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Friday, March 31, 2006

Coca eradication way down under Morales

AP: LA PAZ, Bolivia - The smell filling the grimy whitewashed rooms of the market in the Villa Fatima district overlooking this Andean capital evokes the sweetness of cut grass - only it's more pungent, nearly intoxicating.

Sacks of freshly harvested coca leaves are stacked all around, awaiting buyers. It's all legal, this trade in the leaves that produce cocaine.

There's lots more coca leaf around than there has been in years, no surprise given that new President Evo Morales was recently re-elected head of Bolivia's coca growers' federation.

Eradication of Bolivian coca leaf, an enterprise underwritten almost exclusively with U.S. tax dollars, is down more than 60 percent since Morales took office.

The destruction of coca fields is no longer forced, but depends on the cooperation of coca growers, said Felipe Caceres, the official in charge of the effort and himself a coca grower. Morales has declared zero tolerance for cocaine but says he won't discourage coca growing for traditional consumption.

To see one such traditional use, look no farther than the bulging cheek of Daniel Sonco, a 37-year-old coca trader.

He chews on a ball of coca leaves as he and a colleague repack a half-dozen 50-pound sacks of "hoja de coca" in airtight plastic for a trip down from Bolivia's high plains to the steamy eastern lowlands, where he says he sells them in one-pound lots to agricultural workers.

"If you don't chew down there, you get sleepy," says Sonco, his breath emitting a bitter, alkaloid odor. "The people in the east need to chew to work because it's so hot there."

There is a traditional mystique to coca-leaf chewing. It was once a restricted privilege of Inca royalty before becoming common practice among indigenous peoples in the Andes, where the stimulant doesn't just suppress the appetite but also helps ward off altitude sickness.

The first thing you're offered at La Paz hotels as you arrive in the world's highest capital - 11,800 feet above sea level - is a cup of "mate de coca," or coca tea. You'll get the same treatment in the former Inca capital of Cuzco, Peru.

Another means of coca consumption - as an all-purpose food supplement - has in recent weeks been suggested by politicians in the region.

Bolivia's new foreign minister, David Choquehuanca, said the "sacred leaf" is so nutritious it should be on school menus, although scientific studies show humans don't easily absorb its nutrients.

A spokesman for Peruvian presidential candidate Ollanta Humala said ground coca leaf could be baked into schoolchildren's bread. In Venezuela, President Hugo Chavez also embraced the idea of coca bread.

"Coca isn't the same as cocaine," Chavez said. "Coca is tremendously nutritional."

Coca recipes notwithstanding, Bolivians have no illusions that a good portion of their coca crop is being converted into cocaine.

The question is, how much?

In October 2004, then-President Carlos Mesa ended a tense confrontation with coca growers in the Chapare region by agreeing to let them cultivate 7,900 acres of the crop while the government commissioned a study of Bolivia's legal coca market.

Once that amount was determined, the government would eradicate the surplus.

The study has yet to be started and Bolivia's coca crop, meanwhile, grew to an estimated 65,500 acres last year, according to the U.S. State Department. That was an 8 percent increase over 2004 and more than twice the 29,652 acres that's permitted under Bolivian law. The crop has grown for four years in a row.

This worries U.S. officials, though they've been loathe to discuss the issue on the record. U.S. Ambassador David Greenlee has expressed concern, nevertheless, that excess coca leaf cultivation fuels the cocaine trade.

Of the $150 million in annual U.S. aid to Bolivia, about two-thirds is tied to narcotics. The money goes to everything from boots to health care and pay supplements for the 1,500 Bolivian conscripts in the eradication force.

Unlike in Colombia, where the chief method of coca crop destruction is aerial spraying with a herbicide, conscripts in Bolivia do it by hand. Last year, they ripped out an average of 1,235 acres of coca bushes every month.

In the nine weeks since Morales' Jan. 22 inauguration, however, they've destroyed just 1,017 acres - though nearly one-third of that was eradicated in the past week, according to the Vice Ministry of Social Defense, which oversees the force.

It's anyone's guess how much more coca is being planted.

Bolivia is the world's third-largest coca producer behind Colombia and Peru, and what gets processed into cocaine is smuggled across the porous border into Brazil, destined mostly for Europe and the Brazilian market, now the world's second-largest after the United States.

Alarmed by growing drug-related violence and rising crack cocaine addiction, Brazil last week said it would build nine new surveillance posts along its 2,100-mile border with Bolivia to combat drug trafficking and illegal immigration.

Pressure from neighbors may be tempering the Morales government's attitude toward coca.

While Bolivia's "Coca Control" agency has been renamed "Coca Development," its chief returned somewhat chastened last week from a meeting in Vienna, Austria, of the International Narcotics Control Board.

Caceres announced Morales would be delaying his campaign to get coca leaf decriminalized and said growers needed to understand that some coca destruction would continue.

"We will eradicate, but in a voluntary manner," he said. "We will meet our international obligations in a voluntary form."
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