Coca or death?

Cocalero Movements in Peru and Bolivia
Allison Spedding Pallet & Hugo Cabieses Cubas
TNI Drugs & Conflict Debate Paper 10
April 2004

debate10Following Bolivia's 2002 parliamentary elections, the success of the political party headed by cocalero leader Evo Morales, rekindled debate regarding cocalero organisations in the Andes and their vindications. Disinformation around these organisations has contributed to a rise in terms like narcoguerrilleros and narcoterroristas, etc. being applied to the various cocalero peasant movements.

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At the core of this debate lies the relationship between good governance, drug policies and the cocalero movements. The unbalanced approach of international drug control, the lack of leeway that governments and societies in the South enjoy to design their own, independent policies, and the phantoms conjured around the cocalero organisations, make good governance a genuine challenge in the countries pinpointed as coca producers.

This issue of Drugs and Conflict analyses cocalero peasant organisations in Peru and Bolivia and their interaction with successive governments during the peasant mobilisations of recent years. The achievements and failures of such negotiations expose the difficulty in finding peaceful and sustainable solutions to an issue as intricate as the cultivation of coca leaf.


Ten years after the first cocalero march in Bolivia, when coca leaf producers from the tropical area of Cochabamba trekked over 600 kilometres to the seat of government in La Paz to express their indignation about the effects of drug control policies in their region, there is still no cause for celebration. The same holds true for Peru,where despite a series of peasant protests, government leaders are even more reluctant than their Bolivian counterparts to treat the issue with the urgency required. The general public opinion and sometimes even experts involved in drug control policy know little about the cocalero movements. Misconceptions are among the reasons why it so difficult to solve current conflicts in a peaceful, sustainable way without imposing simplistic and violent ‘solutions’ to the complex issue of coca cultivation in these two countries.

The cocaleros, who usually are displaced former miners or poor peasant families, are easy prey for drug control policies. By robbing them of their source of income in exchange for alternatives that do not yield the expected results, the unbalanced approach of international drug control reveals its counterproductive and devastating economic effects, along with the high degree of repression with which these policies are implemented.

The claim in the International Narcotics Board‘s annual report that voluntary eradication of coca crops is a success, on the contrary, it has been a failure.1 Many coca production or eradication zones live under constant tension and violence. Eradication is accompanied by such a show of military or police force that people are coerced to accept. Although not marked by the widespread use of chemicals that has characterised Plan Colombia, forced eradication in Bolivia and Peru has claimed and will claim more casualities if it continues on its present course.

A balanced approach that seeks to eliminate the harm inflicted by the international community’s determination to “abolish drugs” on the supply side is a minimal requirement for justice for those who only produce coca leaves.
A deeper problem in both countries is the lack of leeway for governments and societies to design their own independent policies for solving the current crisis. This crisis is characterised on the one hand by constant political turmoil, aggravated by the structural economic difficulties found in rural areas where people have few productive options, and on the other hand by international conventions that force governments to focus on reducing the supply of coca leaves used to produce cocaine.
Because the coca leaf has been consumed since time immemorial and is an integral part of Andean and Amazon culture, its inclusion in international drug-control policy along with its derivate cocaine, further complicate the situation.

From Bolivia the news of a proposal being prepared directed to the United Nations to decriminalise the coca leaf, and also encourage study of real consumption patterns nationally is a positive sign of change. Meanwhile, there is a need for a mature, democratic culture that allows for consultation and consensus instead of entrenchment behind inflexible positions. But there are dominant voices that hardly allow for these internal processes and do not respect them: they are referred to in these two articles as ‘The Embassy.’

In this issue of Drugs and Conflict, two authors offer a distinct interpretation of the cocalero movements in Peru and Bolivia that help dispel the misconceptions.