Stable Coca Cultivation does not Mean Victory Against Cocaine in Bolivia

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Coca cultivation stabilized in Bolivia last year, according to a report by the United Nations, but this has raised concerns that government anti-drug efforts are focusing on this metric, rather than the real issue: cocaine production.

In 2010, there was zero net growth in the area of coca crops, which the Bolivian government monitors through a program supported by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.

However, estimates of the country’s potential cocaine production and record numbers of interdictions of Bolivian cocaine suggest that focusing on the number of hectares used for cultivating coca may have displaced the more fundamental goal of reducing the amount of Bolivian cocaine available on the black market.

The South and North Yungas provinces, in the eastern Andean highlands of La Paz department, and Chapare province, in the northern region of Cochabamba department, are the major coca-growing areas in Bolivia. These two regions account for almost 99 percent of Bolivia’s total coca cultivation, with the remainder grown in the Tamayo province of La Paz department, on Bolivia’s northwest border with Peru.

Up to 12,000 hectares of coca, an amount which the government has estimated as sufficient to meet demand by traditional users of the coca leaf, can legally be grown in the north and south areas of Yungas province, as well as in a small area of Cochabamba province. However, the cultivation of the plant far surpasses this legal limit in both Yungas, which cultivated 20,500 hectares in 2010, and in Cochabamba, where 10,100 hectares were recorded.

Law 1008 restricts cultivation for traditional use to the Yungas and Tamayo provinces and calls for eradication of coca crops grown outside traditional “cocalero” (coca growing) areas, including all crops grown in the Chapare region. However, the Bolivian government is currently considering reforms to Law 1008 and, based on a study analyzing the legal demand level for coca funded by the European Union, the country may increase the legal limit to 20,000 hectares. Perhaps in anticipation of this change, the government has reached an agreement with coca farmers in Chapare to allow cultivation of 4,000 hectares and announced that it would purchase an additional 4,000 hectares of “excess” coca leaf for medicinal and agricultural use.

The 31,000 hectares under coca cultivation in 2010 represent a negligible increase over the 30,900 recorded in 2009 and 30,500 in 2008. However, the question of whether coca cultivation in Bolivia has stabilized also depends on other factors. The UNODC monitoring program makes use of satellite images, aerial photographs and video, and field verification to estimate the amount of land dedicated to coca cultivation. However, cultivation is only one of a number of elements that together form the total potential production of cocaine. The land area under cultivation may not provide an accurate indication of the quantity of coca yield per harvest nor reliable estimates of potential coca production.

Decreases to the amount of land used for cultivation can be offset by higher yield per hectare, concentration of cocaine alkaloid in the coca leaf and efficiency of laboratories used to process the coca leaf into a cocaine paste. Coca farmers can improve crop yield through increasing the density of coca planted per hectare, employing fertilizers and replacing old coca plant strains with of genetically modified coca plants with much higher yields.

According the the UNODC’s 2011 World Drug Report, the high number of cocaine seizures may indicate that global cocaine production may be much higher than previously estimated because of the increased “efficiency of clandestine laboratories in extracting cocaine alkaloids from coca leaves.” The United Nations has found evidence that traffickers using the “Colombian method” in Bolivia have “already reached efficiency levels comparable to Colombia.

Although Bolivian authorities have cited the record number of cocaine seizures in 2010 as evidence of the government’s success in combating drug trafficking, higher seizures may simply reflect higher coca production. Because the cost of entry into cocaine trafficking is relatively low, a common problem with supply reduction efforts is that suppliers anticipate losses from interdiction and compensate by increasing production.

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