I took these photos in 2007 and 2008 while based in Bolivia as part of an exploration of President Evo Morales’s “Coca Sí, Cocaína No” program that sought to draw a distinction between the cultivation of coca, and the production and trafficking of cocaine. Together with my wife and collaborator, journalist Ruxandra Guidi, I set out to examine what effect the initiative was having on coca-growing communities, both as a drug-fighting strategy and as a catalyst for economic growth. But perhaps more importantly, we also set out to create a human portrait of some of the coca farming communities in Bolivia’s Yungas region, so that we might better understand who was affected by the U.S. war on drugs. We wanted to show the faces on the other end of our country’s insatiable appetite for illegal substances, like cocaine.
Though President Morales’s “zero cocaine” program continues to work against illegal cocaine production and trafficking, it has also sought to promote the use of coca for legal and traditional purposes. Bolivia’s indigenous Andean peoples have been chewing and using the plant for centuries for ceremonial purposes, to stave off hunger, boost energy, minimize the effects of altitude, and treat an assortment of ailments. Morales’s program has helped create new opportunities for legal coca use, including markets for new products such as cookies, liquors, shampoos and natural remedies. Coca’s use is so widespread, that the leaf is one of the most common cultural symbols of the nation, and many Bolivians view an attack on coca as an attack on their heritage.
Since I began working on this project in 2008, the program has achieved marked success, and in 2011 the U.S. government reported that coca cultivation had decreased overall by 13%. Challenges certainly remain—more cocaine paste is now trafficked into Bolivia from Peru, and cocaine production in the country is now higher than in years past. But Morales—himself a former cocalero—continues to walk a fine line in promoting the traditional uses of the coca leaf while also proving to the international community that his country is committed to the fight against illegal drug trafficking.
Bear Guerra is a photographer whose work addresses globalization, development, and social and environmental justice issues. His images, photo essays, and multimedia stories have been published and exhibited widely, and he has earned several recognitions including being named finalist for a National Magazine Award in Photojournalism in 2010. Bear was a 2013-14 Ted Scripps Fellow in Environmental Journalism at the University of Colorado Boulder. He’s a member of Fonografia Collective, and the award-winning non-profit journalism collaborative, Homelands Productions.
Read the rest of NACLA's 2014 Summer Issue: "Reimagining Drug Policy in the Americas"