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PER - La feuille de Coca
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In Andean countries, and particularly in Bolivia, coca is a sacred plant, a traditional medicine and a source of income. Its eradication is seen as a ’cultural genocide’. Andean peoples were using this hardy plant for a variety of ritual and health purposes for thousands of years before white men first learned to extract cocaine from it. Rich in vitamins and minerals, the leaves have traditionally been used to treat ailments ranging from dysentery to altitude sickness.

The vast majority of Bolivians still chew them daily, mixing them with ash to create an anesthetic effect on the stomach to ward off hunger. Death, marriage, and almost any other social or religious ritual here will include an offering of coca. "Guard its leaves with love," warns Legend of Coca, the 800-year-old oral poem. "And when you feel pain in your heart, hunger in your flesh and darkness in your mind, lift it to your mouth. You will find love for your pain, nourishment for your body and light for your mind." But the seers also foretold that white man would find a way to subvert their "small but strong" plant: "If your oppressor arrives from the north, the white conqueror, the gold seeker, when he touches it he will find only poison for his body and madness for the mind."

What the seers did not predict was the scale of the backlash. White man duly succeeded in extracting the 0.5% alkaloid cocaine from the coca leaf at the end of the 19th century Eradication attempts first began in 1949 after a study by a North American banker, Howard Fonda, claimed that the chewing of the plant was "responsible for mental deficiency and poverty in Andean countries". Soon afterwards, in 1961, the United Nations placed coca on schedule one, branding it one of the most dangerous and restricted drugs. Of course, this had no effect on US cocaine use, as executives snorted lines while the ghettos opted for its cheaper and more dangerous relative, crack. By the 80s, more than half the world’s cocaine was being consumed by the superpower, which has just 5% of the global population. Bolivia, one of the world’s poorest nations, saw an opening in the market and filled it. It was to become the world’s second largest producer of coca and cocaine paste.

Coca, a hardy plant ideally suited to tired or eroded soil, could produce three or four harvests a year. Now forced to grow beans and oranges instead, as part of a US-funded "alternative development" plan, Zenon, a former coca farmer must feed his family on a fraction of his former income. "You can fill a lorry with oranges and not sell any of them at market, but coca always sells like hot bread," he says. "I was making 150 bolivianos (about 22 US$) a week before they cut down the coca. Now we sometimes struggle to make 20 (3 US$). How can you feed a family on that?" Other families still risk everything for a higher income. A few miles down the road, at the military base in Chimore, a 16-year-old local girl is being paraded before the press. Alcira Marin has just cracked after three days of interrogation and admitted to smuggling coca paste inside her body. The evidence lies in 40 pellets wrapped in yellowed Clingfilm, on a table beside her. "I was paid 300 bolivianos (about 43 US$) to do it," she mumbles. "I didn’t know I would die if one broke inside me." Under the country’s harsh and US-influenced Law 1008, she faces between five and eight years in prison.

There is no doubt that the net is tightening, but the effect may simply be to drive up prices and encourage new markets elsewhere. Anti-drugs police estimate that the little more than three tons of pasta base will leave the Chapare this year, but this alone will generate some $4m, thanks to a 300% price increase over the last three years. Critics of the eradication policy argue that it will simply drive producers further into the Bolivian Amazon region, or elsewhere in South America where an estimated 2.5m square miles lie ripe for production. "It’s simply the law of supply and demand," says Kathryn Ledebur, co-coordinator of the Andean Information Network, a human rights watchdog publicizing problems with the eradication effort. "It’s pointless trying to stop production in the producer countries - the place to fight it is where the market is." The bigger picture is indeed discouraging. While Bolivia has fallen from second to third largest cocaine exporter behind Colombia and Peru, there has been almost no reduction in the amount of cocaine exported to the US and Europe, according to the annual report of the International Narcotics Control Board. The explanation is that production has increased in Brazil and Colombia, where the governments have little control over their tropical territories. "It’s an obvious case of the balloon theory in operation," says Ledebur, who is an American. "You squeeze it in one place and it’ll just expand in another unless you tackle root demand. Instead we’ve got a war focused on the poor people, and it is not working." On a terraced hillside in the fertile Yungas valleys on the other side of the country, a small boy dressed in traditional poncho and woolen cap kneels to make his offering to Pachamama, or Mother Nature. As he unwraps a cloth full of coca leaves, lights an incense burner and sprinkles alcohol on the ground, other children come forward to sing in Quechua. It is part celebration, part pre-emptive protest. The families of this region, the last remaining place of legal coca cultivation in Bolivia, know things could easily go the way of the Chapare for them. While Law 1008 currently provides for 12,000 hectares for traditional coca growing and distribution in the Yungas, US officials have been arguing that less than half that is needed for chewing or ritual uses.

"There is evidence that Yungas coca is being diverted to the illicit market for conversion to cocaine products," says the latest US embassy report on counter-narcotics. Local people believe that if they give in now, the North Americans will simply carry on demanding more until nothing is left. Eradication was supposed to begin in 2002, until the country exploded in violent protests over the issue in April. Coca growers dynamited the only road into the region, and the eradicators backed off - until next year. A tense impasse continues, but nobody has any illusions that they will be back. Javier Castro, curator of the Coca Museum in La Paz, is one of many who have fought to have the coca leaf recognized as a potential health product rather than a schedule one drug. Western backpackers here drink coca tea constantly to ward off altitude sickness, and a Harvard University study found that 100g of Bolivian coca more than satisfied the recommended daily allowances of calcium, iron, phosphorus, vitamin A and riboflavin. Contrary to popular belief, the burst of energy it gives comes not from the 0.5 cocaine content - this is in fact destroyed by saliva in the digestive tract, which is why cocaine users must snort or inject - but from its conversion of carbohydrates into glucose, and its stimulation of the respiratory system. With at least 30 coca products already available in Bolivia, ranging from toothpaste to pick-me-up pastilles, campaigners argue that there is considerable potential for salvaging the livelihoods of many thousands of poor farmers by marketing the plant in the west. But the only company, which has managed to get round the ban, is the Stepan Company of the US. In one of the howling ironies of the coca war, it legally imports 175,000 kilos of Chapare coca each year to manufacture, among other things, a de-cocainized flavoring for Coca-Cola.

By Nick Thorpe The Guardian, August 2000

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