Bolivia Doubles Land for Coca Farming

The Bolivian Senate passed a measure on February 24 nearly doubling the legally-allotted land for coca production in the Yungas and Chapare regions. The measure hopes to end days of violent riots in La Paz, the capital.

The riots lasted two days and cut access to executive and legislative offices before riot police could quell the unrest, firing tear gas into the crowds and arresting a total of 148 individuals. The protests became violent when, according to Deputy Minister for Public Safety Carlos Aparicio, protesters “burned police installations” and “a firefighting unit.”

The violence, centered around La Paz’s Plaza de Armas, ensued when hundreds of cocaleros or coca-farmers from the Yungas region gathered to protest a measure which raised the limit on the amount of land used for coca production in the country. The measure had intended to set the production zone at 20,000 hectares, 8,000 more than the current amount. However, with violence in the capital and growing discontent with President Evo Morales’s policies, the new measure instead increased the area to 22,000 hectares, almost doubling the previous level.

Coca, the main ingredient in cocaine, counteracts the effects of fatigue and altitude when chewed or brewed in tea. The plant also carries significant spiritual and cultural value for many indigenous peoples in Bolivia.

The new law and protests fly in the face of multiple studies of Bolivia’s coca market and its legality. One such study, funded by the European Union in 2013, found that Bolivia needed only 14,705 hectares of coca production to satisfy national demand. According to the United Nations, Bolivia currently has 20,200 hectares of land in use for coca production, and 94 percent of the crop in Chapare enters illegal markets.

A former coca-farmer in Chapare, Morales built his presidential campaign around the cocaleros and formulates much of his policy with the coca industry in mind. After heavy intervention by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in the 1980s, the current anti-American political fervor in the world’s third-largest coca-producing nation has taken special interest in developing what many consider to be a patriotic and culturally essential market.

It will be difficult for President Morales to curtail cocaine production in the future without compromising with what indigenous Bolivians view as a western stigmatization of an ethnic and cu