Coca fields may reemerge as battleground
A truce between Bolivian troops and farmers who grow coca is set to expire Oct. 1, and many in the Chapare region wonder if violence will return. Coca growing is likely to be a major issue in December's presidential election.
Knight Ridder News Service
EL CHAPARE, Bolivia - From his quiet corner of Bolivia's Chapare region, Egberto Chipana recalled the day three years ago when government soldiers invaded the radio station he now manages because it was championing the cause of farmers who grow coca, the plant whose leaves are the raw material for cocaine.
On that day, with battles raging between growers and troops, the soldiers seized the station's transmitter, and its directors were threatened with prosecution for instigating unrest. Growers responded by blocking roads and staging protests, demanding that the station be reopened. ''The government eventually returned everything,'' Chipana said on a recent sweltering afternoon. Drying coca leaves covered the earth outside the station building. ``The outcry was too great, and the government couldn't ignore it.''
The Chapare, a tropical region of mountains and plains in central Bolivia, has been a battleground for the past decade between coca growers and government troops. Sometimes the face-off has had deadly results, but an uneasy peace now prevails, thanks to a one-year truce signed by growers and the administration of since-ousted President Carlos Mesa that allows limited cultivation of coca.
But with the agreement set to end Oct. 1 and Bolivians scheduled to elect a new president in December, these could be the last days of peace, some Chapare residents fear.
''If the government doesn't respect our right to determine our own livelihood, we will organize and we will fight,'' said Gabina Contreras, a 54-year-old mother of 11 from the growers' collective Sindicato Esteban Arce, named for a Bolivian independence hero.
``Coca is like father and mother to us. We can't live without coca.''
Despite the truce, U.S. and Bolivian officials say this Andean nation's laws forbid the cultivation of coca and allege that coca grown in the Chapare is ending up as cocaine elsewhere.
According to the U.S. State Department, Bolivia is the world's third-largest producer of cocaine. The United States has poured more than $150 million in military and social aid into the country annually over the past four years, in part to fight coca cultivation.
Although eradication of coca in excess of that permitted by the truce continues, the days of widespread military action against coca growers are over for now, said Luz Mendoza, a spokeswoman for the country's Ministry of Social Defense.
So far this year, the government has destroyed about 16 square miles of coca nationwide, almost all of it in the Chapare, government figures show. In comparison, it eradicated about 46 square miles during all of 2002, nearly half of the 110 square miles believed under cultivation.
''We have a temporary situation there now,'' she said. ``People who are directly involved in the planting of coca are still disobeying laws, and we're not going to ignore that.''
CLOSE IN THE POLLS
Kathryn Ledebur, director of the human-rights group Andean Information Network, sees the coca issue heating up as the election approaches.
Presidential candidates Evo Morales, himself a coca grower, and former President Jorge Quiroga, who oversaw the country's coca eradication effort in 2001 and 2002, were running neck-and-neck in a recent poll.
Morales has said in interviews that he plans to promote the growth of coca for uses other than cocaine production. As one of the country's main coca-producing areas, the Chapare is also the heart of Morales' political support.
Quiroga has been a longtime champion of coca eradication and the development of programs that promote the cultivation of crops such as bananas and oranges in its place.
''Both of the key players in this election built their platforms on the coca issue,'' Ledebur said.
Growers argue that they cultivate and use coca for traditional purposes such as tea making and chewing to stave off hunger while working.
Selling the crop in government-approved markets, a family working the maximum area of coca crop permitted by the truce can earn between $60 and $80 a month, Ledebur estimated.
Where the coca goes after the markets, however, is a question growers don't have answers for.
''We are just following the legal procedures,'' Chipana said. ``Maybe some of the coca is going to drug production, but that's out of our control.''
Jorge Azad, the country's vice minister of alternative development, said he believes much of it is going to drug production. The amount of coca coming out of the Chapare far exceeds what's needed for traditional use, and that demands government action, he said.
''The eradication campaign will continue,'' Azad said. ``I don't know if it will widen after the elections or what will happen, but it will continue.''