SHINAHOTA, Bolivia -- Snaking up the forested hillside behind Tomás Inturias’s barn in the tropical region of Chapare, a narrow path strewn with mossy rocks leads to a clearing. There, rows of whippy coca bushes - the base ingredient for cocaine - are basking in the sun.
“You can touch it if you like,” he said, surveying the young plants fondly. “In another month and a half, it’ll be harvested.”
For the past year, coca growers like Inturias had feared that Bolivia’s pioneering legal coca-growing scheme - and their livelihoods - might be on the chopping block if centrist candidate Carlos Mesa became president after the October 18 election.
Coca leaf is sacred in indigenous culture, used in everything from traditional ceremonies to teas for altitude sickness. But its use for cocaine is what has prompted the government to crack down on growers in the past.
Internationally, coca leaves are treated as a controlled substance in the same way as cocaine. But they can’t get you high. The effects are more like a cup of coffee than a line of coke. Chewing coca leaves and drinking coca tea keeps you awake, deadens hunger and alleviates altitude sickness.
Inturias was keen to stress that he didn’t just grow coca, stopping frequently to point out his many other crops, including mandarins, bananas, avocados and ginger. He’s no fan of the cocaine trade. But, like most growers, he needs coca to make ends meet.
“If that gave good fruit, we’d dedicate ourselves to that,” he said, pointing to a cacao tree whose pods are processed into chocolate. “But it’s got some kind of disease, something’s attacking it, I can’t control it. I used to produce loads of fruit in the past. But I’ve got old, and [the trees] have got older, too.”
Some of the coca produced in these legal crops does end up in the international cocaine trade, and critical international observers have labelled Bolivia a narco-state in the past because of its legal coca-growing plots. But crucially, violence related to the drug trade dropped after legal coca production was first allowed in Chapare in 2004. The conflict had been the result of forced eradication policies and harsh drug laws imposed at the behest of the U.S.
Inturias, who is now 67, experienced this first-hand. At the time, he was raising his family. Soldiers came to his land and ripped his coca plants from the ground. “They eliminated everything, down to zero. I had to look for plantlets and start my field over,” he said.
He wasn’t the worst-hit: forced eradication resulted in serious human rights abuses. “They massacred people,” he said, which is backed up by human rights observers.
Between 1997 and 2001, 33 coca growers and 27 members of the security forces were killed and 570 growers injured. Legal coca cultivation in Chapare was first introduced as a stopgap solution by the government of Carlos Mesa to stem those human rights abuses and spiralling protests. The government of Evo Morales, Bolivia’s former leftwing president and a Chapare coca grower himself, went much further and expanded the legal growing agreement into a progressive social control policy. He kicked out the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration in 2008.
Bolivia - unlike other major drug cultivation countries such as Mexico and Colombia - has in recent years had one of the lowest homicide rates in Latin America, and much of that is likely due to its progressive policy towards coca.
In November 2019, Morales was forced to resign after controversial electoral fraud allegations sparked a wave of deadly protests. He was replaced by a far-right interim government that immediately scapegoated coca growers in Chapare, who are overwhelmingly loyal to Morales, violently repressing them and calling them drug traffickers and terrorists.
Coca growers, known in Spanish as cocaleros, feared that if the MAS didn’t return to power in the election, the legal production scheme might be eradicated. That would take away their livelihoods as the country is grappling with a COVID-induced recession.
“There was a lot of repression against coca growers during [the interim government of Jeanine] Áñez, and the fear was that the U.S. would have a greater influence [in a Mesa government],” said Linda Farthing, an independent scholar and journalist who has studied coca in Bolivia.
But a surprise electoral comeback for Morales’ leftist Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) party has them breathing easy again.
Like Inturias, Raquel Mamani from the Centrales Unidas Federation, a coca-growers and small-scale farmers association, remembers the brutality of forced eradication only too well.
“Men couldn’t sleep in their homes because the military could arrive at any moment,” she said. “They beat the men, and the women, too. A lot of young women were raped.”
Mamani was speaking to VICE World News during a congress for women leaders of coca growing unions, an hour’s drive from Inturias’s land. Inside, the sweet, grassy scent of coca hung heavy in the humid air. Women sat at one end of a long table, deep in discussion, switching fluidly between Spanish and the indigenous language Quechua.
That Chapare is Morales’ stronghold was in plain view - from the women’s traditional skirts and lace blouses to the walls of the building, everything was the peacock-blue colour of his party, the MAS. Outside, a busy street market was lined with stalls where women sold MAS T-shirts, baseball caps, and flags with the faces of new president Luis Arce and his vice, David Choquehuanca.
About 46,000 Chapare coca growers produce under the scheme where production levels are controlled by the local community. This is in sharp contrast to Peru and Colombia, the continent’s largest cocaine producers, where coca plantations are still destroyed by security forces.
Growers in Bolivia have to join a biometric register via their unions. They are each allowed one 1600m2 patch of coca, called a cato. “Respecting the cato, that was Evo Morales’ constant message,” said Jaime Fuentes López, who worked on developing the scheme. “There shouldn’t be free cultivation, but there shouldn’t be a zero-coca policy either.”
If unions catch cocaleros exceeding the limits, they can be suspended from the union. In extreme cases, their plants can be removed and they can lose their land. Coca cultivation isn’t allowed in national parks, for instance. “There, it’s straight-up eradication,” Fuentes Lopez said.
Experts recognize that the area of coca planted in Bolivia exceeds what’s required for legal uses, and some legally-grown coca almost certainly supplies the cocaine trade. In 2018, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime flagged that only around six percent of coca produced in Chapare was passing through the legal market in Sacaba where it’s supposed to be sold.
That doesn’t mean the rest is all being made into coke, though. Farthing said that many sellers probably just skip the legal market because it’s more convenient to sell the leaf where it’s consumed, rather than having to go out of their way to travel hours to official, legal markets.
With the interim government out, the sense of jubilation and relief at the coca congress was as palpable as the midday heat. “They had us satanized, they tormented us, there was a lot of persecution,” Mamani said. “We aren’t terrorists, we’re producers of coca.” But there was a profound sense of grief, too.
On November 15 2019, just three days after Áñez came to power, police and military opened fire on coca growers who were marching to Cochabamba.Ten protesters were killed, including two from Mamani’s federation, and over 100 injured. The outgoing legislature recommended that Áñez and several members of her cabinet and the security forces be put on trial for human rights abuses, but this will be decided by Arce’s government.
Inturias’s rocky plot slopes towards the mountains, where the foothills swoop upwards into dense, impenetrable jungle. The one-cato limit means growers with large, fertile plots don’t flood the market, keeping prices up for small farmers like him. He also hopes that social control limits cocaine production, which he refers to diplomatically as “value addition.”
“[The drug trade] is like a giant octopus in the world,” he said. “It has some big politicians in its tentacles, and judges and prosecutors, too. Then there are businessmen.”
Mamani and Inturias both say they would like to see the legal coca plot allowance increased under Arce. One way of doing that without feeding the cocaine industry or depressing prices is to make coca into other legal products. Several coca liqueurs are already sold internationally. Coca sweets are on sale in La Paz, and Mamani says other products are in the works, such as skin creams and powdered drinks. But the volume these can realistically absorb is limited because coca leaf is still broadly illegal internationally.
But at least for now, there is relief here in the tropics, as Bolivia moves forward with its recently-installed leftist government.
“People are happy,” Mamani said, smiling. “That fear that was tormenting us is gone.”