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How Bolivia Got Smart and Convinced Poor Farmers to Grow Less Coca

Cultivation of the plant used to manufacture cocaine has declined in Bolivia for the fourth straight year, a success achieved without relying on heavy-handed eradication programs.
Imagen por Jorge Abrego/EPA

Seven years after Bolivia kicked out the DEA, and two years after the UN approved a legal coca market in the Andean nation, cultivation of the plant used to manufacture cocaine has continued to fall in the country, belying a central tenet of Latin America's decades-long, US-supported war on drugs, and seemingly proving that coca crops can be reduced without relying on heavy-handed eradication programs.


According to figures released this week by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), cultivation of coca in Bolivia declined by 11 percent in 2014, the fourth straight year of decreases. UNODC's Coca Crop Monitoring Survey, a joint undertaking with Bolivia's government, found that the area under cultivation fell from 23,000 hectares in 2013 to 20,400 hectares last year.

Bolivia's recorded coca cultivation is at its lowest point since the UN began monitoring the crop in 2003, and authorities are aiming for further decreases in line with a national law that currently sets aside no more than 12,000 hectares for planting. The country's government is hashing out a final allowance that could permit up to 20,000 hectares of coca. Whatever the final target, observers say Bolivia has been unique in its ability to reduce coca cultivation while avoiding violence and the alienation of poor farmers that has plagued more orthodox eradication efforts in the region.

"Bolivia has adopted a policy based on dialogue, where coca cultivation is allowed in traditional areas alongside alternative development [in others]," Antonino de Leo, UNODC's representative in Bolivia, told VICE News.

De Leo said Bolivia had largely succeeded in applying an "innovative approach" that involves the unionization of coca growers, and respect for human rights, along with forced eradication in non-permitted areas.


Related: Sacred Cocaine: Inside the Peruvian Sect Accused of Growing Coca in the Amazon

"It's not only about making money off a crop," said de Leo. "In the old fashioned alternative development approach, we substitute one illicit crop for a licit crop. It's about a more comprehensive approach that includes access to essential services like schools, hospitals, and roads in areas that traditionally have been hard to reach."

Pineapples and bananas are among the crops that have shown tentative success in coca-growing regions, said de Leo.

While Bolivia's approach to coca is novel, it's not exactly surprising. Bolivian President Evo Morales and the country's drug czar are both former coca growers. After he was elected in 2005, Morales began negotiating with the coca grower unions, promising higher prices if they grew less of the plant. The UN has recently recorded prices for Bolivia's licit coca crop at over $8 per kilogram of dried leaves, several times higher than in Colombia and double the going rate in Peru.

Watch the VICE News documentary The New King of Coke:

Indigenous Bolivians have chewed and consumed coca for centuries, and the country has long held that it should be allowed to legally grow the crop. In 2011, Morales led the country's withdrawal from the UN's Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, the international treaty that controls the production of raw materials used to make cocaine and other drugs. Two years later, in February 2013, Bolivia re-acceded to the convention with the stipulation that its could legally farm coca.


In 2008, Morales booted American drug enforcement officials from the country, accusing them of espionage. Morales was later vindicated in part when leaked documents showed the DEA had played a role in covert reconnaissance in some countries.

Related: The Discovery of Mexico's First Coca Plantation Could Upend the Cocaine Business

Last year's decline in Bolivia's overall coca cultivation was concentrated in its two largest producing regions, Los Yungas de La Paz and Tropico de Cochabamba. Surface area devoted to cultivation fell from 15,700 to 14,200 hectares and from 7,100 to 6,100 hectares, respectively, in the two areas. Unlike data from neighboring Colombia and Peru — where many coca-growing zones remain inaccessible — a combination of satellite imagery and field monitoring in Bolivia offers reliable data that hews closely with similar estimates made by the US government.

According to a White House report released in May, coca cultivation rose in Colombia from 85,000 hectares in 2013 to 112,000 hectares last year. In Peru, cultivation has been estimated at roughly 50,000 hectares, despite an intensive and controversial eradication program in the country saw the destruction of some 55,000 hectares in 2013 and 2014. The government of Peruvian President Ollanta Humala has offered reimbursement for coca growing families, but many report receiving little money, and say they have no alternative but to grow coca. Violent confrontations between authorities and growers have led to injuries and deaths in recent years.


'It's about a more comprehensive approach that includes access to essential services like schools, hospitals, and roads.'

While Bolivia has reduced coca cultivation, however, it remains a drug trafficking hub in South America. "In Bolivia there is production of not only cocaine base, but cocaine chloroyhdrate, the best refined cocaine available in the market," de Leo said.

Small refining outlets proliferate in many of Bolivia's remote areas, and many of its poorest citizens are still caught up in law enforcement dragnets. The cocaine produced and trafficked in Bolivia is primarily routed to Brazil and Argentina, the largest South American markets for cocaine. De Leo said other drugs, like cannabis, often from Paraguay, also move through Bolivia.

Related: The Coast Guard Lost 4,000 Pounds of Cocaine in the Pacific Ocean During a Record Bust

Kathryn Ledebur, executive director of the Andean Information Network, said coca crop reduction efforts in Bolivia have not always gone smoothly, but codifying a legal allotment and allowing an open licit market gives it a leg up on other countries.

"There's much less confrontation over the coca issue," Ledebur told VICE News. "The Morales government has made a lot of mistakes but I think they have done a very solid job on coca production."

Along with Bolivia's ultimate ceiling for production, the government is also negotiating a reworking of its drug sentencing laws, which largely reflect a 1988 law that was written at the height of the drug war.

"There are still disproportionately high sentences, for example the maximum sentence for drug trafficking is 25 years, that's the same sentence as a murder," she said. "The law does not include alternatives for non-violent drug crimes, it does not include alternatives for low income people that are producing. These are people that aren't crucial to the drug trade, but they end up as mules or small producers, and then end up in jail."

Follow Samuel Oakford on Twitter: @samueloakford