Bolivia’s cocaleros have long been at the center of some of the country’s most serious conflicts, but usually those conflicts have been with coca eradication efforts backed by the U.S. and the DEA. Now with the DEA gone and the U.S. largely out of the picture, those growing Bolivia’s expanding coca crop are at the center of a new set of conflicts, very different ones.
Earlier this month it was the cocaleros vs. the monkeys, or more specifically the world famous Chapare animal reserve, Parque Machia. The park just outside of Villa Tunari is known for its overly-friendly monkeys (they’ll happily pick your pocket while pretending to cozy up) and collection of young foreign volunteers who tend to the large variety of protected wildlife that live there. Two weeks ago some of those volunteers were using a well-known Bolivian protest tactic, the road blockade, to try to stop construction of a new highway through the park. Critics claim that the new road between Villa Tunari and Central Copacabana is about more than local transportation convenience, but to make it easier to move around the region’s growing coca crop.
President Morales, who counts the cocaleros as his most loyal political base, has agreed to a temporary halt to the road to study environmentalists’ concerns. But angry cocaleros in Central Copacabana are now threatening to reopen the road by force. Here is a report by some of the Parque Machia volunteers.
On Saturday in Isiboro National Park in Beni the conflict over expanded coca growing turned deadly. The park, home to the Yuracare Indians, had been encroached on by a growing group of cocalero “colonies” which, according to the Yuracare, have been clear-cutting forests to make room for the growing of the green leaf that is also the root ingredient of cocaine.
According to news reports, over the weekend the Yuracare took matters into their own hands and tried to move the cocaleros out by force, sparking a conflict that left at least one person dead and others severely injured. The details of the fighting are still sketchy but it appears that police sent in from Cochabamba and elsewhere to stop the conflict were ill-prepared and many were left injured as well.
The coca issue is a complicated one and we have written about it many times here on the Blog. On the one hand not all coca grown in Bolivia is used to produce cocaine and there are many non-narcotic uses (I am drinking coca tea as I write this) that could be expanded if exportation of non-narcotic coca products were made legal. And it is true that in the name of the War on Drugs that thousands of innocents have been jailed to boost arrest statistics aimed at keeping Washington happy.
That said, it is also true that stories are widespread here about cocaine labs taking over the hills above Cochabamba and about foreigners moving in to take advantage of a coca-growing environment that has become much looser.
Now it has come to a violent conflict – not the first – between indigenous people defending their land and coca growers looking for new land to cultivate. That should give all those looking at this issue pause to look beyond the rhetoric from all sides and closer at the reality of what is happening on the ground and what it means.
[Note: The Blog will be on a break until Friday.]