An Indigenous Commodity and Its Paradoxes

by | Oct 27, 2011

Photo of person working among coca plantings on a hillside.

Photo by Antonio Suarez

In October 2003, a tumultuous indigenous and popular uprising brought down the government of President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada, following a massacre that cut short the lives of 67 people in El Alto and the provinces of La Paz. The so-called “gas war” was one of the climaxes of popular protests that had begun in 2000 with the “water war” of February—April in Cochabamba and the indigenous and coca growers’ September-October agenda in that same year in the altiplano, the Yungas and El Chapare.

The broad insurgent, indigenous and popular movement fermenting over these years of intense activity eventually led to the election in 2005 of coca grower Evo Morales, an Aymara native, as the first indigenous president in the Americas.

The Life History of Coca Leaf

Despite the expressions of public approval and unusual levels of coverage in the international mass media, that election introduced a thorn of mistrust and fear among the conservative national and international circles; after all, it was a coca growers’ leader who had taken the reins of the nation, someone who for almost two decades had headed forceful actions, blockades and protest marches.

One of the main bases of the new government’s support lies with the coca producers. Since the 1980s, these growers and sellers have been calling for a free market for coca leaf as a more effective way of handling the problem of this illegal activity, instead of repression.

In colonial times—that is, during the first globalization—this large internal market in coca, wines and spirits, in addition to minerals (gold, silver and, later, tin), was a feature of indigenous modernity. Luis Miguel Glave (1989) has revived 16th-century Andean terms to denote this space: the trajín (loosely translated as hubbub), a vast circuit of trade routes, businessmen and capital that boosted the regional economy of what is now Bolivia, Peru and Argentina. Against this backdrop, the indigenous population found a space for long-term economic participation while offering cultural resistance. This helps us understand the historical forces at play behind the modern coca growers’ behavior; the work involved in the production, distribution and consumption of coca leaf has also resulted in a long-standing coordination between mining-trading-coca growing that has demonstrated a noteworthy continuity to this very day.

The course of the “life history” of coca leaf as an indigenous commodity reveals the conspiracies of power and the corporate interests that seek to block the potential of this market within the context of the anti-drug war. Since the early 20th century, large pharmaceutical companies have assembled an apparatus of violent repression of coca under the abstract argument of defending public health in consumer countries. In opposition, coca producers are resisting the many forms of this unequal and unsuccessful war. The coca growers, along with the distributors and consumers, are the protagonists of Bolivian indigenous modernity that functions on the internal market and is the result of empowerment processes, agency and decolonization.

In Bolivia, the existence of a large number of lawful consumers and coca’s high value as a symbol of national identity and pride contribute to an opening for unprecedented sovereign policies and practices. In turn, because these practices involve the consumption of coca, this political phenomenon boosts the rural coca growing economies, consolidating an expansive and stratified internal market.

Economic Dynamic and Prohibition Policy

The history of inclusion of coca leaf onto Schedule 1 of Prohibited Substances of the 1961 UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs dates back to the 19th-century boom in European medical science and analytical chemistry. Forerunners to the current biopiracy initiatives of the large seed, food and medicinal plant transnationals, European and U.S. medical companies entered into fierce commercial competition for control of the market for coca-derived products.

From 1860 on, companies such as the U.S.-based Parke-Davis and Merck in Germany rushed to the Andes to identify cheap sources of supply and to gather seeds to export them to their overseas colonies. The only Andean country that could compete on the world market with its own pharmaceutical industry—albeit rudimentary—was Peru, which sold the “free base” made in its factories directly to overseas laboratories. These, in turn, refined the product to sell it in crystal form as cocaine hydrochloride in the world pharmaceutical market.

Meanwhile, Bolivian coca, with its characteristic high price and aromatic quality, continued to supply the regional extended market for akhulliku or coqueo, which was linked to the silver, saltpeter, tin and copper markets and to the dynamic world of labor and urban and rural ritual. In his doctoral thesis presented in Berlin in 1917, Theodor Walger observed, “Although exports [of Bolivian coca] are small, local consumption is enormous. The internal coca market amounts to 3 million bolivianos…and is therefore of great economic significance. In taxes alone, coca generates a quarter of a million bolivianos a year.”

The pharmaceuticals industry, which specialized in extracting crystallized cocaine from the leaf, was based on the colonial and oligarchic economies of Asia and Peru. Competing with this pharmaceutical cocaine was the medicinal plant industry—what you might call the “light industry” for coca—which still enjoyed considerable prestige at this time of medical pluralism and plant experimentation. In contrast to this international market, Bolivian coca—despite being partly in the hands of large estates—was more closely linked to the organic growth of regional and interregional markets, largely coordinated by an itinerant cholo population.

The United States was an enthusiastic consumer of coca products. At first, the manufacturers of these coca leaf tonics, energy drinks, syrups, tinctures and elixirs emphasized the difference between the natural byproducts of the whole leaf and other preparations that contained pure cocaine from the laboratory.

Soon, however, competition became fiercer and some companies began to rely on addiction as a market principle (just as tobacco companies do today).

Preparations appeared with a high content of pure cocaine (the famous cures for catarrh and nasal congestion), giving rise to abuse and notorious medical scandals. Likewise, the drinks and soft drinks companies were carving out an ever larger market, free from restrictions and controls, which soon had to adapt to the ebbs and flows of the Prohibition era (first alcohol, then cocaine).

One classic case was that of Mariani wine, based on a syrup of natural coca leaf soaked in grape wine. It enjoyed great popularity in the United States until eclipsed by Coca-Cola, which offered a “temperance drink” during Prohibition and wiped Mariani off the map. The battle against coca was only won by Coca-Cola in 1961, when it managed to get one single use for coca leaf included in Article 27 of the UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs: “flavoring.” The company held the monopoly of legal use of coca leaf in “Merchandise No. 5,” a vegetable extract that continues to form part of its “secret formula” with coca from Trujillo, Peru.

In 1949, the Coca Leaf Study Commission paid an official visit to Peru and Bolivia. Its 1950 report links the use of coca with malnutrition and poverty, states that coca substitutes for food products, poisons the body and leads to a lack of concentration at work. The report was ratified in 1952 as a report of the World Health Organization Committee of Experts and then again in 1982, 1992 and afterwards, despite an independent 1995 WHO study that sought to amend this erroneous and prejudiced position. The 1950 UN document was later used to discredit President Evo Morales’ coca policy.

From Law 1008 to the “Plan Dignidad”

The 1961 Convention was neither replaced nor complemented by the UN Convention on the Illicit Traffic of Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances, approved in Vienna in 1988. The resulting document reflects the new sensibilities of that decade with its important processes of ethnic self-affirmation. In this context, the Bolivian delegation managed to get the notion of tolerated “traditional uses” of akhulliku included as a residual right of indigenous peoples who continued the habit “where there was historic evidence of such use.” Law 1008, promulgated that same year in Bolivia, establishes an area of 12,000 hectares (about 30,000 acres) as “legal” in some provinces of La Paz and in the region of Vandiola in Cochabamba.

All coca farms outside of this demarcated area were considered surplus—meaning that sooner or later they would be illegal. It was precisely in El Chapare and other provinces of the Cochabamba tropics that the anti-drug war later reached its most violent stage with the goal of “zero” coca. In order to forcibly eradicate coca farms, the government militarized the Cochabamba region with ensuing mass arrests, raids and murders. Coca growers responded by replanting coca in ever more remote and inaccessible areas.

The rise of Hugo Bánzer to power in 1997 led to an unprecedented escalation of militarization and violence in Bolivia, which had a follow-up effect at the international level. In 1998, the United Nations approved a Plan of Action that, for the first time, validated the use of force to eradicate crops defined as “illegal.”

The Coca Grower Insurgency as Basis for the New State

Against this backdrop of international prohibition and anti-drug militarization, the coca growers’ organization—Six Federations of the Cochabamba Tropics (Seis Federaciones del Trópico de Cochabamba)— gained political momentum under the leadership of Evo Morales.

The coca growers’ organization burst into electoral politics following a sweeping trajectory from local to national level. Evo Morales’ leadership began with blockades, clashes and protest actions revolving around promulgation of Law 1008 and the Villa Tunari massacre in 1988. In negotiations later that year, the mobilized grassroots coca growers obtained recognition of the traditional uses of the leaf and the possibility of its industrialization. They also managed to get an explicit ban on the use of herbicides and other chemical agents included in the law, along with the manual eradication of surplus crops. Eradication was defined as a voluntary process subject to financial compensation.

The “zero” coca plan, launched during the first government of Sánchez de Lozada, was also openly resisted. The 22-day March for Life, Coca and National Sovereignty, which arrived in La Paz on September 20, 1994, re-established the indigenous technique of the 1990 March for Territory and Dignity and adopted a rich symbolic language that emphasized the notion of coca as a sacred plant and symbol for indigenous peoples and part of the traditional pharmacopoeia. The Six Federations and their leader built on these events at the political level, achieving a number of mayoral posts and councillorships and eventually posts in parliament.

Eradication was just one focus of the coca growers’ protests. The participation of the Six Federations was decisive in the Cochabamba water war, with coca growers becoming part of the Water Coordination Body, along with the town’s irrigators, manufacturers and professional associations. Once more, the wider platform of “defense of natural resources” drew support from the vast urban world of the excluded, as well as the middle class and intelligentsia.

From Insurgency to Power

The events of 9/11 produced a feverish change in drug war rhetoric. Evo Morales and the coca growers were no longer political adversaries in the democratic arena: they were drug terrorists, defenders of armed struggle with links to guerrillas in Colombia or Peru.

The subsequent Sacaba uprising revealed the impatience and desperation of the coca growers in the face of moral fundamentalists who were trying to destroy the legal market for coca in Cochabamba. Of the six deaths caused by the conflict, four were soldiers from the Armed Forces, two of whom had been cruelly lynched in revenge for the murders of two coca growers. All this ended in the embarrassing withdrawal of parliamentary privileges from Evo Morales, announced openly by U.S. Ambassador Manuel Rocha, which merely added to the coca grower leader’s popularity in the polls, with his vote rising from 3.6% in 1997 to 23% in the elections of June 2002. This turned the MAS into the second largest party in the country, expanding the spectrum of the coca growers’ representativeness considerably.

Evo Morales—who had been traveling abroad during the October uprising known as the gas war—managed to capitalize on it. The October agenda became the basis for his electoral manifesto: oil and gas nationalization, the holding of a Constituent Assembly, land redistribution, defense of coca and the war on corruption. The December 2005 electoral triumph of MAS was based on this solid path of “planned accumulation” and coordination of agendas, in which coca became just one issue in a wider program of “defense of natural resources.” The federal government-which to this day is fine—used to be be whatever.

Epilogue: Promises and Dangers of Evo Morales’ Coca Policy

The increasingly explicit pressures and demands for the destruction of legal markets are pushing the government into an ever more irate position of civil disobedience in relation to the United Nations and United States—to the point of expelling all U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency members. Morales’ government has defined a Strategy for Struggle against Drugs Trafficking and Revaluation of Coca Leaf (Republic of Bolivia, 2006), which summarizes a sovereign and well-informed policy on the implications of eradicating coca and the concomitant need to extend the market for its legal use in order to offer an outlet for existing production. This document also redefines the area of “legal coca,” expanding it to 20,000 hectares (about 50,000 acres).

But there is also a degree of ambiguity and conflict between the initiatives of civil society and those of the government. These conflicts are expressed, on the local level, in pressures by the anti-drug apparatus, in active and daily resistance by the producers and in the position—not always consistent—of the government.

The government has demanded the withdrawal of coca leaf from UN Schedule 1 (1961) and the opening up of legal markets abroad. Despite the explicit refusal of the United States to even discuss such an alternative, proposals for small-scale industrialization and export to Latin America and Europe are now slowly being developed; the state’s desire to open up markets and industrialize coca doesn’t go beyond mere rhetoric. This opposition of interests explains the conflictive tone of the declarations on both sides, such as the ever more aggressive stand of the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) and the United Nations against coca, which in turn resulted in an ultimatum and the U.S. embassy’s threat to delegitimize Evo Morales’ government, using language harking back to the 1961 agreement rather than the more progressive 1988 one.

One hopeful sign has been the emergence of new markets and diversification of the legal uses and benefits of coca, which has experienced an intense boom in recent years. In June 2003, the first Festival of Coca, Sovereignty and Human Rights was held in Asunta (South Yungas de La Paz). Since then, annual coca fairs, seminars, concerts and public debates have increased the public legitimacy of coca; discussion and defense have been fully integrated into the academic and political debates of civil society.

The growing coordination between civil society and government initiatives may develop a clear political proposal with which to resist the transnationals’ conspiracy and develop the actions necessary for the domestic and international decriminalization of our sacred plant.

Fall 2011Volume XI, Number 1
Silvia Rivera Cusicanqui is a professor in the Sociology Department in the Universidad Mayor de San Andrés. A contemporary Aymara sociologist, historian, and subaltern theorist, she is the previous director and longtime member of the Taller de Historia Oral Andina (Workshop on Andean Oral History). She is also an activist who works directly with indigenous movements in Bolivia, such as the Katarista movement and the coca growers’ movement.

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