The Leaf that Shakes the Tree

The Price of Fire by Benjamin Dangl is an excellent introduction to Bolivia’s recent history of resource wars and social movements. It is helpful that Dangl sets the events of recent years in the context of Bolivia’s longer history of exploitation, oppression and marginalization. He also sets many of the issues in a broader Latin American and global context. While Dangl explores the role of the United States, International Financial Institutions(IFIs) and multinational corporations in Bolivia and Latin America, I though it would be pertinent to focus on his chapters on the conflict over coca and the privatization of water. If you’re interested in more information on how the IFIs and United States manipulate the politics and economics of Latin American countries to their own benefit, you should read the rest of the book.

This is not a war against narco-traffickers, it’s a war against those who are working to survive. -Leonilda Zurita (cocalera union leader)

Coca has been a part of the religious and cultural practice of Andean indigenous peoples forever, certainly long before someone discovered it contained the key ingredient for a highly addictive drug known as cocaine. Coca leaf is not cocaine. In order to make cocaine it must be first turned into a paste through a chemical process. This paste is what gets exported from most developing countries. Like many other natural resources, the countries that produce the raw materials do not benefit from the processing of that material, even in the case of illegal drugs. Then the coca paste must be further processed before it becomes the white powder that Hollywood actors and supermodels snort for breakfast (with apologies to the glitterati).

Prior to 1952 the coca leaf was used in wine and medicines all over the world. Then the United Nations labeled it “an addictive substance detrimental to health” giving it the same status as cocaine. Bolivian president, Evo Morales, has been campaigning recently to get this status changed citing the WHO, who lists its numerous health benefits. I can personally attest that coca tea was very helpful with the altitude sickness we experienced in Cochabamaba when we first moved to Bolivia. I’ve also chewed the leaf on a number of occasions and have not experienced any deleterious effects. Just to make sure we’re clear… Coca leaf is NOT cocaine. They are related the same way that potatoes are related to vodka. There are essential differences between raw crops and the alcoholic or illegal substances that can be produced using them.

In contrast to its use in developed countries, in Bolivia coca is used “to relieve hunger, fatigue, sickness, to increase oxygen flow to the brain at high altitudes, and as a religious and cultural symbol” (37). It is an integral part of the fabric of Bolivian and Andean society. Coca is used in religious rituals by indigenous Quechua and Aymara people. In the Chapare region, where much of Bolivia’s coca crop is grown, cocaleros (coca farmers) depend on coca for survival. There have been many attempts to supplant the crop with others to reduce production, but they have all failed for various reasons, including poor growing conditions, lack of technical knowledge or infrastructure, difficulties in transportation or storage, and lack of a market. Coca continues to be the most economic crop to grow in this region.

So, why does the United States focus its efforts in the “War on Drugs” on small producers who have a legitimate market and no alternatives for survival? Why not focus on the middle men producing coca paste, trafficking cocaine through Latin America and the United States? God forbid that we focus attention on the demand coming from “developed” countries which has not decreased one bit during the decades of the War on Drugs! Here are Dangl’s thoughts on why Washington uses this strategy,

Washington’s construction of the War on Drugs in Latin America coincided with the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of the subsequent “threat” of communism in Latin America. The War on Drugs conveniently replaced the US-backed war on communism as a reason for US military intervention in Latin American countries.

Obviously this is part of a broader perspective on US intervention and role in global affairs, but I have yet to hear any better explanation for this misguided and ineffective policy. The reality on the ground of the eradication policy has been brutal and bloody. Many of the military leading the eradication programs were trained at the School of the Americas (SOA) at Fort Benning, GA (which has since changed its name to something harder to remember). Graduates from this US-sponsored military school have gone on to high offices in Latin American dictatorships and are responsible for numerous human rights violations. Notorious Bolivian dictator Hugo Banzer was inducted into the SOA’s Hall of Fame. Bolivia sent an average of 155 soldiers annually to the SOA between1967 and 1979. (46) Militarization of the Chapare region has resulted in 60 deaths of cocaleros since implementation in the 1980s, and few of the perpetrators have been brought to justice (45). Leonilda Zurita a union organizer has been “jailed and harassed by police and military forces in anti-narcotic efforts.” (40) Another coca farmer, Isaura, said, “If you sit in the middle of the coca field while they come to eradicate it, they will kill you. You have to just sit and watch silently.” (45-46) Dangl ironically points out the difference between US policy and the reality on the ground.

[M]any security forces chew coca during long days of eradication. A commanding officer at an eradication camp [said], “You can’t really expect these guys to have the stamina to continue eradicating without the coca leaf.” Police and military forces also chew coca during street confrontations with protestors. (44)

Current President Evo Morales rose through the ranks of the coca unions in the Chapare, experiencing first hand the violence of the eradication policies, before becoming elected president. Morales was helped in the previous 2002 elections by US Ambassador to Bolivia Manuel Rocha. In response to Morales’ claim that the US Embassy threatened to kill him, Rocha denied the accusation and went on to say, “Evo Morales also said…that he’ll stop the US anti-coca program. I want to remind Bolivians, California will only buy your natural gas if Bolivia is not involved in cocaine. Citizens of Bolivia, open your eyes. The future of your children and families is in your hands” (51). This is not an isolated threat either. USAID has refused to work with cocalero unions further undermining their own programs to implement alternative development strategies.

While policies have changed drastically in recent years under the Morales administration, the legacy of militarization and eradication continues. There is a cooperative eradication effort in the Chapare region now between growers and security forces to adhere to previous president Carlos Mesa’s policy of one cato (1,600 square meters) of coca per family. One cato brings in $70-110 per month. Not much for a family of any size to live on. While conditions have improved in the Chapare, the Yungas growing region continues to experience tension under the eradication program, because of resistance to the one cato policy. Morales also approved actions on September 29, 2006 against coca growers in the Yungas where two growers were killed.

Coca continues as a symbol of resistance to US imperialism, as well as of indigenous, religious and cultural heritage. It seems misguided and wrong-headed to punish people who have a legitimate economic and cultural claim to the coca plant for the actions of others who have turned it into a highly addictive drug. As I said before, this is what happens in the global economy raw materials are extracted from developing countries in order to benefit developed countries whether the products are legal or illegal.

0 comments on “The Leaf that Shakes the Tree

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: