<i>"The Name of Our Country is América" - Simon Bolivar</i> The Narco News Bulletin<br><small>Reporting on the War on Drugs and Democracy from Latin America
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Coca: Food, Medicine, and Ritual in Bolivia

The Multiplication of Poverty in a War Against the Wrong Enemy


By Romina Trincheri
2004 Narco News Authentic Journalism Scholar

August 25, 2004

COCHABAMBA, BOLIVIA: Cocaine users from around the world view Bolivia as one of the principle cradles of their preferred substance. The mass media places the country as an important piece on the narco-trafficking map and as a region of permanent social conflict, where the constant intervention by the United States in the so-called “War on Drugs” is somehow justified.

Different sectors of the Bolivian public say that the coca leaf is not a drug but, rather, a vial part of their subsistence, their lives, their traditions and respect toward their ancestors.

At Radio Soberania (“Radio Sovereignty”) in the town of Chipriri of the Chapare, there is a mural that says: “For us, the coca leaf is the culture of our ancestors and is survival… To them, it causes insanity and idiocy…”


Egberto Winston Chipani
Photo: Jeremy Bigwood D.R. 2004
That mural seems to summarize what the coca leaf means for the farmers of the Tropic of Cochabamba, given that the station reaches 96 percent of the public in the region according to the radio station’s director Egberto Chipana. Walking the small earthen paths that connect the homes of the traditional coca growers, we find that the radio is listened to, sometimes in Spanish, and for a good part of the day in Quechua.

The coca leaf is really a natural substance that doesn’t require any artificial processing to be consumed by chewing it – a process called “el pijcheo” in Bolivian Spanish – in the mouth.

In Bolivia and other lands coca is considered to be a food and a medicine, and is used for ritual.

Maria, a woman wearing a traditional blouse, hat, and perfect braids, sells salteñas (a popular empanada-like midmorning snack) in the central square of Cochabamba, surrounded by children. She smiles while she chews coca.

As she invites us to sample a handful of coca leaves, she says that coca has heart, that it is pure, and that the leaves give thanks to Pachamama (Mother Earth). These words represent what many of the Quechuas and Aymaras of the region, who cultivate coca leaf, believe.

On the other hand, in bars, restaurants, family homes, and even the military base in Chimoré, they offer coca tea for breakfast, and tourists that visit Bolivia are counseled that it offers great relief from altitude sickness.

The Cochabambinos (people from Cochabamba) explain again and again its benefits for the body, for the soul, and share a good pijcheo, in which coca is always shared with others, with those who are similar, and with those who are different, who place their hands together to receive it, who offer thanks to the earth and who connect with it in a way that the majority of countries on earth have already forgotten.

Also, coca production offers them a legitimate source of work, beyond the international and national laws that contradict it.

Sacred Leaf

Margarita Terán Gonzalez, former leader of a women’s organization in the Chapare, arrested various times for her supposed participation in attacks on the police in the region, says that coca is a sacred leaf that gives life to all the families of the Tropic of Cochabamba, and also in other regions of Bolivia.


Margarita Terán Gonzalez
Photo: Jeremy Bigwood D.R. 2004
Eduardo Lima, secretary general of the labor organizations of Chipiriri, says, “Coca leaf comes from our ancestors. It has always existed. It is what we have always cultivated. It sustains the family. It is harvested. And it is exchanged for other products that we consume.”

Although among the Cochabamba population, including in the lyrics of a popular song of the area, one often hears the words “coca is not cocaine,” the coca leaf is criminalized by other, more powerful, sectors.

In spite of the fact that, in 1998, the World Health Organization (WHO) distributed a document about coca leaf as an anesthetic, analgesic, astringent, curative, digestive, diuretic, and a stimulant, and mentioned other positive properties of the plant, these are not included in the legal doctrines that drive the war on drugs, that cynically tries to confuse coca with cocaine, demonizing it, and ignoring its properties as a medicinal plant and its inalienable cultural legacy.

They can eradicate the plantations, but not the cultural and daily habits of a people, nor the memories of pleasures and losses.

A child who walks to school along the earthen paths of Chipiriri tells of her experiences with the coca leaf, her memories of the eradication. Her peasant farmer father is still in prison. And she uncertainly explains that coca is not a drug, but she knows that her father is in jail for growing it.

“The Tropic of Cochabamba is at peace,” is the official message amidst those who can recount the horrors, the assassinations, the constant violations of human rights that have occurred in recent years.

On first look, one doesn’t see blood stains nor large numbers of armed police. But the question surges of whether there can be peace with so much poverty, if there is peace while the soldiers force themselves onto farms in the dawn hours to eradicate crops, as Boliva’s Law 1008 allows. This eradication process is poorly invented and poorly executed, and leaves many families with nothing.

And this is how the poverty is perpetuated: the extreme vulnerability, the exclusion without access to basic services, many children with no school, and the spread of curable illnesses.

Among so much poverty, the country grows richer, and it likes its coca. But in the Tropic of Cochabamba, bureaucrats, police, and farmers say that the level of coca production has diminished in the region.

A Failed Policy

Eduardo says that the “alternative development” projects to substitute “prohibited plants” with other crops, financed and imposed by the United States, has never worked, and just complicates the lives of the farming families even more.

These projects have not reached the entire community.

Margarita has hope that there could be projects of this kind in the Chapare but they don’t render the fruits expected because there are no markets through which to sell the products. “If there had been a primary market, I think the farmers would stop growing coca.”

However, although it is more difficult than before to find large coca fields in the Chaparé, there are many small plots that coexist with their bastard sisters amidst the palm tree and pineapple plantations, etc. – daughters of the failure of the alternative development projects pushed by the government.

Coca made this region grow in many ways: the solidarity between families, the strengthening of farmer organizations, and the generation of a large movement that at times succeeds in bringing strong pressure upon the state. The consumption of coca leaf has accompanied the resistance by the farmers in their long hunger strikes, marches, and other struggles for the most basic rights.

The organized farmers have developed great abilities in negotiating with the government. They now have power in many town halls in the region where they try, however slowly, to walk toward participatory democracy that begins with the plain recognition of the immediate needs of their grassroots bases.

But this entire struggle is often impeded by stories of betrayal, internal battles, economic interests, and the constant limits imposed from the United States. Once again, the U.S. is preventing a Latin American country from growing on its own terms, from manage its culture and natural resources.

No Coca, No Cocaine

The government’s “zero coca” project is not viable. “Zero cocaine” is even less viable. History has shown repeatedly that eradication of plantations, in many different coca growing regions, has only caused the coca cultivation to move to other areas as drug trafficking networks adjust with new strategies. Instead, there ought to be a discussion about why there is a supply of drugs: because there is a demand for drugs.

Studies demonstrate that in Latin American countries, like those of the First World, the use of drugs grows year by year, and this should be analyzed from a wider perspective – social and cultural – and not limited to the supply of drugs.

In the late 1990s, then-U.S. President Bill Clinton gave a speech to Congress in which he noted that half the synthetic and organic drugs that are produced in the world are consumed in that country. Some suggest that the United States currently consumes 50 percent of the world’s cocaine.

According to the language of the drug warriors, cocaine is “a scourge of humanity.”

This idea that has supplanted the anti-communist battles in Latin America by the great empire through a false fight against drug trafficking and even narco-terrorism is always waged in those countries plagued by underdevelopment and extreme poverty.

These accusations also fall upon the Tropic of Cochabamba. The Chapare doesn’t seem like fertile terrain for narco-terrorists nor major narco-trafficking networks (as the U.S. Embassy and the Bolivian government theorize), although one can’t say definitively that all cocaine and base paste labs have totally disappeared.

At the last stop, leaving the Chapare, the police inspect vehicles. All are obligated to stop there and be sniffed by a dog that, according to its masters, won a prize for having discovered 20 tons of cocaine so far.

José, a young Cochabamba resident, walking in the city’s downtown area, says: “There is not so much drug consumption in my city as the foreigners imagine, although we are so close to it.”

Margarita, regarding the existence of cocaine production in Bolivia, says: “The government could control the borders very well and stop the ingress of the chemicals needed to make it. Here, the drug is not made. Coca leaf is not a drug. I have chewed it since my childhood, and I still do, but not to drug myself. The government has to take control. Those who are directly involved in drug trafficking are the police, the military, and the government officials. They are the ones who have fomented drug trafficking. If they are going to fight a war on drugs it is important that they don’t allow the precursor chemicals for the manufacture of cocaine to enter the country. Without those chemicals, there can’t be cocaine production in Bolivia.”

Eduardo adds that in the Chapare cocaine manufacturing has almost vanished, because the coca plots have become very small, only for consumption of coca leaf, and not enough is produced to make base paste or cocaine.

The precursor chemicals necessary to make cocaine – gases and chemical agents to extract cocaine from the coca leaf- are not produced in Bolivia. Thus, in order to manufacture cocaine inside Bolivian territory, these chemicals must be brought in from industrialized countries such as Brazil, Argentina, and other countries throughout the world.

That is one more proof that the war on drugs has become absurd and wrongheaded. Fundamentally, it has chosen the wrong enemies. On the one hand it punishes the coca growers in various ways, and on the other hand it persecutes the users in most countries around the world. For both: poverty, prison, exclusion, discrimination, and violation of human rights. Meanwhile, the parties truly responsible for drug trafficking, the true terrorists, have a green light to develop their interests without any limit whatsoever.

Coca leaf and cocaine have no comparison with each other. Those who confuse them need to know the effects of cocaine and also observe the farmers who chew coca leaf in the Chapare. They are not stoned, like those who sniff or inject cocaine. On the contrary, they are mobilized. They know what they want. In reality, the coca leaf just makes one feel in harmony with his and her body, soul, culture and the land itself.

But consumers of coca base paste, extracted with chemicals and additives that are not identifiable or regulated, can become paralyzed for periods of time. Still, in many parts of the world, they too are becoming organized as a movement to fight for their rights under law, health and public policy, while the war on drugs annuls those rights, stigmatizes the user and exposes him and her constantly to legal repression.

The only thing that coca leaf producers and cocaine users have in common is the dizzying rise of repression and exclusion against both that is perpetuated by the war on drugs. Their shared crime is, simply, in having been wrongly made into the enemies.

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The Narco News Bulletin: Reporting on the Drug War and Democracy from Latin America