“Coca Sí, Cocaina No”: The Bolivian Case

Ana Luíza Barezani Gomes

Assistant Director of UNODC

In 2005, Bolivia elected Evo Morales, its first president of indigenous background, descendent from the Athaca ethnic group. In a nation where over 60% of the population is either from an indigenous group or a direct descendent from one, it is important that its leader echoes the demands of this group and promotes recognition and respect of its cultural elements (NEVES, RIBEIRO, 2016; RUSSO, 2015). Morales was elected as a representative of the cocaleros, name of those who work the coca fields, and of the fight for traditional national culture.

He brought a new perspective on the coca cultivation and cocaine trafficking problem in Bolivia. Just as its Latin American neighbors, Bolivia also suffered from large a number of drug production and consumption, being one of the region’s main contributor to the transnational drug trade (LEDEBURS, YOUNGERS, 2013).

The confluence of historical factors, such as economic fragility, the decay of mining, the adoption of the IMF’s orthodox prescription and the tradition of coca leaf cultivation, led to the rapid advance of drug trafficking in Bolivia. The economic power of drug traffickers easily co-opted large numbers of 13 families who survived below the poverty line and expanded coca growing areas to meet the international demand for cocaine. (MENDONÇA, 2016, p.13, tradução nossa). [1]

Since, Nixon’s declaration of the War on Drugs, in 1969, the United States made its presence felt in the region, leading to joint efforts between the American government and other Latin American governments to resolve the drug problem in the continent, and the country’s involvement in Bolivia was no different (LEDEBURS, YOUNGERS, 2013). However, coca eradication was never truly successful during any of the governments of Bolivia in the past decades, despite US’s military efforts since the 1980s. Even during General Hugo Bánzer Suárez’s government (1997-2002), when Plan Dignidad, translated as Plan Bolivia or The Dignity Plan, was implemented in Bolivia with thorough involvement of the United States (MENDONÇA, 2016; NEVES, RIBEIRO, 2016). According to Leonardo Mendonça (2016, p. 14), “the plan consisted in prevention, alternative development, interdiction and eradication of plantations – the pillars of the anti drugs policies in Bolivia until the rupture of Morales government with the US interference in domestic issues.”[2]

In spite of the amount of cocaine seized during these years, forced eradication efforts led to some negative consequences in Bolivian society, especially as a result of confrontations between cocaleros and the military forces responsible for carrying out these policies (RUSSO, 2015). As claimed by Ledebur and Youngers (2013, p.1), it “generated social unrest, violence and political instability. Human rights violations proliferated, including arbitrary detentions, mistreat of local population and, in some cases, torture and killings.” The new approach introduced by Morales’ government expanded the horizon of possibilities overcoming the failed War on Drugs of policies that were exhaustively attempted throughout Latin America, shifting the focus to respect for the population and its tradition and application of subsistence farming. (NEVES, RIBEIRO, 2016; GRISAFFI, LEDEBUR, 2016).

After Morales came into office, in January of 2006, rejecting the forced eradication of coca crops and prohibitionist approach endorsed by the American government became part of the president’s agenda. Evo Morales’ political career was built on his leadership among the coca growers unionists, vowing to represent the cocaleros; thus, many of his political promises that appear as foundations of the government are demands echoed by coca producers. He sought to promote and expand social welfare policies, as well as extol the indigenous culture (NEVES, RIBEIRO, 2016; RUSSO, 2015). The cause is about understanding that, as it happens, the cultivation of coca may be contained, but never fully eradicated, as well as attempting to fight the problem through alternative development opportunities.

Much of the United States and United Nation’s resistance with the Bolivian tradition of coca cultivation and the use of the coca leaf comes from the association of the plant with cocaine. It is important to emphasize the difference between the coca plant and the drug that is derived from it, cocaine. Out of all ten different substances that constitute the coca leaf, less than one percent of what composes the leaf is cocaine. The plant is considered to be a mild stimulant, similar to coffee and other plants, and it serves many different purposes, including medicinal use. The Andean population has drunk coca tea and chewed its leaf for centuries, as traditional medicine from the region. Moreover, it is used to “alleviate hunger and thirst, to conquer sleep and the effects of altitude, to predict the weather and the distance, to soften the mineral deposit and predict the future.” It is undeniable the immense value the coca leaf has for the people from the Andes (RUSSO, 2015).

The resistance deriving from popular uprise to protect coca cultivation stands as a symbol for resistance of a culture, one that does not fit into the hegemonic standards. (NEVES, RIBEIRO, 2016). The cultivation of coca is “one of the most important symbols of indigenous people in Bolivia and is connected with the natural blessings in the form of herb” (RUSSO, 2015, p. 9). For example, chewing coca is a social practice and value that has perpetuated for a long time, withstanding the modernization of society. Because of its medicinal benefits, still today, about 90% of Bolivians living in the countryside part of the country with higher altitudes maintain the habit of chewing the leaf regularly. Furthermore, farming coca is still an activity present in many areas of the country, especially, the more marginalized, where there is a lack of infrastructure and government presence, and changing this scenario has been one of Evo Morales’s battles (RUSSO, 2015).

In his second term, as an outcome of the popular and pluralistic fight of a large segment of the Bolivian population that was carried out by the nation’s president, the national constitution was reformulated. Among the many inclusive changes made to the constitution, one of its most remarkable features is the recognition of the coca leaf as an essential part of Bolivian culture, as noted in article 384 of the document (NEVES, RIBEIRO).

The State protects the native and ancestral coca as cultural patrimony, as a renewable natural resource of the biodiversity of Bolivia, and as a factor of social unity. In its natural state coca is not a narcotic. The revaluation, production, sale and industrialization of coca shall be governed by law. (BOLIVIA, 2009, tradução nossa). [3]

With this, the government of Bolivia, as said by Neves and Ribeiro (2016, p. 22),  “states, in short, that coca is not a drug, but rather a part the traditional culture of its people, who will not fit into violent and homogenizing public health policies, such as those imposed by prohibitionist practices”. [4] Morales has replaced the militarized eradication of coca cultivation with an alternative development, considered more humane and effective, that fits into the country’s profile, focusing on the communities and its particularities. The new approach rejects the american-based narrative, seeing the coca producers as farmers and partners, and not active actors in the drug trade. Understanding the relationship that these families have with farming, as an activity that provides income to these households, is crucial for implementing this alternative project, for the project also consists in presenting to these families new farming alternatives in order to reduce their coca production, while still being able to live off the land. It also advocated for the production and commercialization of products made from coca, generating new revenue for the farmers and alternative health and food products for domestic and international markets (RUSSO, 2015; GRISAFFI, LEDEBUR, 2016).

The model, known as ‘cooperative coca reduction’, allows registered farmers to grow a limited amount of coca while working with coca grower federations and the security forces to voluntarily reduce any excess coca production. Since 2010 Bolivia has reduced coca acreage while simultaneously respecting human rights and successfully diversifying the economy in coca-growing regions. It is argued that cooperative coca control represents a more humane, sustainable and productive alternative to the forced eradication of coca crops (GRISAFFI, LEDEBUR, 2016).

Consequently, the change in the domestic political scenario, with the rise of Evo Morales, was an important mark to give voice to this important cry of Bolivia’s particularity to the international community. In 2011, Bolivia withdrew from the United Nations’ Single Convention on Narcotics Drugs, as a protest against the classification of the coca leaf as a drug, and it only joined the convention again in 2013, after the UN acknowledged the right of Bolivians to consume the coca leaf in their territory. Morales even received funding from the European Union, which he characterized as an ally to their cause, to implement some of the aspects of the project, in which coca cultivation and commercialization is monitored and support through alternative sources of income are taught or offered to the communities. In 2011, Bolivia received positive feedback even from UNODC and UNAIDS, due to its decrease in coca plantations and growth of production of other crops (RUSSO, 2015; GRISAFFI, LEDEBUR, 2016).

International recognition and the gradual success of the new policies are a victory of this cultural revolution led by Evo Morales. As Russo (2015, p. 13) mentioned in his article, “coca is the cultural birthright of the indigenous people who have roots in the pre-Hispanic civilizations of the Andes, including the Inca Empire” and through the implementation of this new approach “it will be possible to preserve and protect the indigenous people’s rights to coca”. Progressively, this administration is being able to strengthen government presence bringing basic infrastructure and services, while ensuring the population sees government as a provider of services and not a repressor. The project defended by Morales is not perfect and has not exterminated cocaine from Bolivia; still, it is a gradual process which is slowly being consolidated, but the sustainable development ideal has already generated benefits for the country (RUSSO, 2015; GRISAFFI, LEDEBUR, 2016).

[1] A confluência de fatores históricos, como, por exemplo, a fragilidade econômica, a decadência da mineração, a adoção do receituário ortodoxo do FMI e a tradição do cultivo de folha de coca, propiciou rápido avanço do narcotráfico na Bolívia. O poder econômico dos narcotraficantes cooptou facilmente grande número de 13 famílias que sobreviviam abaixo da linha de pobreza e ampliou as áreas de cultivo de coca para suprir a demanda internacional de cocaína.
[2] O Plano consistia em prevenção, desenvolvimento alternativo, interdição e erradicação de plantações – os pilares das políticas antidrogas na Bolívia até o rompimento do governo Morales com a ingerência dos EUA em assuntos internos.
[3] El Estado protege a la coca originaria y ancestral como patrimonio cultural, recurso natural renovable de la biodiversidad de Bolivia, y como factor de cohesión social; en su estado natural no es estupefaciente. La revalorización, producción, comercialización e industrialización se regirá mediante la ley.
[4] Afirma-se, em suma, que a coca não é droga, mas, ao contrário, faz parte da cultura tradicional de seu povo, que, não se enquadrará em políticas de saúde pública homogeneizadoras e violentas, como aquelas impostas pelas políticas proibicionistas.



BOLÍVIA. Constituição (2009).  Constituição do Estado Plurinacional da Bolívia. Disponível em: <http://www.wipo.int/wipolex/es/text.jsp?file_id=178173&gt;. Acesso em: 5 set. 2017.

GRISAFFI, Thomas; LEDEBUR, Kathryn. Citizenship or Repression Coca Eradication in the Andes. Stability: International Journal of Security and Development, v.5, n. 1, p.3, 2016. Disponível em: <https://www.stabilityjournal.org/articles/10.5334/sta.440/&gt;. Acesso em: 5 set. 2017.

LEDEBUR, Kathryn; YOUNGERS, Coletta A. From Conflict to Collaboration: An Innovative Approach to Reducing Coca Cultivation in Bolivia. Stability: International Journal of Security and Development, v.2, n.1, p. 9-20, 2013. Disponível em: <https://www.stabilityjournal.org/articles/10.5334/sta.aw/&gt;. Acesso em: 30 ago. 2017.

MENDONÇA, Leonardo Lopes de. As políticas antidrogas dos Estados Unidos na América Latina: Bolívia e Colômbia em perspectiva comparada. 2016. 32f. Monografia (Licenciatura em História) – Universidade de Brasília, Brasília, dez. 2016. Disponível em: <As políticas antidrogas dos Estados Unidos na América Latina : Bolívia e Colômbia em perspectiva comparada>. Acesso em: 1 set. 2017.

NEVES, Andrey Philippe de Sá Baeta; RIBEIRO, Rafhael Lima. Drogas, Proibicionismo e Legalização: um novo horizonte político na Constituição do Estado Plurinacional da Bolívia? Sociedad y Discurso, n. 29, p. 161-187, Universidad de Aalborg, nov. 2016. Disponível em: <https://journals.aau.dk/index.php/sd/article/view/1659&gt;. Acesso em: 30 ago. 2017.

RUSSO, Matthew, G. The Coca Plant and Bolivian Identity. International ResearchScape Journal, v.2, n.3, 2015. Disponível em: <http://scholarworks.bgsu.edu/irj/vol2/iss1/3/&gt;. Acesso em: 2 ago. 2017.

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