briefly noted - 17.3

Bolivian coca Growers Take On the United Nations

In the midst on the UN Year of indigenous People, the United Nations nearly found itself in a court bttle with idigenous Bolivian coca growers seeking compensation for a failed UN crop-substitution program. Begun in late 1992, the lawsuit ensued from an effort to counter UN demands that the growers repay money the United Nations paid them to substitute coffee for their coca crops. Though the growers withdrew their charges in March, the dispute highlights two dramatically different approaches to ending the interlocking problems of coca and cocaine production in Bolivia.

Begun by the UN Fund for the Illegal Use of Drugs in 1986, in UN project in the Yungas - a tropial region north of La Paz - paid coca farmers $2,000 each to replace their coca crops with a type of coffee called caturra. But because UN technicians mistakenly instructed the farmers to clear the land of other plants and tress essential for shielding young plants from the tropical sun, the new crops burned and died - leaving 19 indigenous communities virtually bankrupt.

The dispute between the Bolivian coca groers and the United Nations arose when the UN demanded that the growers return the money. Left without crops of cash, the growers demanded $5,000 compensation for each family. The Indian American Southern Cone Parliament announced the lawsuit last February, following a decision by delegates to the First Meeting of Indigenous Peoples held inMontevideo, Uruguay, in December 1992.

Mauricio Mamani, president of the parliament and himself an Avmara anthropologist from Bolivia, noted the irony of potential UN involvement in a legal battle with an indienous group during the UN-sponsored Year. The United Nations had little choicce other than to withdraw its demands for the money, he said, because "the alternative would have generated a massive international scandal."

The UN coffee project in the Yungas is only one in a long line of failed "alternative development" projects in Bolivia. Though the United Nations, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and other national and international groups have tried unsuccessfully for twenty years to develop alternative crops for Bolivian farmers, one out of every five Bolivians makes his or her livelihood from the coca and cocaine trade. The trade accounts for well over 50 percent of Bolivia's GNP, with revenues totaling several billion dollars a year - more than any of the country's other exports, including tin. there is virtually no crop as versatile and profitable as coca, which can be harvested up to five tims a year, will row in nutrient-poor soil with minimal care - and has a guaranteed market.

Meanwhile, the cocaine trade is ccausing extensive damage to an already fragile forest ecosysem. Coca-past producers have been dumping kerosene and sulfuric acid - used to convert the raw leaves - directly into the rivers and streams of the Amazon river network. The league for the Defense of the Environment, Bolivia's most respeted environmental group, estimated in 1990 that coca-paste production releases up to 38,000 tons of toxic waste into the rivers each year.

After witnessing the experiences of farmers who have tried other crops and find that there are few, if any, markets for them, many farmers dcide to keep their coca crops. Felix Gomex, a farmer in the Chapare - a major coca-growing region near cochabamba - who destroyeed 90 percent of his coca, is unable to plant othr crops because he lacks the credit and technical assistance he needs. Gomez worries that crop-subtitution programs are actually driving peasant farmers into producingcoca for cocaine. "Who is going to dedicate themselves to all this hard workd when they see that someone like me has lost everything?"

Farmers who do agree to eradicate their coca crops often end up working in another farmer's coca fields in order to survive, or they move deeper into the jungle to ccarve out new fields for planting coca, encouraging deforestation. According to a staff member of the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee, "Peasants are not about to give up the lucrative business of ggrowing coca leaves for the promises of alternative development. Thus far, alternative development has not been successful anywhere in the world."

Eradication efforts have come under heavy fire from Bolivian coca-producer unions, or sindicatos. "So far we've seen plenty of eradication but no development," says Evo Morales, director of the Federación Especial de Trabajadores Campesinos del Tropico de cochabamba (Federation of Peasant Workers in Tropical Cochabamba), the region's largest and most active union. "In 1990 the government spent about $12 million on destroying coca fields but USAID spent only $2.5 million on projects to develop alternative crops... There have been many, many promises, but nor esults."

As part of an international campaign to legitimize the coca leaf, the Bolivian sindicatos advocate developing legal, nonnarcotic coca products for export. They argue that the best strategy for eliminating cocaine trafficking is to provide alternative markets for impoverished coa famers. Coca growers attending a UN-sponsored narcotics commission conference last March contended that not only is the coca leaf a powerful symbol of cultural identtity for theregoin's Indians, but it also has many psoitive attributes.

"The international community thinks that coca is the same thing as cocaine, which is absolutely false," says Secundino Monterica, a peasant farmer from the Yungas. Coca has been an integral part of the lives of the Aymara and Quechua people in Peru and Bolivia for over 5,000 years, who use it both as a folk medicine and as a sacrament in religious rituals. Coca also provides a vital source of nutrition for indienous people because it contains vitamins and minerals often lacking in the Andean diet.

Proponents of legal coca-based p[roducts - whicch include teas, wine, marmalades, dietary products, toothpaste, cough syrup, and even an inexpensive substitute for methadone in drug rehabilitation programs - estimate that such products, if sold on the international market, could add narly $1 billion a year to the country's economy, far more than existing cropsubstitution programs do.

In 1992, 22,000 members of the Asociación Departmental de productores de Coca (ADEP-COCA - Departmental Association of Cocca Growers) in La Paz bought an abandoned factory and converted it into that city's first coca marketplace. "The market is our chance to show the world that we can come up with our own model of alternative development," says Geronimo Meneses, ADEP-COCA's president. "If we were allowed to go ahead with our plans for industrialization of coca, ther ewould be a drastic reduction in the amount of coca used illegally to make cocaine."

The sindicatos are an increasingly formidable political force in Bolivia, using highly effective union-organizing skills to advance their cause. Recently the Bolivian government has begun to listen. Reversing its earlier policy of eradicating coca in exhcange for development capital, the government is now also advocating producing coca for export.

The sindicatos' positions not limited to those who stand to profit it. Groups like Acción Andina (Andean Action) - comprised of Peruvian andd Bolivian scientists politicians, social scientists, theologians, journalists, and coca producers - are also working to decriminalize the coca leaf. The World Health Organization classifies coca as a dangerous narcotic, making coca illegal to export. Acción Andina denounces this classification as scientificcally unfounded, saying that indigenous peoples throughout the Andean region have used coca for thousands of years without detrimental effects.

Meneses welcoms the outside support that such groups give to ADEP-COCA, but remains convinced that peasant growers themselves must come up with their own alternative development policies. "We are the ones who grow coca," he says, "so we should be the ones to decide how it should be industrialized and commercialized." Fallout on the Mescalero Apache Reservation

By the end of 1993, Mescalero Apache leaders in Mescalero, New Mexico hope to reach an agreement with the U.S. nuclear waste negotiator to build a temporary storage facility for nuclear waste on their reservation. The Mescalero tribal government views the proposed project as a lucrative opportunity for economic development, and contends that the proposal enjoys broad-based support within the tribe. But Native American critics allege that Mescalero tribal leaders - using abundant government funds - have presented distorted information about nuclear safety to the tribe's members, and are blocking grassroots efforts to oppose the plan.

According to a 1987 federal law, the Department of Energy (DOE) must build a temporary storage facility to begin accepting over 24,000 tons of spent nuclear fuel now held at some 100 commercial nuclear power plants around the country by 1998. The proposed "monitored retrievable storage facility," or MRS - a network of buildings and concrete bunkers covering about 500 acres - would hold spent nuclear fuel until a permanent national repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada is completed in 2010. But serious safety concerns at the Yucca Mountain site are already causing delays to this schedule, provoking fears that the interim facility will become permanent by default.

Of 21 communities that originally applied to the Department of Energy for grants to study the possibility of building an MRS on their lands, 16 were Native American tribes. Nine tribes have applied for larger $200,000 grants, for identifying potential sites for the MRS. The Mescalero Apaches were the first tribe to request and receive both grants. They have now decided to apply for an additional $2.8 million grant - which is the final step before drafting a formal agreement with the federal government.

Critics charge that the Office of the U.S. Nuclear Waste Negotiator, established by Congress in 1987, is targeting Indian tribes both because the reservations are exempt from state and federal environmental laws, and because the tribes' status as sovereign nations frees them from state jurisdiction and therefore prevents state governors from vetoing the project. New Mexico's own governor opposes it. The negotiator's office denies the claim, stating, "we favor no one, we target no one, we try to treat everyone equally."

Tom Goldtooth, director of the Indigenous Environmental Network, argues that because money and economic benefits are irresistible to impoverished Native American communities, the MRS grants amount to "economic blackmail" and fit into a historical pattern of toxic-waste dumping on Indian lands. But the Mescalero Apaches are one of the wealthiest tribes in the United States. In addition to owning lumber and cattle enterprises, they operate a year-round resort in the Sacramento Mountains. Why then do they want an MRS?

According to Mescalero tribal leaders, the MRS project has great economic potential. They claim it can improve the tribe's living standards and economic self-sufficiency by providing tribe members with training and high-paying technical jobs. Such training would offer incentives for tribe members to stay on the reservation rather than look elsewhere for work. The MRS project could benefit the region too, raising the quality of education, upgrading roads and bridges, and paying for restoring areas of New Mexico that the uranium-mining industry has damaged.

The New Mexico Business Journal reports that Mescalero president Wendell Chino's decision to pursue the MRS project has raised "fear, mistrust, and challenges to his authority" on the Mescalero reservation. Mescalero opponents have organized meetings, called in experts to speak to them, and engaged in lobbying and public speaking against the project. Residents of several New Mexican towns have also organized against the MRS, and over 100 merchants have signed petitions calling for the project's cancellation, fearing it would ruin the area's environment and destroy its tourist industry. The influence of non-members on the tribe's actions is limited, however, again because of the tribe's sovereign status.

Miller Hudson, the Mescalero Apaches' public information officer, believes that tribal opposition is overrated. In the tribe's last two elections, he points out, "tribal council members supportive of the MRS feasibility study were returned to office by margins of two and three to one." The tribal government plans to hold a special referendum on any negotiated agreement before submitting it to Congress. According to Hudson, tribal leaders aim to negotiate an agreement that admirably serves the tribe's interests and has the approval of its members and neighbors.

Indigenous grassroots critics worry that misinformed tribe members might well consent to a negotiated agreement. Unlike tribal governments with access to federal grant money for MRS "public education," grassroots native groups - like the National Coalition of Native Americans, the Indigenous Environmental Network, and Native Americans for a Clean Environment - have few funds for education and outreach.

Moreover, the fact that tribe members voted for pro-MRS officials doesn't necessarily indicate that most Mescaleros support the project. Grace Thorpe, a Sac and Fox Indian and district court judge who successfully lobbied her tribe's government to withdraw its MRS grant application, notes that Mescalero Apaches living more than 50 miles from their reservation can neither vote nor run for office. According to her, tribal president Wendell Chino personally appoints committee chairpersons, judges, and many other officials. Moreover, Thorpe adds, most tribe members who do live on the reservation work for tribal enterprises - and President Chino controls the jobs.

Grassroots native groups also contended that Mescalero tribal leaders don't have the support they claim, pointing to alleged harassment of anti-MRS activists. According to Goldtooth, Mescalero activists have had to deal with mysteriously dis-connected phone lines and threats to their jobs or housing. Donnalynn Torres, a Mescalero Apache and a leader of the tribe's opposition to the MRS project, told a Lakota Times reporter last year that though her organization once had 300 members, nearly all had dropped out, and the opposition had since gone underground. The National Toxics Campaign Fund awarded Torres a "Profile in Courage" for opposing the MRS project despite "threats and intimidation from the tribal Chairman and his collaborators."

Bolstered by their feasibility studies, Mescalero leaders argue that critics are excessively fearful and the risks associated with the MRS can be minimized. In remarks to the Legislative Working Group on Monitored Retrievable Storage in November 1992, Mescalero spokesman Hudson said that safety and environmental requirements at a Mescalero facility would exceed those of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the Environmental Protection Agency, adding that Mescalero leaders expect to work with their neighbors to create a monitoring committee with the authority to inspect and even shut down MRS operations if warranted.

There is some qualified support for this position. Bud Ris of the Union of Concerned Scientists notes that safety risks posed by an MRS would depend on the competence of those who design and run it. Since the tribal government would engage contractors for these tasks, the safety of this particular facility can't be predicted. Ris suggests that the facility could be relatively safe over the short term "if people were vigilant."

Mescalero leaders are confident that the tribe can negotiate an agreement with the U.S. government that would ensure high safety standards and guarantee funding for the project. In the event that plans for a Yucca Mountan repository fall through, they will seek an agreement with the DOE excluding New Mexico as a possible location for the permanent facility.

But even if the Mescaleros can negotiate such an agreement, whether the U.S. government will be able or willing to honor it is an open question. Indigenous Woman reports that the 1987 Nuclear Waste Policy Amendments Act requires MRS recipients to waive their right to sue the U.S. government if unforeseen circumstances prevent the removal of the nuclear waste at the end of the contract period. And if the national economy worsens, the funds needed to maintain safety standards could simply become unavailable.

Miskito Activists Draw the Line on Toxic Wastes

Since the defeat of Nicaragua's Sandinista government in 1990, Nicaragua's Atlantic Coast region has been inundated with proposals from U.S. and other foreign companies trying to dispose of toxic wastes there. Home to the Miskito and other Indian groups, the Atlantic Coast is on e of the most biologically rich tropical coasts in Latin America. With its extensive cays, coral reefs, and coastal lagoons, the Atlantic Coast supports a large variety of sea life that the Miskito depend on for their day-to-day survival.

Miskito activists and their allies, however, have proven to be tough adversaries for waste entrepreneurs, and have so far managed to keep them at bay. They recently succeeded in convincing the Atlantic Coast's regional government to reject a proposal by the U.S.-owned Tierra Nueva company to build a highly suspect "tire-recycling factory" there. Working with the Indian Law Resource Center in Washington, DC., Mikupia - a Miskito environmental group - organized door-to-door canvassing, radio campaigns, and community environmental education to defeat the initiative.

As tighter controls, rising costs, and growing public awareness make disposing toxic wastes in the United States increasingly difficult, U.S. companies are seeking to dump industrial and human wastes in indebted Third World nations, whose governments are desperate for revenue. ..Tx.-Typically mafia-like enterprises based in Miami or Texas, with little accountability, the companies now propsecting on the Atlantic Coast often obscure the true intent of their ventures, marketing them as job-creating and energy-producing businesses - in a region badly in need of jobs and economic development. Because these companies go to the Third World precisely to avoid environmental and worker-safety guidelines, most of their operations pose high risks - for the environment and the workers both.

The Atlantic Coast is an especially vulnerable target for such ventures because the region is in severe financial crisis, with a 60 percent unemployment rate. There is also an unresolved autonomy question that makes government accountability highly elusive. The Atlantic Coast peoples have historically considered themselves separate from the rest of the country. When the Sandinistas came to power in 1979, they initially tried to involve these peoples in the social and political transformations then sweeping Nicaragua. In an effort to maintain their autonomy, many Miskitos joined the United States-backed armed struggle against the Sandinistas. By the end of 1984, however, the coastal peoples had entered negotiations with the Nicaraguan government, and signed an autonomy agreement in 1987.

The Sandinistas' 1990 electoral defeat spelled an end to government support for Miskito autonomy. Coastal peoples elected two regional councils, with the Miskito winning a majority of seats in one of them, the regional council of the Región Autónoma Atl ntica Norte (RAAN - Autonomous Northern Atlantic Region). But Violeta Chamorro's new government declined to fund the regional councils, instead setting up a new cabinet that directly competes with them, headed by popular Miskito leader Brooklyn Rivera.

According to Armstrong Wiggins of the Indian Law Resource Center, companies peddling toxic wastes have used this ambiguity to their advantage, attempting to negotiate business deals with any willing party. Sometimes companies have negotiated resource exploitation schemes directly with the central government. In one instance, the Tauiwanese company Equipe Enterprise bypassed the regional council entirely and tried - unsuccessfully - to buy rights to the Atlantic Coast's vast forest reserves from the Nicaraguan government.

Community education efforts by the Miskito Cays Coastal Reserve Project played a crucial role defeating the Tierra Nueva initiative. The reserve project, a joint effort of the World Wildlife Fund, Caribbean Conservation Council, Cultural Survival, and the Indian Law Resource Center, helped establish Mikupia in 1991.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

CSQ Disclaimer

Our website houses close to five decades of content and publishing. Any content older than 10 years is archival and Cultural Survival does not necessarily agree with the content and word choice today.

CSQ Issue: