An Andean woman from Cha'ri, about 150 kms south of Cusco, Peru, performs a coca leaf offering before starting her textile work
An Andean woman from Cha'ri, about 150 kms south of Cusco, Peru, performs a coca leaf offering before starting her textile work on 28 January, 2008. Photo: JAIME RAZURI/AFP via Getty Images.

How Legalizing Cocaine's Base Ingredient Could Save Indigenous Lives

A top presidential candidate has proposed bolstering the country’s tiny existing legal coca industry in an effort to help reduce harm to locals in the major cocaine producing nation.

When Herasmo García Grau set out in the thick Amazonian forest near his home in Ucayali, Peru, he planned to bring back the fruits of a hunt for his family. But the 28-year-old indigenous leader never came home. His body was found the next day: he had been tortured and then shot. 

García Grau had been active in defending the local forests from criminal activity such as illegal coca leaf production and logging, local leaders told environmental news site Mongabay soon after his death in late February. They think drug traffickers were responsible for his murder. He was the second indigenous leader killed in the area in just twelve days, and at least seven people are believed to have been murdered in Peru’s Amazon under similar circumstances since the start of the pandemic. 


Peru is the world’s second largest producer of coca after Colombia, with 54,655 hectares in 2019, according to figures from government drugs watchdog DEVIDA, compared to Colombia’s 154,475 hectares. Coca production and drug flights have increased in the remote Ucayali department and neighbouring regions in recent years. 

Most Peruvian coca growers are not murderous drug barons, but small or medium-scale farmers who produce the leaf because it will always find a ready buyer and generate the modest income they need to feed their families. They are vulnerable to violence: in 2019, two coca growers were shot and killed during a government eradication operation in San Gaban, near the Bolivian border. 

Peru has had some legal coca production since 1979, when the government decided to allow the cultivation of 22,000 hectares for traditional uses. Now, one of the leading presidential candidates Pedro Castillo, a populist left-leaning school teacher with Perú Libre, is running on a manifesto that proposes to support coca growers by conducting a census of producers and boosting coca processing for nutritional and medicinal uses. Meanwhile, some union leaders are hoping to emulate a much larger, community-controlled coca programme in neighbouring Bolivia. 


But despite the advantages shown by the scheme in Bolivia, the complexities of Peruvian society mean change won’t come easily.

Coca leaves have been used in the Andes for thousands of years to dull hunger, cure sickness, and boost energy levels, especially by workers doing hard manual labor. They are either chewed or made into tea. Considered sacred, they are also used as offerings in ceremonies, and it’s because of these traditional uses, as in Bolivia, that Peru allows some legal production.

The country’s legal coca crop is supposed to be sold to the state-owned National Coca Company (ENACO, by its Spanish initials), which sells the leaf for traditional uses and makes them into products such as liqueur, teas, and flour. It also sells the leaves to the U.S. company Stepan Co, which removes the cocaine alkaloids and sells them to Coca-Cola.

However, ENACO only buys a small fraction of Peru’s legal coca. The country’s legal market is around 10,780 tonnes a year, but ENACO’s 2016 purchases accounted for just 17 percent of that, according to a 2017 DEVIDA report. Some of the rest is sold informally for traditional uses, but overall, most Peruvian coca probably ends up in the illegal drugs trade, say observers. Annual illegal production was around 87,303 tonnes in 2015, the report said. 


One hurdle facing growers who want to join the legal market is a lack of demand. Only around 14 percent of the population consumes coca leaf, according to a 2019 survey by Peru’s National Institute of Statistics. Although anyone can buy it, people associate it with rural labourers, according to Edgard Gutiérrez Vargas, manager of traditional commerce at ENACO. 

“The people who chew it are those who are born into that culture,” he said, adding that many city dwellers don’t know how to use coca. (Actually chewing them creates a bitter mush  - it’s more a question of forming a wad in your cheek.)

Neighbouring Bolivia has successfully tackled human rights violations linked with coca by implementing a progressive scheme whereby coca production is controlled by the local community, instead of the security forces. 

Growers are each allowed one 1600m2 coca plantation, known locally as a cato. They need to sign up through their union, which tracks them through a biometric register and carefully monitors crops to make sure they’re sticking to the limits. 

This approach has drastically reduced human rights abuses and violence related to coca production. A 2015 Open Society Foundations report found that forced eradication in Bolivia’s Chapare region caused 60 deaths and hundreds of injuries between 1996 and 2004. From 2006-2014, once the social control scheme had been implemented, those figures fell to just six deaths. 


Critics of the Bolivian scheme have pointed out that the country produces more coca than the country needs for traditional uses, and some of the legal production probably ends up in the drug trade. This prospect could spook some Peruvian policy-makers.

Nonetheless, the EU has supported the scheme in Bolivia with infrastructure, technical support and training, and suggested that a similar model could work in Peru. Some Peruvian union leaders have visited Bolivia to learn how the system works, and by 2020, the Peruvian government was considering applying it in some areas. It would mark a considerable liberalization compared with Peru’s current small legal scheme, which functions via a complicated licensing system.

However, there are some major differences between coca growing in Bolivia and Peru, as a recent comparative study has pointed out. Unlike in Bolivia, where production is concentrated in two main regions of Los Yungas and Chapare, Peru has 16 different growing areas and communities don’t always see eye to eye. For instance, why would cocaleros with large plantations agree to drastically reduce the size of their crops to accommodate a system where each farmer only gets a small patch?

What’s more, Peru’s coca growing unions are less powerful politically than their Bolivian counterparts, which control land access. “The Chapare union governs almost every aspect of a person’s life,” the study states. Bolivia’s former President Evo Morales, who ruled the country for 14 years, rose to power as a coca union leader. Peruvian producers have never had this level of government involvement, and many have a deep-seated distrust of the state.


Despite these challenges, entrenched issues with Peru’s current policy make it clear that change is needed. The government’s strategy of ripping illegally-grown coca from the ground could actually be making deforestation and indigenous land conflicts worse. Growers whose crops are eradicated seek increasingly remote, inaccessible spots to replant them, according to Alvaro Pastor, a sociologist at the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru who contributed to the comparative report. 

“I think the national drug policy hasn’t adequately evaluated the impacts of its policy of constant eradication over the past 20 years,” he said. “They just think that Huayllaga and Monzon [major coca cultivation spots in Peru] are no longer the drug hubs they used to be. They’re not measuring where the coca that was there has gone [been displaced to].”

Like Bolivia and Colombia, Peru has long attempted to persuade its coca growers, known as cocaleros, to substitute their plants for crops such as coffee. But these efforts, known as alternative development or crop substitution, have been plagued with problems.

Marianne Zavala, a coca growers’ union leader, said that attempts were made to develop bell pepper and peppercorn crops in her community. “We get excited about the proposals, so we take out loans,” she said at a virtual side event to a UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs session, organized by drug policy and human rights NGO Andean Information Network. “Then those groups disappear and we’re left with the debt, without knowing where to sell the product.”


In recent years, plummeting coffee prices have pushed farmers back towards coca. Dr Thomas Grisaffi, a lecturer in human geography at the University of Reading and one of the authors of the comparative study on Bolivia and Peru, said growers were “literally ripping up coffee plantations that had been there for decades, that their dads and granddads had farmed, because they were like, ‘Literally what else can we do? It's that [switch to coca] or leave the area.’”

Most growers also produce other crops, and Grisaffi noted that harsh penalties for growing coca is a strong incentive for them to branch out. But it’s hard to find a crop that offers a realistic alternative, since coca is light to transport, easy to cultivate, and can be harvested several times a year.

The government’s strategy in the coming years will depend on who wins Peru’s presidential elections in June. Castillo’s manifesto argues that the status quo drives informality and drug trafficking, and increases the perception that all growers are involved in the drug trade. 

Evo Morales, who still wields huge power among Bolivian coca growers, has given Castillo’s candidacy his seal of approval. But his proposal won’t get such a rosy reception in the U.S., which funds Peru’s coca eradication programme and wants to maintain the current system of eradication, as it does throughout Latin America. The U.S. Department of State said in a recent report that Peru “should expand coca eradication operations in high-yield areas such as the VRAEM and Puno.”

The Peruvian government has often argued that it can’t justify legalizing more coca fields because there isn’t enough demand for the leaf in the legal market - but it hasn’t shown much interest in stimulating demand, either, according to Pastor. “If you go to green, eco-friendly shops, they sell coca leaf,” he said. “Hipsters and bohemians buy it. But you go to a supermarket and they don’t sell it, there’s no promotion.”

Keiko Fujimori of the right-wing Fuerza Popular party is currently polling just behind Castillo. Her manifesto describes coca leaf as “the only irreplaceable ingredient in the production of cocaine base paste and cocaine,” proposing the familiar, conservative policies of eradication and alternative development.

Whoever wins, coca growers are cynical about the prospect for real change, given the government’s track record of flip-flopping between community engagement and forced eradication, said Pastor.

Nonetheless, many growers know that change is needed, because overproduction will ultimately provoke a heavy-handed response from the state, he said. “What they say is, either we regulate ourselves or we end up with nothing.”