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Women’s Voices Rise from the Chapare

“Noganchi huarmis jina sumaj organizazga canchis imactinchus cay injusticia cajtin.”


Life for women in the Chapare tropical region of Bolivia revolves around the ironic truth cocalera leader Leonida Zurita Vargas expresses in Quechua: “Thanks to the injustice, we as women are organized.”


Covering approximately 6 million acres, the Chapare is home to isolated indigenous groups and to the more politically notable migrant population of Quechua and Aymara families, who began moving to the area in the 1960s as a result of government programs to draw the newly unemployed mining communities from poverty and unproductive lands in Bolivia’s higher altitudes. In an attempt to find successful agricultural practices, many migrants responded to the market demand—traditional and illicit—and began growing the coca plant.


The use of “Mama coca,” as it is locally known, can be traced back to the traditions of the Incas. Today, it still plays a role in everyday life in the Andean region because the dried leaf is chewed and drunk in the form of mate, or tea, to ward off hunger and fatigue. Besides its practical uses, coca remains sacred to the Quechua and Aymara, as it represents life and sustenance and takes a central role in traditional ceremonies. Coca has become a symbol of peasant unity in the fight for equality, economic improvement, and respect for the cultural traditions of Bolivia’s indigenous people.


The single highway built through the Chapare in 1972 is the artery of basic infrastructure in the region. Along this road the main settlements, like Villa Tunari and Chimore, are the few places with electricity or health services. Schools exist but are run with no government assistance, and are more often used as military encampments than spaces to teach. Vargas lives on the outskirts of Eterazama, a small satellite village connected to the main highway by a hand-laid stone road. She has never had electricity or running water in her home and relies on a communal taxi to transport her to and from the village. Access to health services is even more minimal; it is not unusual for a woman in need of medical help to walk up to four hours to reach the nearest health post. Children suffer from chronic malnutrition, and are often unable to attend school since they must help their parents at home.


The U.S.-promoted “War on Drugs” has brought extensive “investment” to the region, largely in the form of regional militarization and assistance to the Bolivian military to eradicate the coca plant. Through “alternative development” programs, the United States and other donors such as the European Union, the Spanish and Belgian governments, and the United Nations attempt to provide peasants access to other means of subsistence. While U.S. development contractors are not permitted to interact with local community leaders1, European bi-lateral projects and European Union funding demand local participation, including coordination with local mayors.


An Organized Response


The permanence of the Bolivian military and the forced manual eradication of coca plants have led to extraordinarily high numbers of human rights violations in the Chapare (see CSQ 26:4). Since they first arrived in the region, the Aymara and Quechua communities have drawn on the strong organizational roots of their mining tradition and have organized themselves into sindicatos, or small local unions. The sindicatos serve as the foundation for the six local federations of coca growers, which were consolidated under the umbrella organization Las Seis Federaciones del Trópico de Cochabamba (Six Federations of Coca Growers of the Tropics of Cochabamba). The organization was based on male participation, but women were soon to surpass their original role as those who prepared the meetings’ meals and cared for the children.


In 1994 and 1995 the president of the Six Federations, Evo Morales, started addressing the women of the Chapare peasant community, who he had recognized as an untapped resource. Morales called the women to action and in 1997 the women held their first meeting to elect their own leaders as counterparts to the existing Six Federations male representatives. Since those first democratic elections of 1997, Vargas has been repeatedly re-elected as president of the Six Federations, a role she executes in addition to her position as female president of the local Federación del Trópico (Federation of the Tropics). Throughout Bolivia, the women’s arm of the Six Federations, or COCAMTROP (Confederación de las Campesinas del Trópico), is known as the model of women peasant organization, training, and empowerment.

“I do not feel like I am a leader,” said Vargas. “I am just like all the other women. And if I were to try to cheat or trick them, they would throw me out. That is the strength of the people.”


While the women of the Six Federations seek to bring issues that are geared toward the role of women and the family, such as nutrition and education, to the national level, their primary goal is to work together with their male counterparts to protect their rights to grow coca and to defend the human rights of those peasant families affected by the negative impacts of the militarization and eradication efforts associated with the War on Drugs policies of the region. The men’s and women’s regional meetings are held jointly, and both men and women are active in protests and demonstrations. Women often take the front lines of protest to avoid confrontations with police.


Vargas has spearheaded several projects specifically geared toward the women, at the local federation level and the regional level. Projects are always conceived through a consensus of the women representatives, and subsequent decisions and evaluations are completed through a democratic process. Once, when confronted with the arrival of unexpected emergency funds, Vargas refused to respond to the donor before calling a full meeting of the Six Federations representatives in order to make a decision.


The target areas for projects chosen by the women are indicative of the challenges they face. Education and training have long been key priorities. From reading and writing to workshops on the role of drug-related laws and their rights under those laws, the women find a means of educating themselves in the absence of basic government services, and in the face of great obstacles to equality and respect for human rights. As a powerful example to other women, Vargas explains how she only recently learned it was illegal for police to search a private home without a legal warrant.


To compensate for the lack of formal education for a great majority of the poor, “we have to teach ourselves” Vargas said. Beyond the workshops and seminars, which are often sponsored by local non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and international foundations, the most important teaching is done among the women themselves. “The Chapare is our finest school,” noted a local leader from the highland region of Ayopaya when asked about Vargas and the Chapare peasant community. One major project will make a central radio station accessible to all parts of the Chapare, and will be used not only as a means of disseminating information and news but also as a tool for a region-wide literacy project. Workshops on family nutrition and health are also being developed for the women.


Under Vargas’ leadership at the local level, the Federación del Trópico has sought alternatives to growing coca in response to the failure of official alternative development programs. Most recently, the women proposed a small economic development project for women representatives to learn to sew so they could make their own family’s clothes and ultimately sell items at market. The women concentrate on maintaining high transparency of administration and responsibility as they execute their projects, a testament to the viability of beneficiary-conceived projects.


National Leadership Drawn From a Local Context


Due to the intensity of political, social, and economic issues confronting the Chapare, it is undoubtedly the pulse point of knowledge and self-determination of Bolivia’s peasant community.


Vargas’ natural ability to gain trust as a spokeswoman and her willingness to be held accountable brought Vargas’ leadership to the national level in 2001. She was elected by a nationwide constituency of over 15,000 Quechua, Aymara, and Guaraní women to direct the National Federation of Peasant Women of Bolivia, Bartolina Sissa. In this role, Vargas’ audiences range from internationally sponsored fora on issues of free trade to small workshops in nearly inaccessible rural villages with women who speak only Quechua. Most recently, Vargas hosted a conference sponsored by Foodfirst Information and Action Network (FIAN) and Via Campesina2 to invigorate a dialogue between indigenous representatives from 24 countries about land issues from a gender-conscious standpoint.


As part of the Global Campaign for Agrarian Reform, a joint campaign by FIAN and La Via Campesina to encourage equitable land reform based on basic human rights, local NGOs and various landless peasant groups began looking specifically at equality issues related to the woman’s role with the land and their legal access to ownership. For Vargas, the struggle for equality under current agrarian law is double-faceted. The women are part of the peasant community’s fight for equality under the existing Ley INRA, which favors large landowners over small-scale farmers. Beyond this, however, the women must address gender-based issues including the lack of recognition of a woman’s right to the land. If the father of a family dies, for instance, the title does not pass to his wife, but to his oldest son.


Confronting the Coca Issue


Negotiation and collaboration, two key aspects of effective bridge-building, have come to define Vargas and fellow peasants’ leadership in the Chapare as they engage in national dialogue.


At the end of 2002, five meetings were held in which coca-grower representatives attempted to reach an agreement with now former President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada to cease forced eradication of the coca plant until the accurate amount of legal coca—the amount in accordance with the legal market that serves traditional use in Bolivia and northern Argentina—could be determined. Vargas was one of the few women at the negotiation table and brought recognition to the distinct voice of women, who six years earlier would only have had their husbands’ voices to represent them. Failure on the part of government officials to sign agreements, although confirmed verbally, led to protests and blockades by the coca growers in early 2003. Again, the women took a primary role in the action on the streets.


In late January 2003, collaboration became the strategy for the frustrated peasant leaders. The Estado Mayor del Pueblo coalition—composed of 20 workers federations, unions, and social movements, including the Six Federations and Bartolina Sissa—brought together a wide range of organizations that addressed civil society interests that accompanied the central coca issue, including land rights, retiree pensions, and domestic labor laws. Ultimately, the coalition’s platform offered leverage in the negotiations with the president that resulted in the passage of a labor law regarding domestic workers, a landmark achievement for the indigenous community. While Sánchez de Lozada was unable to negotiate on sensitive issues such as coca eradication, the coalition was able to push for the new labor law that affected rural indigenous women who migrate to the cities. “We have connections to these women,” Vargas said. “[Many of them] are our own children.”


Bridge-building across groups who have separate immediate interests but a common sense of discontent with the current government is an effective means of collaboration because it allows for disparate groups who share a similar culture to articulate a platform of priorities with which they can address national political leaders.


The indigenous movement in Bolivia is at a crucial point in its development. Political representation of indigenous peoples in the national parliament has grown as a result of the June 2002 elections: indigenous representatives now hold 27 of the 103 House seats and 8 of the 27 Senate seats, making their political presence stronger than ever in Bolivian history. The women represent a small number of these new positions but their voice is gaining strength, echoing the trend of the local communities. The initiative to build bridges through open communication and the ability to balance representation and negotiation with transparency will be the defining characteristics of successful indigenous leaders to come. Vargas is one of the few models of sophisticated and honest woman leadership who can help us better grasp the complexities and subtleties of successful participatory development.


1. U.S. policy forbids development contractors from interacting with affiliates of the local socialist party Movimiento al Socialismo.


2. FIAN is an international human rights organization dedicated to the right for food. It constitutes a wide network in over 60 countries of members and coalitions who promote the human right to food outlined in the UN’s International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights. La Via Campesina, based in Rome and with Latin America headquarters in Honduras, is an international network whose mission is to protect the rights of peasants and small landowners whose livelihoods are threatened in the face of political and economic change. They make a special effort to recognize the importance of women’s rights within this context.


This article was completed prior to the recent developments in Bolivia in October 2003, which have brought unprecedented changes to the peasant-government political equilibrium. Leonida Zurita Vargas is the female president of the Six Federations of Coca Growers of the Tropics of Cochabamba in central Bolivia and serves as executive secretary of the National Federation of Peasant Women of Bolivia, Bartolina Sissa (FNMCBBS). She is the voice of peasant coca growers who are fighting for their rights to grow the traditional coca plant. Melissa C. Draper first arrived in Bolivia as a Dartmouth College Lombard Fellow in 2001. She worked in Cochabamba until 2003 with the women of the Chapare, conducting research on alternative development, and advising the leader of the women’s domestic workers’ union. She is currently completing her master’s degree at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies with a concentration in social change and development in Latin America. Special thanks to George Ann Potter for her assistance in research for this article.

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