Wednesday, November 08, 2006

ANALYSIS: Blurred Vision on Coca Eradication?
Morales, a former coca farmer who calls himself pro-coca but anti-cocaine, ended his half-hour meeting with Rice by giving her a guitar decorated with real coca leaves sealed under lacquer. While the gesture bears a mark of humor, in the context of Morales' wider stance on coca the message seems designed to point out the importance of the plant to South American culture, and not--as it is often perceived in the United States--to illicit markets. Morales still serves as head of the coca farmers' union that lifted him to power. He has increased the allowed level of coca cultivation to about 1,600 square meters per family since taking office last December. At his inaugural dinner, Morales served coca wine, coca cake, and coca cookies. In Bolivia's Andean neighbor Peru, a spokesman for second-place presidential candidate and retired Lt. Col. Ollanta Humala this week announced Humala's support for a plan to feed a small amount of coca to school children as a way to improve their overall diet. If the left-wing Humala wins Peru's presidency in April, he plans to serve poor children bread made from flour containing five percent coca. Giving children coca in the United States not only would be political suicide, it would be considered a criminal act. And that difference in stance reflects a vast gap between U.S. and South American experience of a substance with a known history stretching back to long before Christopher Columbus's landfall, times when the Incas controlled much of the continent.
For thousands of years, coca has been a rich source of nutrients for poor South Americans. Today, use of the leaf is so common that in Bolivia, for example, police carry out U.S.-funded coca eradication with wads of coca in their mouths, said Sanho Tree, director of the Drug Policy Project at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, D.C. Coca leaves often are chewed or made into a tea rich in calcium, iron, and vitamin A, said Tree, adding that by contrast, coffee ''leeches all the vitamins out of your body.'' Coca also has health benefits as a salve for arthritis and gout, as toothpaste, and as a cure for altitude sickness. Even the U.S. embassy in Bolivia recommends on its Web site that travelers consume coca tea to help alleviate altitude sickness. ''What would happen in the U.S. if you banned coffee?'' Tree said. ''Imagine the kind of upheaval you would have. Coca and cocaine are worlds apart. It's like trying to compare coffee to methamphetamine.'' ''A tall cup of coca offers less stimulation than a cup of Starbucks coffee. Ignorance, fear and opportunism drive the drug war in Congress,'' added Tree, a critic of the U.S. ''war on drugs.'' Medical opinion generally maintains that coca leaf, unlike cocaine, is neither addictive nor harmful. Nevertheless, the U.S. perception of coca as a dangerous drug warrants billions of dollars in spending on anti-coca programs. The Bush administration recently asked Congress to renew an annual budget of roughly $340 million for arms, training, and services to help fight the drug war in South America. The Andean Counterdrug Initiative, a State Department program and a follow on to Plan Colombia, provides assistance to Peru, Ecuador, and Bolivia as well as lesser amounts to Venezuela, Brazil, and Panama. About half of U.S. aid to Bolivia, the poorest country in Latin America, goes towards combating drug trafficking, according to the Center for International Policy (CIP) in Washington, and the U.S. has even trained a 700-man counter-narcotics unit in the country. A State Department report released March 1 found that despite billions of dollars spent on combating coca in Colombia, 90 percent of all cocaine imported into the U.S. still comes from that country. In addition, the report found that production had increased in Peru over the last year. To be sure, the world's top three coca producers--Colombia, Peru, and Bolivia--earn untold sums through the sale of coca for illicit uses. While the amount is hotly debated, it is easy to overlook coca's importance to the legal economies of these three large producers, and to the culture of those who depend on it. In a New York Times article published in 2003, Leonida Zurita-Vargas, then secretary general of Bartolina Sisa, an association of Bolivian peasant women, described coca's role in her and in her compatriots' lives. ''My tribe, the Quechua, comes from the lowland jungles of the Chapare in central Bolivia,'' she was quoted as saying. ''We are used to chewing coca leaves every day, much as Americans drink coffee.'' ''I owe my life to coca,'' she added. ''My father died when I was two and my mother raised six children by growing coca. I was a farmer myself, growing coca for traditional purposes. But the United States says it is better for us to just forget about coca.'' ''To me, real success in the war on drugs would be to capture and prosecute the big drug traffickers, and for the United States to stop its own citizens from using drugs,'' Zurita-Vargas concluded. ''The war on the cocaleros [coca-growers] has brought Bolivia nothing but poverty and death.''
Niko KyriakouOneWorld US

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