Sean Mowbray examines the continued presence of Coca as a staple of economic life in South America and asks why the ‘War on Drugs’ has had little impact after more than 40 years.
Coca, the small green Andean leaf, is a common product in the shops of South America. It is possible to buy almost anything from coca tea to coca chocolate, and coca toffees. But this widespread availability belies the fact that coca is perhaps the second most infamous plant, behind marijuana, in the world. Coca leaves are the base ingredient for making cocaine when mixed with certain chemicals.
The coca plant has been at the centre of controversy in South America for decades. It has been used as a symbol against US imperialism and for the right to preserve national autonomy, as a pillar in the defense of indigenous rights, and also as a political tool. The coca problem is vital to development questions, something not generally considered when discussing the modern ‘war on drugs’ by the international community.
The use of coca as a stimulant in the Andes dates back thousands of years. It is an important traditional practice with firmly established roots in cultural ceremonies. There is also medicinal value to the plant. According to the Transnational Institute, the leaf is beneficial to human health and has been credited with alleviating tiredness, hunger, pain and also the potentially deadly effects of sorroche or altitude sickness.
Currently, the production of coca is limited to Bolivia, Colombia and Peru. In 2013 it was confirmed that Peru had overtaken its neighbour Colombia as the leading producer of Coca. Intense eradication efforts in one country result in traffickers seeking out areas where the enforcement is not so strict and subsequently begin to intensify production in these areas. This trend is known as the ‘balloon effect’.
The dynamic nature of drug trafficking, as well as the large land borders between these three countries, has made it incredibly difficult for law enforcement forces to tackle the trade. During 2013, the UNODC reported a slight decline in the overall production of coca leaf, and consequently of cocaine (see World Drug report 2014). However, after waging an expensive ´war on drugs´ for over 40 years, the overall gains have been negligible and the costs incredibly large for South American countries.
What is being done?
The history of the war on drugs is primarily a narrative of the pursuit of traffickers and producers with military might and muscle. Strong man tactics with manual and aerial eradications have been preferred to softer approaches and often result in significant human rights abuses. These methods have repeatedly overlooked the causes that lead some of the poorest people to engage in coca growing, or likewise poppy cultivation in Afghanistan, and in some cases have even exacerbated the problem by removing scope for other income streams.
Some attempts have been made to encourage alternative development (AD), literally the switching from coca production to a different crop, thus alleviating the poverty of those otherwise dependent on the illegal production of coca. However, problems abound with AD. For instance, the initial phase often involves the forced eradication of coca crops thus completely destroying the existing livelihood of the farmer. This approach, with little sense of irony, is known as the ‘balanced approach´. The farmer is left with the inedible and financially worthless promise of government support to replace the removed crop.
For AD to work effectively the production of coca should first be made of minimal benefit by promoting other more profitable products to the farmers. There have been notable success stories using crops such as such as palm oil or coffee– however, as the strength of political thought has been firmly behind military strategies the frequency of these successful initiatives has been rare.
In the aftermath of Bolivian President Evo Morales´ successful campaign to have coca leaf consumption in his country permitted as a cultural tradition, it may be the case that a continued focus on eradication of coca production is outdated. The principle of coca being a harmful and dangerous plant established in the 1961 Single Convention has been shown to be completely out of sync with current medical thought.
However, while coca leaves may be acceptable, the supply of cocaine flowing from South America´s veins remains to be addressed. The market for coca products is not going to disappear, what is needed is an international discussion on the best way to tackle drug trafficking and that debate must include the future of the producers.
If a global market for coca products was opened, then farmers would have a legitimate source of income without the threat of government sanctions looming. This would potentially result in a decline in cocaine production. Thousands of people rely upon the currently illegal, or semi-illegal in the case of Bolivia, crop to live and while this industry remains unmonitored, there will always be a steady flow of coca to illegal producers of cocaine (as these will be the only people who will buy the product) irrespective of the quantity of money or military might thrown at the problem.
After forty years of a costly, bloody and ineffective military approach it is time to reassess and ensure that in the new phase of combating illegal drug trafficking the farmers are at the heart of the struggle.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.
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