Shifts in Cultivation, Usage Put Bolivia’s Coca Policy at the Crossroads.
By Coletta A. Youngers, on
Upon taking office, Morales adopted a “coca yes, cocaine no” strategy. While cocaine interdiction efforts have continued unabated, the new approach to coca control focuses on gradual and consensual coca reduction through economic development and income diversification, combined with “social control” exerted by powerful coca growers unions. Each farmer in the Chapare coca growing region, for example, is allowed to grow one “cato”—about a third of an acre—of coca; anything beyond that is subject to elimination. The coca growers themselves help enforce the cato system, with harsh penalties applied to those who fail to comply, and the Bolivian government has put into place a sophisticated coca monitoring system that tracks coca from farm to official markets in order to avoid diversion to illicit ones.
So far, the cooperative coca reduction strategy is working. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, net coca cultivation in Bolivia fell 12 percent in 2011 and another 7 percent in 2012, to 62,500 acres. In contrast, in neighboring Peru, where the government carries out large-scale forced eradication, net cultivation increased 5 percent in 2011, while in 2012, a modest decline of 3.4 percent left Peru with 150,000 acres under cultivation. Peru has now surpassed Colombia as the world’s largest producer of both coca and cocaine; Bolivia continues to rank a distant third.
For years, Bolivians have debated how much coca is needed for legal uses of coca, such as chewing and coca tea. Law 1008, passed in 1988, allows for 30,000 acres of legal production, whereas the Morales government has affirmed since 2006 that about 50,000 acres is needed for legal consumption. The issue has come closer to resolution with the publication of the results of a study financed by the European Union. Plagued with methodological and other problems, the study took years longer than expected. The results finally released in mid-November determined that 36,000 acres of coca are needed for licit uses. Already, coca growers from different regions are laying claim to their share. For its part, the Morales administration has tread carefully, pointing out that the study is only a tool to guide future policies. Not surprisingly, the government has pushed back the long-awaited reform of Law 1008 until after the 2014 elections.
In reality, Bolivia’s ability to reduce coca and cocaine production depends on many factors beyond its control. While cocaine use has declined since 2006 in the United States, it has increased during that time in Europe and parts of Asia, where it fetches a higher price. Peru and Bolivia supply these markets, with much of the cocaine shipped out through Argentina and Brazil. As a result, consumption of cocaine and “paco,” a form of crack cocaine, has increased in those countries, as well as in Paraguay and Uruguay. Further complicating Bolivia’s task is the fact that at least half of the cocaine paste and cocaine interdicted in Bolivia originates in Peru. A recent investigation shows that in addition to sending small amounts of drugs overland via “mules,” as small-scale transporters are known, traffickers are increasingly ferrying drugs on small planes, with at least three or four flights a day leaving Peru for Bolivia, each one loaded with approximately 650 pounds of illicit drugs. Though Peruvian security forces have begun destroying clandestine air strips, these are easily replaced, and hence their efforts make little, if any, difference.
Meanwhile, the changing drug use patterns in the United States should be highlighting the declining importance of the Andean region for U.S. drug control policy. According to a recent DEA report, cocaine use is down, while heroin and methamphetamine use is up. But the biggest “threat” is presented by controlled prescription medicines, which are produced and regulated right here at home. In other words, the United States is increasingly the source of its own illicit drugs.
Yet going after drugs at the “source” in the Andean countries remains at the heart of U.S. international drug control policy, with the amounts of coca eradicated and cocaine interdicted still put forward as the most important indicators of “success.” The U.S. government is highly critical of Bolivia’s coca reduction strategy and no longer provides support for drug control efforts in the country. Indeed, differences over the issue have contributed to diplomatic tensions between Washington and the Morales administration. A smarter approach for Washington would be to remain engaged and to learn from the Bolivian model. Rural economic development carried out in tandem with gradual coca reduction offers far more promise of long-term results than forced eradication and could also help pull very poor people out of poverty.
U.S.-Bolivian relations remain strained for myriad reasons beyond differences over drug policies. However, it is in the interests of both countries to maintain open channels of communication and dialogue on this issue. The Obama administration should rethink its stated opposition to Bolivia’s coca control efforts and recognize that the solution to the problems caused by drug use in the United States cannot be found in Bolivia, but only within our own borders.
Coletta A. Youngers is a senior fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) and an associate at the International Drug Policy Consortium (IDPC).