Can Evo Morales Foster a World Coca Market? By MARCELO BALLVÉ Pacific News Service Pacific News Serive

Friday December 23, 2005

The resounding election victory in Bolivia of coca grower and indigenous leader Evo Morales clearly troubles U.S. drug warriors. But coca advocates and some Latin American media see an opportunity for “Mama Coca” to emerge as a legitimate economic resource for South America’s poorest nation.  

The U.S. style of fighting the drug war stresses plant eradication. As part of his left-leaning platform, Morales has vowed to decriminalize the harvest of the coca plant, which can be used to manufacture cocaine but has been grown and chewed traditionally in the Andean corridor for millennia.  

“It’s not at all far-fetched to imagine that China and Europe could be great markets for coca tea,” writes José Mirtenbaum, a sociologist and coca expert, in Bolivian alternative bimonthly El Juguete Rabioso.  

Mirtenbaum writes that even U.S. space agency NASA has experimented with coca gum to prevent dizziness in astronauts, and that coca has hundreds of possible applications—he cites high-chlorophyll toothpaste, pharmaceuticals, an alternative to chew tobacco, anti-diabetics and nutritional supplements. But stigmatization and prohibition have prevented Bolivian science from researching coca’s potential, Mirtenbaum says.  

For advocates, coca is the ginseng of the future. Their hope, and that of the highly organized cocaleros, as Bolivia’s coca growers are known, is that with their man Morales as its spokesman the leaf might finally clear the legal and political hurdles (and prejudices) that block the creation of a legitimate world coca market.  

Some call for an amendment to enshrine coca’s sacred status in Bolivia’s constitution, which will undergo revision.  

“Coca is Bolivia’s natural resource, just like gas, oil or water,” said Leonilda Zurita, president of a women coca producers’ federation, speaking at an international coca conference in Bolivia in November. “Therefore it ought to be protected in our constitution when we re-write it next year,” said Zurita, as quoted in The Narco News Bulletin Web site, which tracks the drug war in Latin America.  

Morales has sought to reassure the world he won’t harbor drug runners. But he also was emphatic in making the distinction between cocaine, made via an involved chemical processing of the leaf, and the plant, which is sacred in the Andes.  

“Coca is not cocaine,” Morales said. “The producer of coca leaf is not a drug trafficker and the consumer is not an addict, this must be clear.”  

Under the previous government of President Carlos Mesa (who resigned in June), Morales and the coca growers had already achieved a small-scale decriminalization of coca cultivation. Since October 2004, coca growers in the Chapare region, where Morales began his political career fighting U.S.-backed, militarized eradication programs, have been allowed to grow coca legally. Each grower was allowed a small, traditional plot called a cato (less than a half-acre).  

This was a huge victory, because until then, the government’s position (in line with Washington, D.C.’s) was that virtually all Chapare coca was being funneled to illegal trade. As part of the agreement, it was decided that a civilian-government commission would undertake an exhaustive study of the country’s legal coca market.  

Morales says he will push for the study to occur soon, and determine whether coca acreage needs to be expanded further. He also has promised a referendum to ask Bolivians how the coca issue should be managed. He says Bolivia will become an advocate for the decriminalization of coca leaf at the United Nations, whose drug conventions are the framework for global narcotics control.  

Elsewhere in the Andes, the alliance between coca and muscular Indian political movements is increasingly powerful, and could add regional muscle to the call for coca’s legitimization on a global scale.  

Humberto Cholango, of Ecuadorean indigenous movement Ecuarunari, congratulated Morales on his victory in an op-ed on Bolivian news Web site Bolpress.com. “(The result) is a blow to the U.S. government because it tried to ban the planting of coca in Bolivia,” Cholango writes.  

In Peru, nationalist Ollanta Humala is a strong contender ahead of April 2006 presidential elections. There are rumors that Humala has offered coca growers’ leader Nancy Obregón the vice presidential nod, according to The Narco News Bulletin. Humala has publicly offered room on his congressional slate to coca growers, who overwhelmingly support his candidacy.  

The coca decriminalization debate has echoed as far north as Mexico, a country convulsed by the open warring of cocaine cartels that manage the flow of cocaine northward to the United States.  

“The international prohibition on the international commerce of coca-derived products has no scientific foundation,” writes Ethan A. Nadelmann, director of the U.S.-based Drug Policy Alliance, in an op-ed series published by left-leaning Mexico City daily La Jornada.  

Nadelmann asks: “Is there an intermediate point between open prohibition, which has caused so much destruction, and a frank legalization that does not seem politically possible in the near future?”  

Bolivia’s immediate political future will answer that question.