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  • Writer's pictureJennie Cottle

Getting to the Root of Bolivia's Coca Strategy

The majority of the world’s raw material for cocaine originates from coca growing countries in Latin America. As part of the War on Drugs, a huge amount of money and time has been spent on policies which have met with limited success. While internal contexts vary by country and region, Bolivia has proposed innovative measures to combat illicit trafficking while adapting to its own local contexts.

Following the UN Office of Drugs and Crime’s recent report this past August on coca eradication, Bolivia outranked the other coca producing countries of South America. It exhibited the effectiveness of its drug policy through its fourth straight year of decreases in coca production. Between 2013 and 2014, the report explains, coca production in Bolivia fell by 11%. In contrast, Colombia, who, up until recently supported the U.S.-backed policy of aerial fumigation, saw coca production increase by 44% during the same period. These disparities in success rates and financial costs call for a closer look at Bolivia’s drug policy, context and innovative practices.

Hectares of coca production by year

Source: UNODC 2015, Produced by author

In a controversial yet creative move, Bolivia’s drug policy allows farmers to grow coca in limited amounts, monitored by the government and regulated by coca growers’ unions. However, such a move directly contradicts with U.S. drug policy and the United Nations 1961 Convention on Narcotic Drugs. In 2012, Bolivia's unwillingness to cooperate with these international norms resulted in its withdrawal from the Convention. Bolivia then asserted its right to allow for the traditional use of coca chewing to be taken into consideration, and within a year the UN General Assembly accepted Bolivia’s demands, allowing them to re-join the Convention with this exception.

Permitting farmers to grow a limited and regulated amount of

coca provides them with a stable financial income and allows them to experiment with other crops in the rest of their fields. This incremental approach to gradually replace the coca plant with other crops gives farmers more time to adapt to new crops and look for alternative income sources. Currently, the number of coca producing fields is set at 12,000 hectares, although the administration would like to raise this amount to 20,000 hectares. ​

Dialogue with the community is another key aspect of this project. President Morales, who formerly grew coca, is in a unique position to negotiate with the coca growers unions and promote the legalization of a certain amount of coca plants. These legal coca plots must be registered in a government database and regularly monitored by the coca growers’ unions to ensure they do not exceed the federally established limit.

Globally, the strategy focuses on three target areas to fight against drug trafficking and the reduction of surplus coca cultivation.

Within each of these objectives, the government has established specific programs and implementation measures ranging from an emphasis on community dialogue, greater accountability and transparency in strategic planning, and both monitoring and self-monitoring practices, among others. This comprehensive approach calls for institutional and community strengthening through better education, healthcare and infrastructure.

While the policy is a shift in traditional drug combatting methods, it is not without flaws. Bolivia’s government has faced bureaucratic challenges and come up against limited resources that make it difficult to evenly implement this policy. A black market for drug production and trafficking still exists as well, despite the progress made. These weaknesses should not be overlooked. They put forth different challenges, as well as potential opportunities. Strengthening the central democratic institutions which maintain a good relationship with the country’s farmers offers greater long term potential for development and overall economic improvement.

Carrying this out will not be easy, but the long term payoff of such measures is much higher. Offering economic alternatives and incentivizing farmers rather than eradicating each plant one by one could slow down the ongoing and thriving illicit market and help meet the demands of an economically limited and disgruntled population. As a result, a plan that invests in social services and development can produce greater rewards than one with a singular focus on eradication.

Bolivia’s policy offers a vastly different approach from that of Peru and Colombia, in which government forces have raided farms, pulled out coca plants by hand, and instituted aerial fumigation methods. Of course, Bolivia’s context is specific. It does not have to adapt to Colombia’s FARC or Peru’s Shining Path rebels. In Colombia, aerial fumigation was promoted as the safest way to eradicate coca, since going in by hand had much higher risks of attack by the FARC. Colombian coca production has also served as an income stream for the FARC, raising the stakes for the Colombian and U.S. governments to quickly dismantle this primary source of funding.

In spite of this, alternative policies are essential. Aerial fumigation has proved to be incredibly costly and ineffective. The U.S.’ Plan Colombia has spent roughly $9 billion USD on combatting coca production and drug trafficking since 1999. According to a report by Professor Daniel Mejia from the Universidad de

los Andes, U.S. measures to combat coca production cost $163,000 USD to prevent only one kilogram of cocaine from arriving at U.S. borders. Meanwhile, measures focused on trafficking achieved the same result for $3,600 USD. On top of this, the World Health Organization reported that one of the active ingredients in the aerial fumigation spray is a chemical that has been found to likely cause cancer in humans. This is not to mention the environmental costs that the drift from the spray has caused to the forests, wildlife and biodiversity.

As Colombia inches its way closer to a peace deal, it may be better prepared to consider alternative approaches. Already it has as of May 2015 stopped the use of aerial fumigations, against the recommendations of the U.S. government. The Colombian government may need instead to turn to Bolivia to adapt some elements from their policy to its own local context. U.S. funding to Colombia could as well be put to better use, providing the resources necessary for community measures, grassroots dialogue with the government, and regulatory measures for coca growing.

The governments involved in this complex dilemma should keep in mind that the heart of the problem is not in the coca plants themselves, but the illegal international drug trafficking of cocaine and the corresponding violence. Pulling a coca plant out by its roots does not come close to addressing the root cause of this illicit global market. The most vulnerable populations in these countries, their lives and their livelihoods, deserve smarter and more creative solutions.


United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (2015), "Monitoreo de Cultivos de Coca 2014"

United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (2015), "Coca Cultivation Survey 2014"

United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (2014), "2014 Bolivia Survey reports decline in coca cultivation for fourth year in a row"

Farthing, L. and Ledebur, K. (2015), "Bolivia’s Community Coca Control", Open Society Foundations

Mejía, Daniel (2015), "Plan Colombia: An analysis of effectiveness and costs", Universidad de Los Andes.

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