there is no reason for them to resort to using chemicals or to sell to drug traffickers.


Another problem for Vandiola’s inhabitants is that, in 1991, the surrounding area was designated a protected national park. As a result, the people who have been producing coca there for generations and generations also fear the government could claim they have no right to produce coca in the national park. Recently, the Deputy Minister of Social Defence and Controlled Substances, Felipe Cáceres, has indeed said that there are three national parks in the tropics where illegal production of coca has begun in the past three years – including the area of the Federation of Producers of Organic Coca in that list. These producers, however, claim they have lived and produced in the area for generations, and that their production is protected by Law 1008.


Bolivia’s politics is heavily affected by international pressure, and the biggest challenge for Evo Morales’ government will be to deal with the over-production of coca whilst ensuring that the rights of Bolivian cocaleros are respected. If decisions are not taken from the grassroots, however, this is likely to be an issue that will lead to further confrontations between citizens and the State.


Adapted by Oso Sabio from an article by Leonidas Oikonomakis originally posted at


About Ed Sykes

Independent journalist. Co-founder of Phoenix Media Co-operative. Author of Rojava: An Alternative. Ex-Canary editor and writer (2015-2020). Aka 'Oso Sabio' - see @ososabiouk on Twitter.
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