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Bolivia's Coca Eradication Program to Continue - Quiroga - 2001-08-07

Bolivia's former President Hugo Banzer, who resigned Monday, can point to one major success in his four years in power - the substantial eradication of coca, the raw material used to make cocaine. Mr. Banzer's vice president and successor, Jorge Quiroga, promises to continue the eradication program, but he warns that the policy will fail if Bolivia cannot obtain adequate access to world markets for the alternative crops that have replaced coca.

In its annual drug report earlier this year, the U.S. State Department described Bolivia as "a model" for coca eradication. The government, under then-President Banzer, in 1998 launched a program called the "Dignity Plan" aimed at eliminating all coca cultivation destined for use in making cocaine.

Traditionally, Bolivia's indigenous peoples have brewed a tea from the plant's leaves to help ward off the effects of the Andean nation's high altitudes. Under the government plan, 12,000 hectares of coca have been set aside for traditional uses. The rest was targeted for elimination.

Last year alone, the Bolivian government reduced coca cultivation by 33 percent nationwide. In the country's main coca-growing region, the Chapare, just 600 hectares of coca remained at the end of 2000, compared to about 7,500 hectares at the start of the year.

Bolivia, once a major source of cocaine, saw its potential for producing cocaine drop dramatically - from 240 tons in 1995 to 43 tons in 2000.

As coca production has been eliminated, the Bolivian government with the help of the United States has tried to persuade former coca farmers to grow alternative crops.

The alternative crop program has had some success. The area in the Chapare region now devoted to legal crops has more than doubled since 1987, from 45,000 hectares to 105,000 hectares today.

Yet, there also are numerous difficulties. Incoming President Jorge Quiroga told VOA recently the alternative crop program is hindered by the lack of access to international markets.

"When we're trying to provide alternative opportunities, the key is to have those other products have access to markets - whether they are soybeans, whether they are textiles, bananas, palm hearts - alternative products should by definition have access to markets," he said. "Cocaine, bad as it was, had access to markets. It didn't have to face high duties or subsidies or other trade barriers. So when we're trying to develop alternatives, the best long-term alternative development for poor countries like Bolivia is access to markets and free-trade mechanisms." Mr. Quiroga says his country is pressing this point in international trade negotiations.

But aside from market access, the alternative crop program faces other difficulties. Farmers find coca is much easier to grow than vegetables or tropical fruits. It needs little tending, compared to the pesticides and fertilizers required for licit crops. Also, coca still fetches a higher price than alternative crops.

For these reasons, many farmers have been reluctant to give up growing coca. Coca farmers earlier this year joined other social groups to block roads and highways to protest the government eradication program. Similar protests, which led to violence, were staged last year as well.

Mr. Quiroga acknowledges these problems, but says replacing coca with alternative crops is the only solution. His worry is that U.S. funding for the alternative crop program may eventually be cut back, because of Bolivia's success in reducing coca cultivation. "Alternative development funding and cooperation should keep on flowing to countries that have substantially reduced the amount of coca," he said. "Sometimes bureaucracies tend to give or assign resources based on the size of the problem. Alternative development funding by definition ought to flow differently, that is: the more you have reduced and the less you have, the more you ought to get in alternative development. We've pressed that point very much, that alternative development should keep flowing to countries that have had success like Bolivia."

So far, this has not happened. Mr. Quiroga says Bolivia is slated to receive about $100 million in anti-drug aid under the U.S. Andean initiative. The initiative, unveiled by the Bush Administration earlier this year, proposes spending about $880 million next year in anti-drug, development, and democracy promotion programs in the Andean region, and also Brazil and Panama.