Coca poses election dilemma for Peruvians
PICHARI, Peru, March 27 (Reuters) - At the orders of their mayor, artisans in Peru's jungle recently put the finishing touches on a giant monument to the coca leaf, a defiant tribute to the plant that fuels the cocaine trade and provides a living for thousands of Peruvian peasants.
The concrete monument in the impoverished central jungle hamlet of Pichari, which the town hall aims to unveil next month, underscores growing rural support for coca leaf, which was declared illegal in a 1961 U.N narcotics convention.
Peru's coca output jumped almost 40 percent last year and U.S.-backed eradication policies are floundering -- developments that pose one of the biggest challenges for the winner of the country's April 9 presidential elections.
According to U.S. and Peru officials, coca eradication in Colombia, the world's top cocaine producer, has pushed up coca prices and production in No. 2 producer Peru, while Mexican cartels are becoming key players in moving multi-ton cocaine shipments from Peru's capital Lima to the United States and Europe.
"I'm pessimistic about the situation we're in. There's a very worrying rise in output and coca growers are increasingly hostile to eradication," said Juan Luna, head of Peru's anti-drugs agency DEVIDA in the country's central jungle coca area along the River Apurimac, a tributary of the Amazon.
Eradication is made all the more difficult because many Peruvians consider coca sacred and part of their traditions.
Since 2003, Peru's cocaine production capacity has risen by more than 25 percent to around 170 metric tons a year, with a U.S. street value of $35 billion. Coca fields are no-go areas for police, as Shining Path guerrillas holed up in the jungle offer protection to drug traffickers, who supply them weapons.
"The rebels are making the coca areas almost inaccessible and ambushes are deadly for us," said Juan Rojas, head of police in the River Apurimac region's main town San Francisco.
The guerrilla group that led one of Latin America's bloodiest insurgencies in the 1980s and early 1990s killed at least 19 police and military officers in 2005, officials say.
Coca on Campaign
Peru's coca problem has become one of the most sensitive issues in the April election as candidates seek votes in Andean areas, where the leaf is chewed by farmers to ward off hunger and drunk in tea to cure altitude sickness. There, any mention of coca eradication sparks often violent protests.
But front-runner Humala, an Andean former soldier who is seen as a protest vote against Peru's coastal business elite, has pledged to go further and legalize all coca production. This would create a legal market for coca in an effort to tempt farmers away from dealing with traffickers.
Coca crop substitution, backed by $330 million in U.S. aid since 2000, has so far failed to cut cocaine output.
"The solution to drug trafficking is to industrialize coca leaf products," said Humala, echoing plans by recently elected Bolivian President Evo Morales, a former coca grower, to export coca foods and health products on a large scale.
Coca is eaten in Peru for its calcium content, while its hunger-suppressant properties make it a potential diet product.
Industrialization of the coca leaf, which was considered more valuable than gold by the powerful Inca civilization in the 1400s, would be a dream come true for Peru's 50,000 coca farmers, who say they stick with coca partly because of low prices for traditional crops such as coffee and pineapple.
"Ollanta Humala can help us, because this is a plant that gives us four harvests a year, it is our children's future," said coca grower Walter Aquino, mayor of the remote town of San Antonio, standing among his shoulder-high coca trees.
Coca Flavored Toothpaste?
Such a policy could endanger anti-drug funding from the United States, the world's top cocaine consumer and an opponent of similar plans in Bolivia.
"Industrialization attempts have failed in the past and it's time to look to strategies, not political populism," said Omar Quezada, president of the central Ayacucho region where the Rio Apurimac coca region is located.
According to DEVIDA's Luna: "If there was a demand for coca toothpaste, someone would have met it by now."
More realistically, non-governmental organizations and drug experts say Peru needs an overhaul of its anti-coca programs, going beyond eradication.
To make alternative crops such as coffee profitable, coca farmers need larger landholdings than the current average size of less than 2.5 acres (1 hectare), meaning the government needs to redistribute land and grant land titles.
Paving roads is crucial because dirt tracks -- often made impassable by mountain rivers -- make it nearly impossible for growers to get fresh goods to market in Ayacucho or Lima.
A U.N.-financed food processing factory in the central jungle only works four mornings a month because of a lack of raw material such as hearts of palm and tropical fruits.
"There's a strong demand from Europe for hearts of palm, but a farmer needs at least 3 hectares (7.4 acres) to make it work," said Harold Tineo, the factory's general manager.
NGOs also blame the Peruvian government's decades-long abandonment of towns in the coca regions. In these places, farmers are forced to sell to drug traffickers so they can pay teachers and enable their children to go to school.
As a result, farmers argue that coca is the only way to survive. "They want to eradicate our coca, but then what? Do we die?" asked farmer Prospero Ore, dressed in muddy rags.