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Coca and Cocaine in Bolivia : Death Lies in Between

In Bolivia, one of the major coca leaf producers in the world, the control over coca leaf production lies with Quechua and Aymara indigenous peasant producers, who represent part of an Andean agrarian civilization dating back thousands of years. The Bolivian population regularly use the coca leaf for daily sustenance and some 40 different health remedies. For them, the coca plant has not only been a staple crop but also a powerful symbol of cultural, religious, and medicinal identity. Chewing the sacred coca leaf today remains an indispensable element for the social interaction and religious rituals of millions of native people in Peru , Colombia , Brazil and Bolivia . In fact, the Bolivian Yungas zone has been satisfying the traditional, ancestral and domestic needs for coca chewing since its independence from Spain in the early 19th century. The Chapare, a tropical rain forest area in the eastern lowlands, has a relatively recent history with regard to coca leaf production.

Since the drug boom of the mid-1960s, these places have come to constitute one of the major centers for the first stages of refining cocaine. Bolivia ’s chronic unemployment and poverty had already created a vastly disadvantaged social sector. This, combined with the labor-intensive requirements of coca-paste making - a derivative product used in the manufacture of cocaine - provides an extremely attractive source of income amongst the very poorest of Bolivia 's rural and urban populations. All these factors have submerged Bolivia into a developing economy dependent upon and centered on the drug business.

According to experts, the establishment of the illegal trafficking system of coca and its derivatives has produced a very negative effect within the Bolivian indigenous community, for both the cocaleros (coca growers) and the consumers of the ancestral coca leaf.. Foreign trade and consumption of cocaine and the financial and logistical networks needing to facilitate it have pulled thousands of regional peasants into collateral, drug-related businesses operating on the fringes of the law. Simultaneously, there has been a sharp rise in the cost of living in one of the areas – Cochabamba , formerly one of Bolivia 's least expensive cities - and a decrease in the traditional value of the coca plant itself from the point of view of currency exchange.

The Bolivian government policy regarding the fumigation, banning and attempted eradication of the coca leaf market has provoked the anger of cocaleros, leading to their consequent blockades of the main roads between big cities in the Cochabamba regions of Chapare and Yungas.. This policy has also resulted in typical daily fighting, with 14 people dying, all native farmers and members of the security forces. Over 250 indigenous people have been injured in the last five months. Marcos Ortiz Llanos, a 34-year-old native farmer participating in a demonstration on Jan. 30, is the latest victim. Llanos was killed by the Expeditionary Task Force, an elite corps financed by the U.S. government. In addition, Mr. Evo Morales, the well-known and sole representative of the cocaleros, was expelled by parliament, with the consequent revoking of his parliamentary immunity as a national congressman Both incidents have proven to be the last straw.

The forced eradication of crops carried out by the government with the support of U.S. financial and logistical aid, as part of the sponsored 'war on drugs', has had only a negative effect on the indigenous people, who constitute the bulk of low-income consumers.

Questions about the differences between legal and illicit cultivation of the coca leaf remain open, irrespective of the legal rules passed by the Bolivian government to determine the quantity and the manner in which the coca leaf has to be cultivated. Presently, the most worrying factor is typical: Those in the most disadvantaged of positions - the indigenous peasants - are suffering the worst consequences of the war on drugs.