<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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Alternative Crops Aren’t an Alternative

Campesino Families Continue to Grow Coca for Cash to Meet their Needs


By Benjamin Maurice Melançon
2004 Narco News Authentic Journalism Scholar

August 12, 2004

CHAPARE REGION, BOLIVIA: Several banana trees dwarfed the tiny plot of coca plants, but these two-to-three foot high, sparsely-leaved bushes sustain the campesinos, or peasant-farmers, of the Chapare.

Despite years of trying under government pressure, alternative crops aren’t an alternative for campesinos in the Chapare, a poor, tropical region of 70,000 inhabitants in central Bolivia. As a result, families continue to grow coca to bring in needed cash income.

“We need coca because no other plant will give us sufficient income with which to live,” said Aguido Mamani as he stood in the fifteen or twenty-foot square field of coca plants.

For some, it comes down to a stark choice. They can obey the government’s demand to stop growing coca. Or they can continue to send their children for education in Cochabamba; continue to buy vegetables, clothes, and occasionally meat; and continue to get emergency medical care.


Maria Eugenia Ledezmo Caua
Photo: Noah Friedsky D.R. 2004
Sixto Montaño, a member of an association of campesino families, of which Mamani is also a member, said he recently brought his son to Cochabamba for treatment of a broken arm and paid using money from coca. Montaño himself has a large scar connecting his right arm and torso which limits the mobility of his arm. When he was burnt working in a bakery, he couldn’t afford proper treatment, he said. “If you don’t have money, you don’t get care.”

Coca growers provide for much of their needs without selling coca, but for some things, like medical care, money is needed. Coca, they say, is the only way to get enough.

“We don’t have wages,” said Leonida Zurita Vargas, president of the Six Federations of Women Coca Growers. “We grow rice, yucca, and bananas for our own food.” Most families also produce their own eggs, said Maria Eugenia Ledezmo Caua, a campesina involved in trying alternative crops. Some food campesinos do buy. Vegetables don’t grow in the Chapare and must be bought. Also, said Ledezmo, “we buy meat once a month.” Food, though, is the least expensive of the things for which campesinos need a cash income.

Studies for their children in the city, including for the children’s clothes, food, and rent while there, is one main thing campesino families spend money on, Ledezmo and Zurita said in separate interviews. Families need money to pay for health care as well, Ledezmo and Zurita both said, as Montaño had. Campesinos also need money to pay taxes on their land, although many are behind on payments, Montaño said.

“Income is only from coca,” said Montaño, but the government is doing forced eradication. “For that reason we are coca-growing families in crisis. We don’t have the basic sustenance to live.”

The cry of no alternative might be expected from campesinos. Alternative crops mean more work for less economic benefit, Colonel Jaime Cruz Vera, commander of the coca-eradicating Mobile Rural Patrol Unit (UMOPAR) and an anti-drug military base in the town of Chimoré, said to a Narco News team this week. “They would have to work much harder, because with coca they just plant it and leave it for three months. But palm hearts and banana and other alternative development projects make them have to do farm work.”

Yet United States government studies, the hard numbers of the market, and statements from non-campesinos, including Cruz Vera himself, all attest to the impossibility of earning significant income from other crops.

U.S. Government Studies

BOLIVIA: Obstacles to Coca Crop Substitutions”, a CIA International Narcotics staff notes document from February 2, 1977, stated that the attempt of the Bolivian and US governments to “implement a large-scale crop substitution program” “faces serious and perhaps insurmountable obstacles.”

The document, obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request by journalist Jeremy Bigwood, also stated:

Coca production has been an integral part of the cultural and economic life of Bolivia for hundreds of years; it is ideally suited to the harsh environment and rugged terrain of the country. Although middlemen receive most of the profits from coca production, the campesinos nonetheless are financially dependent on their earnings from the crop.

Bigwood said he similarly obtained a document from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) also dating from the 1970s. He described it as a soil analysis that found soil quality in the Chapare to be too poor for anything other than coca production, which takes the least nutrients out of the soil and is sustainable for the longest time.

In its most important conclusion for the campesinos today, the CIA report on substituting other crops for coca declared: “Assuming an ideal replacement is found, there is no guaranteed international market.”

Market Reality

“When you say alternative development,” said Inga López, 34, a former television journalist of La Paz, “you are talking about selling two bananas for ten centavos instead of coca at a price affording a living.”


Alejandrina Jaimes
Photo: Noah Friedsky D.R. 2004
Alejandrina Jaimes, a campesina who began trying alternative crops when a US-funded government program for alternative development brought heart-of-palm plants to her family syndicate, has a lot of experience with this reality. The market price of the three-month harvest of half-a-hectare of heart-of-palm is 750 bolivianos, while a coca harvest on the same land over the same time would bring in 5,500 bolivianos, according to figures provided by Jaimes that closely match those from other sources.

Most campesino families in the Chapare don’t have even close to half a hectare of coca, said campesino association leaders, Colonel Cruz, and others. The difference in market price between coca and other crops nevertheless means a world of difference in the education, clothing, and medicine they can afford.

“One hundred oranges sell for between 3 and 4 bolivianos,” said Egberto Winston Chipana Limachi, director of Radio Soberanía (Radio Sovereignty) in Chichipiri. “That’s what the farmer can sell it for, because he has no way to transport them. So if you produce 10,000 oranges, which is what you get from almost half a hectare, you get 400 bolivianos. That’s why even in a small space families always have some coca bushes to try to get a little income.”

Transportation costs, in both time and money, are another large part of the problem, reducing further the net income from alternative crops.

“One hundred pounds of Yucca are worth 20 bolivianos. One hundred pounds of coca are worth 1,200 bolivianos,” said Winston. “What are you going to produce?”

Jaimes, for instance, used to carry a sack of coca many kilometers to market herself, she said. That isn’t possible with the heavier alternative crops. “I have to carry palmitos 800 meters to the road,” said Jaimes, and pay for trucks to take them to market.

Alternative crops also require more labor and other resources. “Maracua [similar to passion fruit] was a disaster because the cost of pesticide and its application was more than I got for the harvest,” Jaimes said. She had to use money from her coca harvest to pay for a truck to transport this fruit.

Jaimes had left her association of campesino families seven years ago to work on alternative crops. Now back as secretary for women, she continues to put energy into alternative development, she said. Along with some others, she is still looking for a crop, other than coca, that brings in money. But she’s also growing coca again, she said. “Otherwise, there wouldn’t be money to live.”

Common Sense

That there wouldn’t be money to live without coca is also the general sense of people not involved in coca production or alternative crops. All those interviewed in the Chapare, from the colonel in charge of eradication to a man who makes his living from tourism, understood the situation of the campesinos.

“Our soil in the Chapare generally is only 50 centimeters thick, and that’s why it is not rich in nutrients.” said Colonel Cruz. “It is good for coca leaf, yes, but for other kinds of plants it is not very good. This is also something that causes the farmers to have their legal crops with coca plants hidden throughout the plantation to give them something to live from.”

“Coca maintains the economy and the families,” said Winston, the radio director. “There is no gain but it is what makes things go, so the family can survive.”

Though he wouldn’t be affected at all if no coca were grown, said Jaime Camacho, who works at his brother’s hotel in Villa Tunari, “it would be bad.” He said: “Coca is very important for the economy but not for drugs, and if there were no coca a lot of people would be very poor.”

Coca’s Importance to the Economy of the Chapare

Camacho isn’t alone in his analysis. “Coca underlies the Chapare economy,” said José Mirtenbaum, an anthropologist knowledgeable about the region. “The economic base is agriculture, and this is mostly coca.” Coca is a cash crop, he said, and most of the cash comes from coca.

Cruz said the government believes 7,000 hectares of coca fields exist despite eradication. By this reporter’s calculations, this much coca could bring in about 300 million bolivianos, or $38.5 million dollars, to the 70,000 people of Chapare each year. This equals $550 per person. If the Chapare average income were the same as Bolivia’s – $2,400 per person in 2003 according to the CIA World FactBook – then the money campesinos alone receive for their coca crops would represent about a quarter of the Chapare economy.

“This whole system of survival as well as livelihood is hidden under the blanket we call the war on drugs,” said Mirtenbaum. “It is a normal situation under abnormal circumstances.”

Campesinos struggle today for the same things they migrated to the Chapare for, women coca growers’ leader Zurita said: “to look for our subsistence and a future for our children.”

“Eradication takes away our last means of survival,” said Eduardo Lima, general secretary of the local association of campesino families. “We ask national and international authorities to come here and look at each person living on this land.”

All interviewees and speakers quoted above (except José Mirtenbaum) spoke in Spanish, a language this reporter does not yet understand. This article would not have been possible without many volunteer translators from the School of Authentic Journalism, including Zabeth Flores, Shannon Young, Charlie Hardy, Tigran Feiler, Daniel Fleming, and Andrea Wilkins y Martínez.

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