Unlikely outlaws: Indigenous coca farmers as indigenous advocates

Bolivian coca growers celebrate the United Nations acceptance of coca leaf chewing, which has been a key feature of Andean highland community life for thousands of years. Photo by: Matthew Straubmuller / CC BY

Indigenous peoples and their advocates often find themselves working against the current of national and international institutions. Bolivian cocaleros — mainly indigenous, subsistence communities in the Andes who have grown and used the coca bush for hundreds of years — offer a model for advocates in the indigenous space for pairing advocacy with political identity in the face of Goliath world institutions, like the United Nations.

Most importantly, argues the London School of Economics’ Ursula Durand-Ochoa, Bolivian cocaleros “transformed themselves from producers of [commodity] of questionable legitimacy to defenders of Bolivia’s sovereignty, indigenous cultures, and the historically excluded.”

In June 1998, a group of cocaleros were denied visas to the United States. They were hoping to be heard at the United Nations General Assembly Special Session on the World Drug Problem, because their livelihoods were being destroyed and their human rights constantly violated by heavy-handed drug control policy. But because they were stigmatized as criminals, the visa denials and exclusion were deemed justified. The 1998 UNGASS proceeded without the cocaleros.

At the end of the conference, then-U.N. General Assembly President Hennadiy Udovenko said, “We have before us a well-designed strategy. … We have a package of measures and goals to be achieved within precise time frames.”

The high point of the 1998 UNGASS was the endorsement of an ambitious 10-year program for a “drugs-free world” to eradicate the unrestricted cultivation of all opium poppy, coca bush and cannabis from the planet.

That watershed moment that UNGASS 1998 so confidently predicted never happened. In fact, by the U.N.’s own accounting, the illicit drugs trade has now grown to between 0.6 percent to 0.9 percent of global gross domestic product, involving over 230 million users and making up 8 percent of world trade.

Meanwhile, the cocalero representatives realized that the only way to get their voices heard and be taken seriously was to demonstrate real political strength. A few years later, in December 2005, they scored a dramatic and major victory: one of the cocalero representatives denied entry to New York in 1998 — Evo Morales — was elected president of Bolivia with the biggest ever majority of the popular vote. He was re-elected in 2009 and 2014.

Under Morales, Bolivia has moved “to undo the historical mistake” of including the coca leaf under the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs. In the process, Bolivia has played a leading global role in reclaiming legitimacy for coca crop growers.

The achievement of the cocaleros is remarkable. Durand-Ochoa states that the Bolivian cocaleros overcame the huge challenges by constructing political identities in addition to that of cocalero in order to foster unity and attract allies. They were campesinos (peasants) and indigenous people, too. Thus, the cocaleros legitimized their struggles to their external audiences by raising issues wider than the coca, that they were willing to be part of a “plurinational state,” and that they represented the voice of the excluded.

Yes to coca, no to cocaine

During his 2005 campaign for the presidency, Morales and his party explained their position as “yes to coca, no to cocaine,” signifying that while cocaleros may be growers of the coca bush, they are not drug traffickers and are not criminals. They recommended ways for the social control of coca, which they argue prevents the widespread emergence of illegal markets for cocaine, and allows for a more effective monitoring and control of coca leaf production.

Coca leaf chewing has been a key feature of Andean highland community life for thousands of years. Giving coca leaves to visitors is a gesture of hospitality; exchanging it serves to commit parties to an agreement. Putting coca leaves in the foundations of a new house is thought to bring good luck and protection from evil spirits. Archaeological evidence reveals how the dead are buried with coca leaves. It was only after German chemists isolated cocaine in 1860, and coca started being commercialized for mass consumption, that prejudice against coca started to build.    

Sue Pryce, associate professor at the University of Nottingham makes the cocaleros’ case clearer. She points out that both coca and tobacco are naturally occurring leafy plants and are stimulants that can be chewed and smoked, and in their various other forms can be snorted. Both have active ingredients that in concentrated amounts can cause harm, including addiction, but in small amounts only have mild health impacts.

Those involved in coca are mostly in the shadows. Growers of Virginia tobacco have their rights protected; they may even receive state support to improve productivity. Growers of coca leaf are criminalized, and because of the stigma, often find their human rights violated, and their crops subjected to state-sponsored eradication, including aerial spraying of coca-killing herbicides.

Development assistance was also contingent on Bolivia’s coca production. When Morales took office in January 2006 there was widespread anticipation of a sharp clash with global drug policy and the United States. For decades, the U.S. had been providing economic assistance and trade benefits to Bolivia on condition that it carries out forced eradication of the coca bush. This was in accordance with the 1961 U.N. Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs. But forced eradication, noted Latin American human rights groups, generated social unrest, violence and political instability that resulted from the arbitrary detentions, ill treatment of local people, and in some cases torture and killings. In short, the eradication strategy plunged families deeper into poverty.

Bolivia then led a petition to the U.N. for treaty amendments, but the petition collapsed well into Morales second term. In response, Bolivia decided to withdraw from the convention in protest. But then it also announced its application to re-accede to the treaty on Jan. 1, 2012, when the withdrawal takes effect. This was a legal maneuver, because under Section 1 of Article 49 of the treaty, a country may at the time of accession reserve the right to “temporarily permit” coca-chewing in its territory for 25 years. It allowed Bolivia to buy some time, “legalize” coca leaf cultivation temporarily, and then campaign for more changes within the U.N. system.

Remarkable achievement

Morales’ election victory marked the transition of marginalized cocaleros from the ranks of the criminalized to actual holders of formal political power. They can now engage the international legal system and the U.N. with their own voice as legal and legitimate players.

The next UNGASS in April 2016 is an opportunity for a thorough review of global drug control policy, particularly its impact on the lives of poor people. Hopefully the lessons and recommendations provided by Bolivian cocaleros will be seriously considered, and will offer a lasting precedent and course of action for indigenous communities lacking a voice on the global stage.

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About the author

  • Eric Gutierrez

    Eric Gutierrez is the editor of a new Christian Aid report, "Drugs and Illicit Practices, Assessing Their Impact on Development and Governance," which examines four countries where an increasingly active drugs trade has begun to affect development.

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