Coca and Conflict in Bolivia

— Benjamin Dangl

I MET UP with coca farmer Leonilda Zurita and her colleague Apolonia Sánchez in the town of Eterazama in February, 2006. Both of them wore the wide, pleated skirts and white, mesh, wide-brimmed hats common to indigenous women in the Chapare.

Zurita is a motherly but fierce social movement leader, and answered my questions with enthusiasm. Her charisma and strength of spirit helped make her one of the most distinguished organizers in the country, as well as an alternate senator in the national congress. Sánchez is a member of the union led by Zurita and, in addition to producing coca, sells clothes for a living. They brought me to the town coca market, which is organized and monitored by the local union.

The market in Eterazama, situated on a large concrete expanse, underneath a corrugated metal roof, has been operating for the past 25 years. Inside, the air was thick with the rich, pungent odor of the coca leaf. Green piles of coca up to four feet high were spread across the floor. Farmers’ children played in it, rolling around and throwing leaves at each other while families unloaded tightly stuffed sacks of coca off of cars and bicycles to empty out onto the market floor.

Like elsewhere in the Chapare, Eterazama is surrounded by small coca farms. The tropical climate allows farmers to produce coca year round, harvesting their crop every three to four months. Most of the region’s coca is produced by small farmers who travel for miles by bike, car, and on foot to sell their leaves at union-controlled, legal markets in towns like this.

Coca purchased at town markets is usually resold in larger city markets. The union controls sales as tightly as possible, and those caught selling coca outside the legal, union-controlled market are not allowed back.

For many farmers in the Chapare, the alternative to growing coca is unemployment and hunger. “We need to take care of our coca as if it were a child so that the whole family can survive,” Zurita said. “The coca gives us food. It takes care of our education and healthcare because here education and healthcare are not free. When we sell coca, we are able to buy school supplies for our children so they can study.”

After my trip to the Eterazama coca market, I took a bus to visit Zurita’s home in the Chapare. The vehicle was teeming with sacks of rice, cooking oil, and children in white school uniforms. I squashed myself into the pile of people and bags as we barreled down the dirt road, past a military encampment where hundreds of security forces were stationed in tents for eradication efforts. We passed countless coca fields and homes with the green leaf drying in front yards.

Her house was one of the last before the road turned into jungle foot paths. Like other homes in the area, it didn’t have electricity or running water. The two-story structure was about 10 by 20 feet wide and had no walls or floor. A loft constructed of logs lashed together and secured with wooden pegs was topped by a roof made of intertwined leaves.

Though Zurita’s family lives in conditions like thousands of other poor coca farmers, she still remains connected to the outside world. When we arrived, her cell phone was charging in her husband’s car and rang constantly. As she spread out rice to dry in the sun, and her husband chopped wood, she answered interview questions on the phone. Afterward, I asked her who the call was from. “Someone from BBC, London,” she replied nonchalantly.

The Right to Grow Coca

The next day we bushwhacked through a thick forest behind the house to the family coca field. The main pathway was flooded, so we hacked through swampy areas, pushing through vines and clouds of insects. After a couple of miles, the shaded forest opened up to a wide, sunlit coca field.

After packing golf ball-sized wads of coca in their cheeks, Zurita and her husband began to spray pesticides on the coca from plastic packs on their backs. Chewing coca, they explained, was something they did every day to give them strength while they worked.

When Zurita had finished spraying a section of the crop, she sat down in the shade.
Between gulps of water, she told me of the mobilizations she participated in as a union leader. She saw her life shaped by her struggle against militarization and coca eradication. (She appears on the previous page drying cocoa leaves in the sun.)

In a women’s march from Cochabamba to La Paz from December 1995 to January 1996, she told me, coca farmers demanded an end to the violence in the Chapare. They also demanded a meeting with President Sánchez de Lozada’s wife, who refused. “They didn’t understand our situation and so we began a hunger strike, which lasted twelve days,” she said.

Through coca unions, numerous blockades and protests have been organized to defend the farmers’ right to grow coca. A highway that goes through the Chapare links the economically booming city of Santa Cruz to Cochabamba and La Paz. Blocking this important route puts pressure on the government to meet cocalero demands.

Blockades constructed out of dirt, rocks, logs, and tires are sometimes sustained for weeks, or are spontaneous and mobile, harder for security forces to break up. Blockade committees are developed by coca unions with a structure and leadership in place that allows blockaders to coordinate their work and activities.

Yet coca unions have done much more than protest. Zurita said that a goal of her work is “to bring the women ahead, by organizing, empowering and orienting them and setting up seminars. [Many] women in the Chapare don’t know how to read or write. So the best school for the women is the union. There we have empowered people. We learn about which laws are in favor of us and which are not. This has all shown us that the union organization is important to defend mother earth, defend the coca, and defend our natural resources...”

The sun grew hotter. Her husband disappeared to another part of the coca field and Zurita reached for more coca. She knows the reality of the Chapare well, but she has a second life, which also occupies her time. This other life is one of constant travel, union meetings, protests, speeches, and interviews with the media. “Sometimes I go for weeks when the only housing I have is in the buses,” she said. “I have to be in one meeting one day and have to travel by night to get to the next one the following day.”

In the coca field, this part of her life seemed distant. Somehow she lives with a foot in both realities: “I produce coca for my children, because if I die tomorrow they will be able to continue to eat thanks to this bit of coca.”

ATC 129, July-August 2007