Hundreds of farmers who cultivate coca in Bolivia’s Yungas region gathered here Friday to protest a bill that would established regional quotas for the amount of land planted with the leaf.
Though coca is the raw material of cocaine, Bolivia – like neighboring Peru – allows cultivation of the leaf for legal use in Andean religious rites and as a folk remedy for altitude sickness.
President Evo Morales, Bolivia’s first indigenous head of state, first rose to prominence as leader of the coca growers union in the central province of Cochabamba and he remains the nominal head of that organization.
Since taking office, he has supported initiatives aimed at finding additional benign uses for coca, while simultaneously stepping up seizures of cocaine.
The legislation under consideration by Congress would establish a ceiling of 13,000 hectares (32,000 acres) for coca cultivation in Yungas, the traditional home of the crop, where more than 12,000 hectares are currently planted with the leaf.
In the case of Cochabamba, where coca growing is a comparatively recent development, the bill would authorize the planting of 7,000 hectares.
The congressional bill would violate the constitutional provision that requires the government to protect “the ancestral original coca,” Gregorio Chamizo, the vice president of the Adepcoca group representing growers in Yungas, told EFE on the edge of Murillo Square, home to Congress and the executive branch.
Coca growing in Yungas enjoys legislative sanction, while the Cochabamba growers operate in a legal gray area.
Adepcoca accuses Morales of designing the new bill to benefit growers in Cochabamba.
Chamizo said that growers in Yungas were assured by the government in 2008 that they would be allowed to cultivate coca without restriction for the rest of their lives.
“We cannot further expand our fields of coca because the topography itself prevents us from expanding,” he said.
He also cited UN reports indicating that a good part of Cochabamba’s coca production is diverted toward the illegal market and processed into cocaine.
In its unadulterated form, coca is a mild stimulant comparable to caffeine.