Bolivia won an important symbolic victory after the United Nations (UN) said it would no longer consider traditional uses of the coca leaf illegal within the Andean nation. However, this will arguably increase the pressure on Bolivia to limit illegal coca production via law enforcement efforts and other policies.
The January 11 ruling formalized Bolivia’s readmission to the UN’s international anti-drug agreement and included a special caveat that recognizes traditional coca usage as legal. Hundreds of Bolivians publicly celebrated by tossing leaves in the streets in La Paz, while others hawked coca-derived products, including jellies, energy drinks, and cakes.
Bolivia quit the international agreement in 2011, arguing that it would only rejoin if the UN recognized that the chewing of coca leaves — along with other traditional practices, such as the brewing of medicine — should be legal within the Andean country.
Speaking in coca-growing Chapare province, President Evo Morales said that Bolivia would continue its “alternative model” in the fight against the drug trade. That approach allows some 20,000 hectares of legal coca crops and encourages the powerful coca growers’ unions to monitor one another in order to enforce these limits. Supporters of the strategy say it is paying off, pointing to findings by the UN and the White House anti-drug office, which state that Bolivia’s coca cultivations dropped by about 12 to 13 percent between 2010 to 2011.
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The UN’s ruling may calm the international storm but not the domestic one. Bolivia’s government is struggling to keep its legal coca cultivations within state-mandated limits, and critics have said that the international ruling may be read as a “green light” to produce more coca, which some of these critics say will lead to more cocaine production. The White House drug office maintains, for instance, that Bolivia’s potential cocaine production is now greater than Colombia’s and that drug trafficking groups are increasingly using Bolivia as a production and staging point for their international drug trafficking operations.
In order to assuage some of these concerns, Bolivia will likely highlight its efforts to limit illegal coca and cocaine production via law enforcement efforts, including eradication campaigns and seizures. In a timely announcement that was most likely intended to counter-act any potential accusations that Bolivia is not doing enough against the illicit drug trade, the head of a special anti-drug task force recently announced that over 2,000 military and police had been deployed to 21 regions and would destroy any excess coca in Bolivia. The government has also cited increased cocaine seizures as evidence of progress.
Nevertheless, Bolivia’s apparent victory with the UN may only make the country more vulnerable to accusations that its legal coca policy is feeding the growth of organized crime networks. Colombian, Brazilian, and local trafficking groups are all producing cocaine inside Bolivia and shipping it abroad, mostly to Brazil for local consumption or for export to Europe. UN representative to Bolivia Cesar Guedes has said that more than half of Bolivia’s legal coca farms produce crops that end up in the hands of drug traffickers.
While law enforcement efforts will likely continue to focus on the short-term solution of eradication campaigns and seizures, there are arguably other strategies that Bolivia could take that might prove more effective in the long term. This could involve creating new legal uses for coca, in order to absorb the extra production, rather than trying to suppress it. The head of the coca growing federation known as Adepcoca has already hinted at this, describing plans to industrialize coca production in the Yungas region. Alongside encouraging a new legal market for coca, Bolivia could also expand the amount of coca that is legally grown, giving more farmers the chance to participate in the legal coca economy, rather than selling the crop to criminal groups.