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Female Callahays Shamans - Photo by Oscar Ruiz

Mama Coca, a revengeful mother

If there is one single product that defines South America, it certainly is the coca leaf. Mama Coca, she is reverently called by the indigenous peoples that venerate her for the reinvigorating quality the leaf bestows on its consumers. Myths glorify her but never fail to mention her revengeful side. She will take whoever abuses of her up a mountain, from where, intoxicated by feelings of grandeur, that person will fall down as deep as the mountain climbed is high. These days there has been lots of talk about respect for the “sacred leaf”, but underneath the veneer of morality a worldwide war about control of the cocaine trade seems to override all non-commercial aspects, at the expense of the traditional users and producers of the leaf.

From coca use to cocaine abuse
From most valued trade commodity in pre-Incan times, to sacred leaf of the Incas whose soldiers it helped to conquer the continent, the Spanish churchmen accompanying the conquistadores recognized it as the leaf-of-the-devil. But without coca, the indigenous peoples would not extract the silver of the fabulous Rich Mountain of Potosi, so a deal was struck with the devil, to every body’s satisfaction, except for the Indians dying prematurely from exhaustion.
A few decades after the Wars of Independence forced the Spaniards to depart from South America, cocaine was extracted from the leaf by German scientists. Europeans and North Americans then vied for control of the trade of this hugely popular alkaloid. The North Americans won the contest, ostensibly to eradicate the plant from the face of the earth, in reality to allow privileged groups a share of the monopoly in its trade, in return for which they had to do Uncle Sam’s dirty work. The anti-Castro bands in Florida, the Nicaraguan contras and the Colombian paramilitary organizations are but a few examples of such outlaw groups.

It didn’t take long for the left-wing guerilla movements in Colombia and Peru to realize they also could finance their operations with the cocaine trade. Farther down south, in Bolivia, the commercialization of coca took a different path. There the destitute Aymaras and Quechuas had left their barren Altiplano highlands and moved down the eastern slopes of the Andes to colonize the tropical lowlands of the Cochabamba department known as Chapare. Growing rice, fruits and vegetables for their subsistence they soon realized that the cultivation of coca leaves for the production of cocaine was the only sure cash crop available to them. But whereas the FARC and Sendero Luminoso and other guerilla organizations never acknowledged their participation in the cocaine trade, the Bolivian coca farmers, known as cocaleros, claimed their inalienable right to cultivate the coca leaf. Theirs was an ancestral custom, part of their culture, and no gringo had the right to prohibit its use or its cultivation. In protest to the US-led eradication programs, the cocaleros transformed the coca leaf into the symbol of the liberation movement of the oppressed Andean nations. They used no guns; the resistance remained peaceful from the moment it started in the 1980’s until the day the movement took power in early 2006, under the leadership of the charismatic Evo Morales.

Is coca cocaine after all?
Days after Morales became the new president of Bolivia, he let it be known that he would not relinquish the presidency of the federations of cocaleros from the Chapare, the organization that had helped him to reach the top. It was his way of indicating that, as president of the nation, he would continue to defend the right of his people to cultivate coca, because “coca is not cocaine”, even if the leaves served no other purpose than the production of cocaine. So, while brandishing publicly the “sacred” coca leaf as a valuable medicine, as opposed to the aberration of cocaine “of which we are no part”, his people kept cultivating their leaves for that very product at the rate of over 21,000 tonnes a year, a full 94% of the Chapare production.  A confrontation with the US was inevitable, although it took 2 years before Evo asked then US ambassador Philip Goldberg to leave. The excuse was the fact that Goldberg had talked in the eastern city of Santa Cruz to leaders of the opposition, qualified “conspiring against democracy” by the Morales government. Not long after the ambassador, the DEA was also ordered out of the country: the time was ripe for drugs-control Bolivian style. What that meant became clear in early 2011 when René Sanabria was arrested in Panama with a shipment of cocaine and was immediately extradited to face justice in the US. According to U.S. court documents Mr. Sanabria was in charge of a special counter-intelligence office in the Interior Ministry in La Paz that was used to protect drug shipments and international drug cartels.

Although suffering a serious blow from Mr. Sanabria’s disgraceful capture, the Morales government was more successful on other fronts. At its request, the UN permitted Bolivia in January 2013 to grow coca leaves for traditional use among its local population. Even though the US lobbied strenuously against this exceptional status for Bolivia, in the end only 15 nations voted against it, far short of the required 61. And as far as the cocaine market is concerned, Bolivia definitively put an end to the US monopoly by starting high level meetings with Russian officials on the acquisition of arms and cooperation in drugs control programs. Although the stated aim is the elimination of the illegal cocaine trade, the real objective is to bring the lucrative pharmaceutical coca industry under exclusive control of the Bolivian state. Ideally, this would be done through the proper UN devised mechanisms. Sources within the Bolivian government estimate this process might take up to five years. In the mean time, the Chapare coca farmers will have to continue cultivating for the illegal market, an activity so far made easy by the complete lack of trustworthy data on the real needs of the market for traditional consumption. 

Facing the facts
But this lack of data changes with the recent presentation, on October 12th 2013, of a long overdue study on the scope of national traditional coca consumption. The study – commissioned by the EU but done in its entirety by Bolivian government agencies - presents a figure of 3 million consumers, which independent sources claim to be on the high side. According to the same study, approximately 14,000 hectares are needed to provide the necessary amount of leaves. Even if one accepts these high figures at face value, they clearly illustrate that with about 30,000 hectares being cultivated nationwide, about half of the national production of the leaf is deviated to the illegal market. For being a signatory to the UN Conventions on narcotic drugs, Bolivia is obliged to actively eradicate “surplus” coca. But instead of eradicating the surpluses produced in large part by the coca farmers of the Six Federations of the Chapare, of which he is president, Morales has the eradicating forces go to the smaller regions of traditional coca growers, who are recognized by law, but badly organized and unable to mount a proper defense of their rights. The bizarre result is that the government that made the world community accept the traditional use of coca now persecutes the very farmers that traditionally and legally produce the leaf for this use, while protecting the very growers it pretends to combat.

An honest appraisal of the need for change
By commissioning the study, the European Union has put the Morales government and its political power base in an awkward position. It wouldn’t be a surprise if in the near future Bolivia would turn completely to Russia as its favorite partner in the area of drugs control, following in the footsteps of many other Latin-American countries. There is not much the Europeans or the North Americans can do about that, unless they are willing to come to terms with the fact that the prohibition of cocaine has been unable to stop its use and has served obscure and very undemocratic interests. South Americans have complained for a long time about the unfairness of actual drugs policies, which are caused by the insatiable appetite for these substances in northern markets, while putting the onus of the repression policies on the southern countries. It might just be that the new geopolitical realities will force northern consumer societies to start a healthy debate on the underlying reasons for cocaine use and abuse and the desirability to change the repressive approach for a policy emphasizing public health.