Why a coca plantation in Bolivia has nothing to do with the violence of cocaine

When thinking of drug trade, associations with violence and crime rise to the mind. In Bolivia, I went to the source of our cocaine and visited an illegal coca plantation. Student and part-time coca farmer Fernando* invited me to assist him planting his coca. Here, however, I didn’t experience the crime and aggression we’re conditioned with by media. Instead, I experienced solidarity and freedom.

When Evo Morales came to power in 2006, he claimed the indigenous right to cultivate coca and extended the permitted amount of coca to now 22,000 hectares. Supported by his motto coca sí, cocaina no, the policy was aimed at expanding a market for coca products and limiting cocaine production through social control. A progressive approach after decades of violent militarization and criminalizing coca farmers, a policy imposed by the Drug Enforce Administration and the USA. Morales focuses to empower coca farmers with rights, duties and a basic income retrieved from coca, which is a lucrative plant. Social control is used to prevent coca being produced for the illegal market. In practice, there’s still coca being cultivated for cocaine. The coca plantations in Bolivia are divided into three categories: zona tradicional, where coca has grown for centuries; zona excedentaria, relatively new regions where coca can be grown legally, and zona ilicita, areas where illegal coca is grown. Fernando’s site is in a zona ilicita and his coca is transported to laboratories where cocaine is being produced.

Fernando lives in El Alto, a town adjacent to La Paz, which is the fastest growing city in Bolivia due to the massive migration from the countryside. Most of them came to live here to improve their opportunities in the field of study and work, like Fernando. He studies Engineering at El Alto University and swops his hectic city life of the densely populated El Alto every two to three weeks with a week in the countryside, where his family lives and where his plantation is located. Together with a Czech friend, he invites me to work on his coca plantation for a few days. Wwoofing, but in the illegal sector.

‘The upcoming days I’m going to exploit these Europeans,’ Fernando is pointing at us, joking at a local, who’s sitting in front of his house, referring to a micro compensation of five centuries of colonization and neo-liberalism. Fair enough. From the village we get a lift in a jeep, after which we walk two hours uphill to a cabin in the jungle. In this cabin we will sleep, eat and experience campfire moments in the upcoming nights, sometimes accompanied by a local friend or family member. Inside there is a plank that is going to be our bed. The foot end serves as a storage place for our vegetables and as a cutting board on which we prepare our meals in the mornings and evenings. Every morning we wake up to the sounds of exotic birds and drifting fog that presents us the green mountainous landscape surrounding us. It’s the start of a very back-to-basic but relaxed workaway. I never expected to enjoy working in a  segment of the cocaine chain.

It is a half hour walk from the cabin to the plantation. ‘It’s a good environment for growing coca,’ Fernando explains. ‘The altitude, the climate and the virgin land is not depleted like in traditional areas. This area is located outside the legal zones and therefore I am not entitled to a certificate that allows me to grow coca. My coca is therefore not allowed to go to the legal market. In addition, the legal market is limited because you can only grow a maximum of 0.16 hectares. Depending on the market price, this results in a total of 250 dollars every 3 to 4 months. I own 2.5 hectares of agricultural land, ideally the income from my coca would be 15 times bigger. So the money is the reason why I grow coca.’

The following days we are putting young coca plants in the soil of his plantation, an area that is registered in the name of Fernando’s uncle. When I asked what his uncle’s opinion is about Fernando’s illegal crop on his territory, Fernando replies: ‘He doesn’t mind. The cultivation of coca has an innocent image, even despite its illegal destination. It would, however, be impossible if I played an active role in the production of cocaine.’ Later, during our lunch break – with coca leaves as an appetizer – his uncle comes to visit us on the plantation and immediately starts to shares the coca story: ‘In Bolivia we have been cultivating and consuming coca for centuries. It is very nutritious and it has various medicinal properties. We therefore consider coca as la hoja sagrada, the holy leaf. The cultivation and consumption of coca only became a problem when the European colonizer came, and later, when the demand for cocaine began to rise from Europe and North America.’ It is a sentiment that is strongly felt throughout Bolivia, and also in other Andean countries.

Hmm, coca okay, but this coca is no longer sacred after it is mixed with kerosene and acetone. I ask Fernando what his family thinks about him growing coca for cocaine: ‘They respect my choice, partly because I am financially independent. My parents always had a small disposable income. Because our high school was located far from my family home, me and my brothers and sisters lived independently from the age of twelve. I have a good relationship with my family, but I had to take care of myself at a young age. Because of my upbringing, independence and freedom are important to me. I find it difficult to work for a boss and this work gives me a lot of freedom.’

Looking at the living conditions of the villagers, seeking opportunities for extra income is understandable. In the villages, people live in modest small houses, most of them made from wood. Each household has one water tap in their garden and toilets are dug pits with a wooden fence around it. In the villages it is visible that little money is distributed.

When asked how he views cocaine trade in relation to Bolivian society, Fernando replies: ‘Bolivia produces cocaine, but few Bolivians consume it. Poverty plays a role in this, but it is also a lack of need. There is no interest in cocaine, not like in the US or in Europe. Less than one percent of the Bolivian population has ever tried cocaine. My friends don’t care either. The potentially harmful effects of cocaine consumption are not visible here. In addition, cocaine production is more relaxed here than in Colombia or Peru. The militarization led by the DEA (the US Drug Enforcement Administration) has been kicked out by the Bolivian government since 2008. That’s why there is less fear and less violence in Bolivia. The people who work in laboratories don’t kill. It is corrupt, but not violent. That was different in the 80s and 90s, when the USA and the DEA were operating here.’

From my privileged white millennial perspective, I asked Fernando if his coca is organically cultivated. Or if he uses pesticides or fertilizers in order to augment his harvest. He laughs at my face. ‘Why should I grow organic coca, if further up the production chain of cocaine, coca leaves are mixed with kerosene and acids anyway?’ He’s right. But at the same time, it demonstrates the absolute lack of control for both the health of the consumer and the damage it causes to the soil. Cocaine is a risky product, and because of its illegal status, there are no specialists involved that ensure the pharmaceutical safety and prevent ecological damage for the  production of cocaine.

On the fifth day we walked back to the village from where we started. After a walk of twenty kilometers we have a beer at the cafe of Fernando’s sister. The community leader of Fernando’s village joins us. We cheer and offer a sip of beer on the floor to pachamama, Mother Earth. When his friend leaves, I ask Fernando if his neighbors or people from his community are not going to betray him. ‘My neighbor has a coca plantation and the man we just spoke to as well, to name a few. The sense of community is strong here, everyone knows each other. If cars enter the region that appears to be from a stranger, it is immediately communicated to the rest of the village that an outsider comes to visit. The state has little influence in a large country with isolated areas. Due to the absence of the police, it is important that we as a community function strongly. So there is a high level of social control and mutual protection here.’

Factually, I have committed a criminal act by contributing to the production of an illegal product. But I didn’t experience it that way. It is partly because the atmosphere did not feel threatening, which is due to the hospitality of Fernando and his family. Coca farmers have a small income, and within the cocaine chain they earn the least. Their motive to get an additional income is understandable. On the other hand, the plant is not harmful itself. On a plantation in such a lush environment you are not concerned with a chemical product such as cocaine. Perhaps it would be a different story if I would know people in my area who are experiencing problems with cocaine consumption. But as Fernando explains, this is hardly the case in Bolivia and in his social network. Apparently, somewhere in the world there is a need for cocaine and this demand continues to increase. If the amount of drug users continues to grow, even after decades of prohibition, how can a coca farmer believe it is a dangerous product?


* The name Fernando is a pseudonym


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