To the Beat of a Different Drum: Bolivia's Community Coca Control

June 17, 2014

2651 Cocaleros in Cochabamba, Bolivia at a protest to reform the UN Single Convention (Andean Information Network)

To read this article in Spanish, see here.

“I have a cato as allowed by law,” explains Juan Mamani, a coca farmer in the semi-tropical Yungas east of La Paz. “We have an understanding with our president, Evo, so we control our coca better than anyone else in Bolivia. We work closely together as neighbors and union members to make sure no one grows any extra.”

Mamani is referring to a unique coca control model that has turned many of the basic precepts of the failed decades-old U.S.-financed drug war on their head. His words, and those of the other coca farmers in this article, come from research funded by the Open Society Foundation from 2013-2014. In late 2004 President Carlos Mesa, weary of constant protest and violent police repression, acquiesced to a long-standing grower demand, and permitted growers to cultivate a subsistence amount of coca leaf—a plot known as a cato, ranging in size from 1,600 to 2,500 square meters. Conflict abated almost immediately. “It’s very simple,” says grower Celestina Ticona. “The cato lets us feed our families.” “We bought our lot and built our little house thanks to the cato,” adds Alieta Ortiz, who has worked in community radio in the Chapare, east of Cochabamba.

When coca grower Evo Morales became Bolivia’s president in early 2006, he vowed to reassert national sovereignty, formalizing the cato program by strengthening its emphasis on negotiation, and enabling grower subsistence. Once considered the South American nation most dependent on the United States, under Morales, Bolivia has rejected U.S.-imposed forced eradication in favor of a more humane and ultimately, more effective strategy.

The novel policy approach, called “coca yes, cocaine no,” recognizes that Bolivia, which ranks third behind Peru and Colombia in leaf production, may be able to contain drug production, but will never entirely eradicate it. With its emphasis on community participation and respect for human rights, the approach stands out as the world’s first supply-side harm reduction initiative. Vice Minister of Social Defense Felipe Cáceres explains the logic behind the choice: “We decided to leave the machine guns, the bullets, and the bombs behind. We opted to include coca growing communities in the debate and analysis that created our policies.”

A new constitution adopted in 2009 recognizes traditional uses of coca leaf for the first time. Bolivia then successfully petitioned the United Nations for a reservation that legally permits coca growing and its licit uses within its borders. “We followed the UN’s guidelines in order to withdraw from the Single Convention in 2012,” continues Felipe Cáceres. “In 2013 we requested re-entry, but with respect for our social and cultural rights. I want to thank many friendly governments for giving Bolivia a chance. We don’t shirk our international obligations. Instead, we proposed a coherent policy, based on our new constitution that fundamentally respects indigenous human rights.”

Community coca control is the most striking, and most successful element of the new set of policies. The initiative encourages growers to exercise internal controls through their social organizations so that coca cultivation is limited to one cato per family. “It was critical to come up with a model that involved farmers’ tightly knit and powerful unions,” explains program head Pedro Ferrano, “one that reduced the violence and conflict growers had suffered.” Chapare grower Rosena Rodríguez remembers that earlier time all too well, “We had no rights before and there was a lot of confrontation, death, and bloodshed. We planted coca, they ripped it out. We replanted; they tore it out again.”

The Program to Support Community Coca Leaf Control (PACS), designed and launched primarily with European Union funding, emphasizes cultural values such as democratic union participation; it also privileges collective over individual rights. After its doors opened in January 2009 up until March 2013, the program spent some $13 million on a consciousness-raising campaign to cooperatively limit coca production, strengthening state/union and inter-union coordination, and training coca control secretaries as part of union leadership.

EU Cooperation Attaché Nicolaus Hansmann has worked in Bolivia’s coca-related programming since the late 1990s. “Much of the positive impact is due to three technical elements,” he says, “the biometric registration of growers (50,000 to date), land titling (just under 1.2 million acres), and UN-financed satellite surveillance and cross-referenced coca monitoring. The 2013 Agrarian Census and initial efforts to bring licensed coca merchants into the electronic registry strengthen the effort.”

Grower motivation to participate in community control is tied to deep-seated loyalty to Morales—particularly in the Chapare—and profound respect for the leaf they consider sacred, closely entwined with the practical need for the subsistence income the cato brings. Coca growers, whether as agricultural extension agents or inspectors, vice-ministers or the President himself, are largely the program’s implementers, greatly enhancing a profound sense of ownership.

Community coca control begins when the government shares its monitoring data with local-level union leaders through the regional offices. The coca control secretary or another union leader then organizes a commission to conduct onsite inspections of member plots. These commissioners come from the union itself, as well as from neighboring communities. Men hold almost all these positions, which has led PACS to fund a woman delegate in each union federation. However, the assignment of other union duties has to date impeded a full and active role for women.

The cross-control encourages unions to pressure each other, and often, community members to quickly eliminate coca beyond the permitted cato as soon as they hear union inspectors are coming. Compliance is the central topic of debate at most local and monthly union federation meetings where hours-long, often heated discussions about enforcing the cato are the norm. Communities that violate the accord frequently find themselves uncomfortably reprimanded on the federations’ radio station. “It’s a slap in the face for your union,” acknowledges a grower. Noncompliance can bring a real material price too, such as difficulties in accessing municipal and other state benefits from improved road to new schools.

Another layer of control comes from the farmer-run Organization for Tropical Economic and Social Development (UDESTRO), which schedules routine visits to farms (with limited staff, this is often once every two years), and if they find more than a cato, arrange the elimination of all the family’s coca by the Joint Task Force, a combined military-police unit. As re-planting is forbidden for a year, farmers are effectively left without any coca-related income for two years because of how long it takes new bushes to mature.

Since Morales’s 2006 election, 88% of all coca destroyed is through this negotiated, cooperative system, which the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) recognizes as the driving force behind Bolivia’s steadily declining coca figures. Violence has plummeted at the same time in the Chapare, the region that suffered most from previous U.S.-financed policies.

Forced eradication persists in national parks and regions that were never part of the cato agreement. Federations actively collaborate in keeping production down and out of prohibited areas as they have a vested interest in keeping the price of leaf high so that the cato will generate a reasonable subsistence income for their members.


Current policy offers participating farmers a life free of state violence, as well as social inclusion and full citizenship rights for the first time. In exchange growers commit to pursuing a risky economic path: a future beyond reliance on coca. Trust is critical in this shift, built on mutual respect between growers and the government, combined with practical components such as land titling (which remains incomplete), improved education, health, and road infrastructure, as well as diversified crop production and marketing. Cato income has encouraged farmers to take risks with activities from pineapple to fish farming. “The cato is like having a savings account in case something goes wrong,” says Eddie Godoy, treasurer of the Federation of the Tropics. “Now we have a real chance to diversify our production with government assistance.”

Attempts to foster the legal market for coca products got off to a rocky start, and continue to lag, but by 2011 a Chapare factory, opened making goods from traditional Christmas cakes to coca liquor. In the Yungas, two revitalized 1980’s factories manufacture bagged coca tea and baking flour. But local demand is limited, and expert Karl Hoffman worries: “without international legalization, the market is just too small.” While the 2012 victory over the UN convention spurred the promotion in both the Yungas and Chapare of organically grown coca, to date, no international mandate exists to export the leaf beyond as a flavoring agent.

In November 2013 the government released a long-awaited EU-funded study on licit domestic demand. The report identified 14,700 hectares of coca as necessary to meet the local demand of just over 3 million consumers. “The government will buy the difference between this local consumption quantity and the 20,000 hectares we recognized in 2007 as necessary to maintain social peace in coca growing regions,” explains Vice-Ministry of Social Defense Administrative Director, Humberto Fuentes. “We will use the 5,300 hectares difference for alternative coca products. Any remainder will be destroyed.”

Community coca control is not designed to stop drug trafficking, as forces beyond Bolivia’s borders shape prices, demand, and availability of cocaine. Almost half the cocaine paste and refined powder seized in Bolivia seeps in from Peru through 650 miles of sparsely populated and monitored border. The Morales administration has aggressively pursued cocaine paste and refined cocaine, achieving record seizures over several years. It also staunchly opposes drug decriminalization or legalization.

Peru still pursues forced eradication with U.S. financing, and the divergence from Bolivia’s current orientation could not be sharper. “Forced eradication might be the catalyst that fuels violence and social conflict among the rural Quechua and mestizo peoples, who still suffer the trauma of the 1980’s and 1990’s armed conflict. Criminal groups could take advantage of this situation to provoke conflict between the rural population, the government and the armed forces,” says former Peruvian drug czar, Ricardo Soberón. Colombia also continues to rely on forced eradication, including damaging aerial fumigation with a high human toll, continued conflict and negative environmental impact. Although Colombia forcibly eradicates an average of over 100,000 hectares a year, its coca crop is still double that of Bolivia’s.

Increased citizenship rights for Bolivia’s growers has fostered unprecedented acceptance of the once-hated rural antidrug police (UMOPAR). “Now the military, UMOPAR, and the government work with the unions, and we have good coordination. The massacres and torture have come to an end,” says Marcela López of the Women’s Federation.

It has become harder to find places to manufacture cocaine paste as well because growers fear losing their cato if paste operations are discovered on their land. Community control has “been bad for the cocaine business,” says the former director of the anti-drug police, Gonzalo Quezada. “The growers themselves turn in traffickers, something they never did before.”

Brazil, now the world’s second-largest paste and cocaine consumer, buys almost 80% of Bolivia’s production. The 2,000 mile border through tropical wilderness and isolated scrubland make control close to impossible. Nonetheless, in November 2012, the Bolivian, Brazilian, and Peruvian governments formed a working group to systematize control efforts and to address drug over-flights between their countries.

Bolivian government and participating growers see it as a matter of national pride to be responsible international partners in the drug control efforts. “This government helped raise our awareness that we couldn’t grow more coca, not just because it is illegal, but also because it would give our country a bad international image,” declares Yungas grower Juan Mamani.

Given Bolivia’s history of bureaucratic inefficiency, community control’s results are impressive. Faced with a significant funding gap in 2013 and 2014, the concept’s persistence reflects growers’ organizational strength, trust, and loyalty. Yungas union leader Elias Cruz insists that even a year after funding stopped, “community control remains in force, not as an institution, but in the conscience of producers.”

Community coca control, for all its inevitable limitations, has proven more effective and cost efficient than forced eradication, and represents a sovereign, local initiative appropriate to its context. By permitting farmers to grow a small amount of the product they rely on for economic survival, combined with participatory monitoring, improved government services, economic development initiatives, and a reduction in violent repression, growers are in a better position to diversify their production base and limit their dependence on an illicit crop.

“Results from a policy as innovative as this are not going to be immediate,” contends former Chapare Human Rights Ombudsman, Godofredo Reinicke. “There will be successes and failures, ups and downs, but community control of coca needs to be given sufficient time to see if it makes sense as a sustainable approach to reducing drug-related violence.”



Linda Farthing is author of three books on Bolivia, the latest Evo’s Bolivia: Continuity and Change (Texas 2014), and a founder of the Andean Information Network. Kathryn Ledebur is Director of the Andean Information Network.



Read the rest of NACLA's 2014 Summer Issue: "Reimagining Drug Policy in the Americas"


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