A major dispute has broken out in Bolivia between the Coca farmers, or ‘cocaleros’, of the Yungas region, and the Government of President Evo Morales. On Friday 17 February Cocaleros from this region arrived in La Paz and have occupied the streets surrounding Plaza Morillo where key Governmenta buildings & the Presidential palace are located. When we visited yesterday at least 5000 farmers were sleeping out in the streets, whilst Bolivian riot police blockaded the entrances to the Plaza. See Bolivian media reports here and here and here (in Spanish).
The North & South Yungas are 2 provinces of the ‘Department’ of La Paz (which also includes the city), they are known as the Andean lowlands to the north/north-east of the capital city, and run down towards the Amazon jungle. The Yungas are the traditional growing area for Coca. In Bolivia Coca historically is a subsistence crop that has numerous uses including medicinal and as a food product. For the Andean/indigenous peoples it has a major ancestral cultural significance that predates by centuries it’s derivative product cocaine, snorted up (initially at least) by westerners. The US War on Drugs was seen as an imperialist attack on their very way of life, and has been resisted.
The current dispute concerns production quotas for Coca in the Yungas – which have gone down, and for the area of El Chapare in the Cochabamba tropical region (lowlands) much further south – which have gone up. What is significicant politically is that Chapare is the area where President Morales cut his teeth as both a Coca farmer and militant leader of the Cocaleros union from the late 1970’s to 90’s. Many see this shift in quotas as blatant favouritism by Morales Govt, and a further example of Morales Govt’s tendency to patrimonialism (or corruption according to some). This dispute comes at a tricky time for Morales, his MAS party & Govt, as this Tuesday 21 February sees nationwide protests one year on from 2016’s referendum on the constitution, which Morales just lost.
Local Bolivians also tell us that the Coca from the Yungas & Chapare is different. The Yungas Coca is more tender and is traditionally the Coca chewed/drank, whilst the Chapare is much tougher…and has in recent times been much more closely linked to the cocaine trade out of Bolivia. When we spent an hour on Saturday walking around the Cocaleros encampment in La Paz, there was for sure a lot of Coca being chewed! Cocaleros, male & female, old & young, were camped out under huge tarps tied across the streets, and mobile kitchens were cooking away. We had the feeling that todays rain won’t lessen their protests.
(NB: the fotos with this article are taken from online media. It’s not the done thing to take fotos of protests in Bolivia, even less so if you are a Gringo, so we didn’t even try!)