Cocaleros on Morales: “what a monster we created!”

by Leonidas Oikonomakis on March 11, 2014

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Faced with international pressure to reduce coca production, Morales is increasingly cracking down on the poor cocaleros who once voted him into power.

Doña Silvia, one of the representatives of the Federation of Organic Coca Producers of Yungas Vandiola (Federacion de Productores de Coca Organica de Yungas Vandiola) is a very strong and influential woman. And how could she not be? She has to walk for hours and hours on foot through the jungle to reach her chaco and harvest her cocales. Despite previous promises by the cocalero President of this country, neither roads nor hospitals nor schools have reached her community. Of course this is not to say that the government of Evo Morales has not assisted the coca producers that had faced so much discrimination and violence in the 1990s and early 2000s — of course it has! But not all of them.

It seems that state has been very generous — disproportionately generous — only with the cocaleros of the Six Federations of the Tropics of Cochabamba (Seis Federaciones del Tropico de Cochabamba), of which Evo Morales continues to be the President even today. In their area, in Chapare, one can see new roads being constructed all over the place, new stadiums (many stadiums, almost all of which are called ‘Evo Morales Ayma’), clinics, schools. All of this is fine and well done, especially when we remember that we are talking about a region which had, until recently, long been marginalized and from which the state (and its services) had been practically absent for decades.

But how about the cocaleros, or the other sectors of Bolivian society, that may even belong to Morales’ party — the Movimiento al Socialismo, or MAS — but not to his Six Federations?

“They have so much development, we don’t even have a street, or a well… We are part of the movement and we have assisted the MAS. The first time Morales ran for President we put a sanction of 500 Bolivianos on those who wouldn’t vote for [the MAS]. And ever since he came to power he has killed two comrades, a cousin of mine first, and another friend who was also a student at university.

They came to eradicate the cocales and the people resisted and there were fights. And they shot them, in 2006, in the first month of Evo’s government. But he claims that in his period there’s been no deaths and no discrimination… it’s worse! There are murders! And now in Apollo! And he says that we are narco-traffickers, colombianos, peruvianos, guerrilleros, but it’s not like that!”

The above are the words of Don Emilio, another representative of the newly-founded Federation. His cousin was killed in 2006 when the government sent the army to eradicate the coca plantations in Vandiola and the cocaleros there resisted. ‘Why?’ you may ask. ‘Isn’t this the government of the cocaleros?’ Well, things are a bit more complicated than that, so let’s take it from the beginning…

Photo by Danilo De Marco

Law 1008

The issue of coca production and consumption has taken a central place in the process of rapid political, economic and social change that Bolivia has been undergoing in the past two decades. Trying to regulate coca production, the government of Victor Paz Estenssoro (MNR) approved Law 1008 (Ley del Régimen de la Coca y Sustancias Controladas) in 1988, and that law opened up Pandora’s box, out of which Evo Morales and his Six Federations managed to emerge as winners. And the winners rule.

According to Law 1008, the production of coca would be legal in the zones that the law defined as “traditional” (where coca has been cultivated ever since the times of the Inca Empire) and “illegal” outside of those. The “illegal” zones were subsequently sub-divided into the “zonas de producción excedentaria en transición,” where the cultivation of coca would be gradually replaced by other crops with the assistance of the state, and the “zonas de production ilícita,” where the coca trees would be simply uprooted without any kind of compensation. Chapare was categorized as zona excedentaria, while Yungas Vandiola, Yungas La Paz, and Apollo, were marked zonas tradicionales.

Law 1008 was one of the main factors that gave rise to what is today known as the cocalero movement of Chapare, which — in an effort to defend its right to cultivate coca, in the absence of any realistic alternative source of income, and after trying out several unsuccessful mobilization strategies — at some point decided to leave aside the politics of demand-making and start a political party (the MAS) to change things from within the Bolivian political system. And that journey, thanks also to the delegitimization of the traditional political parties and the power-void created during the turbulent 2000-’05 years, brought the cocalero movement into government and made their President Evo Morales the first indigenous President in Latin America.

Evo and his Six Federations

Ever since Evo came to power things have changed positively for Bolivia’s poor, yet not as much as one may think from the outside. Some neoliberal reforms have been overturned, some state-owned enterprises that had previously been privatized were (partly, not fully) re-nationalized, and salaries have modestly risen. However, the majority of workers — especially the rural poor — keep living at or below the poverty line. All in all, Evo’s government remains a government like any other; one that controls the state apparatus, the police and the army included, and does not hesitate to use these levers in order to implement its decisions, which most of the time are driven by market logic and economic considerations, and are not always taken in a very democratic manner:

“It is not, as they say, that there’s no more discrimination and marginalization,” argues Don Emilio, describing what he and many others in Bolivia considers to be a dictadura sindical. “It is actually worse now. The government says that the decisions have to come from the grassroots, not from above. But all the decisions are falling on us from above. [And if we complain] they will automatically say we are medialunistas, right-wingers…”

The case of the TIPNIS highway, which was set to cross through a major Amazonian rainforest reserve, is indicative of the government’s intention to violently wield its repressive power in order to implement its market-friendly decisions in total disregard of the resistance of local indigenous communities. It also showed that no matter whether the President or the government is indigenous or mestizo, black or white, ‘leftist’ or not — it is still a government exercising power over its citizens, through use of force if necessary, in order to promote resource extraction and guarantee the process of capital accumulation. It also co-opts, demobilizes or represses grassroots movements whenever they resist or otherwise stand in the way of such capitalist development.

Photo by Danilo De Marco

Coca Crony-Capitalism

To return to the coca issue, the government of Evo Morales is under immense pressure by the international community to reduce the amount of coca the country produces. Such actions, however, would have a serious political impact on Morales’ bases of support, especially in Chapare. Let’s not forget that the party that brought Evo to power was largely a “project” of the Six Federations of Coca Producers in an effort to defend their right to coca cultivation and overturn Law 1008. However, Law 1008 is still there, and the government is now slowly preparing the ground for its reform. What kind of reform would that be? The producers of organic coca of Vandiola — zona tradicional, according to Law 1008 — fear that the government, in an effort to keep the producers of its stronghold in Chapare intact, will try to eradicate other coca producing regions, “…just like happened in Apolo.”

Apolo is another coca producing region that under Law 1008 is considered to be zona tradicional — and therefore not subject to eradication. However, a couple of months ago the government sent its forces to eradicate production in Apolo as well. There were some clashes with local producers (the government claims they were Peruvian drug traffickers, something that the cocaleros of Vandiola don’t buy) and a number of casualties on both sides.

During my stay in Bolivia, I heard rumors about a study on coca production and consumption in the country co-funded by the European Union and subcontracted by the government for an independent organization to conduct, but, as one person confided to me, “…no les salió bien!” — “the results were not the ones they were expecting.” According to the logic of that rumor, the government wanted to prove that the demand for coca-related products (for traditional, cultural, medicinal use, and so on) had risen, and therefore production should also keep up at the same level. But the study did not confirm the results the government had hoped to see, and so it tried to delay publication even though the report was ready.

I searched for this study, and after some time I found it. It was conducted by the CIESS, began in 2009 and was concluded towards the second half of 2011. However, as of November 2013, the report had still not been published. Its results are very interesting: among other things, it seems that Bolivia produces 46.469 tons of coca leaves (as of 2010), while demand stands at only 23.941 tons, which is half of what it actually produces. And, of course, two questions arise: a) where is the excess production going?, and b) why does Bolivia have to produce double of what it consumes? Both are questions that would bring Evo and the MAS in a very delicate position because the President has found himself wedged between the demands of his support bases to protect coca cultivation (in Chapare especially), and the pressures from the international community to reduce it.

Photo by Danilo De Marco

Eradicating the (Others’) Cocales

Witnessing the developments in Vandiola and Apolo, what the non-Chapareño cocaleros are afraid of is that the government — in order to show some commitment to the international community — will try to eradicate the cocales in the areas outside of Chapare, especially in the regions that were protected under Law 1008. And not only that, but also that it will try to reform Law 1008 in such a way as to privilege the producers of Chapare and deprive the cocaleros tradicionales — like those of Apolo, Yungas La Paz, and Yungas Vandiola — of whatever production rights they enjoyed until now.

“And what if they attack us? Like they did before, or like they did in Apolo?” asks Juan Carlos, the youngest of the representatives. “We don’t have guns to face them.”

And so they have decided to take the legal road, to set up a Federation and try to protect their right to cultivate coca against the interests of their supposedly cocalero government. They have also decided to dedicate themselves to the production of organic coca, because — suprisingly enough — most of the coca produced in Bolivia is not actually organic; chemicals are heavily used in an effort to maximize production. “The Chapareños don’t chew their own coca! They know it’s poisoned with chemicals and prefer to sell it and consume for themselves coca from the Yungas La Paz,” says Don Emilio.

By keeping their production free of chemicals, they argue that they can get a fair price in the organic market and they don’t need to maximize production using chemicals, nor sell their produce to the drug market. They can live in dignity that way. If only they could also export (there is an organization in Antwerp, Friends of the Coca Leaf, that is hoping to obtain their coca leaves, but they are facing legal constraints).

And then there’s an additional problem to deal with: in 1991, the area around Yungas Vandiola was named a protected national park, which brings additional problems to the people who have been living and producing coca there for generations and generations, long before their area became protected in the name of environmental preservation. “Now the government could claim that we have no right to produce coca in the park — but we, the human beings, are also part of the natural habitat!”

What a Monster We Created!

At night I have a meeting with the Federation for the purposes of this article. Somebody brings a newspaper from Cochabamba, in which we read a two-page report dedicated to the coca issue. Among other things, it is mentioned that, according to Deputy Minister of Social Defense and Controlled Substances, Felipe Cáceres, there are three parks in the tropics where illegal production of coca has begun in the past three years, among them Carrasco, the area of the Federation of Producers of Organic Coca…

“But we’ve been living there for generations, and we are not illegal! We are even protected by Law 1008! Why doesn’t he mention that? Or our presence?” they complain. The coca farmers here fear that the report was bought by the government in order to open up the way for their displacement, possibly with the argument that they are also narco-traffickers, Peruvians, or Brazilians — who knows? I leave the meeting, wish them goodnight, and the next day I have to leave Cochabamba as well. Behind me, Doña Silvia mumbles:

“What a monster we have to deal with! A monster we created…”

Leonidas Oikonomakis is a PhD candidate at the European University Institute, where he studies the relationship between social movements and the state, comparing the Zapatistas of Mexico with the Bolivian cocaleros. He is also a rapper with the Greek hip-hop group Social Waste and a contributing editor at ROAR Magazine.

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2 comments on “Cocaleros on Morales: “what a monster we created!”

  1. Oso Sabio says:

    Interesting article. Will check it out fully later on.

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