Bolivia: Carlos' Cocal

Untitled_1 Out of the many cocaleros we've met in Los Yungas, Carlos is, by far, the most forthcoming of them all. He has candidly shared with us his feelings about Evo Morales' coca policy and how he believes it's benefiting farmers like him, and he's also told us stories from the time, before Evo, when cocaine production was a common business throughout the region.

But among a majority of cocaleros, there's a general mistrust of outsiders based on their experiences during 25 years of the "War on Drugs". Coca growers either fear that their farming secrets will be taken away; or that informants will attract eradication forces to their coca crops; or turn out to be DEA agents or USAID personnel keen on collecting data for their own alternative development programs. Carlos may not be your typical skeptic from Los Yungas, but he's asked us to tell coca growers that we hail from Canada, and not from the United States, to avoid being seen as a possible threat.

Early on a sunny and humid weekday morning, Carlos invites us to his cocal. It's located only a half a mile downhill from his humble one-bedroom home in Chulumani, and it is overgrown with weeds, mango and papaya trees, and old coca plants. "My father bought this piece of land with his savings when I was young and these coca plants came with it, so they're pretty old," he says. Yet the little 30 year-old bushes are still producing good quality coca leaves, and Carlos says he can harvest them up to four times a year.

Untitled_11 While Carlos leads us through the path, we can hear the hum of the Solocama River further down below, and the wild parrots nesting on the trees nearby. Carlos glances at the mountains around us that were once a virgin forest; now looking like a patchwork of green little squares. He stops to think for a second and says "I don't know what I would be able to do to support my family if my father hadn't left me with this cocal -- we'd probably be roaming around La Paz, asking people for change".

Life has definitely turned easier for cocaleros like Carlos under this current government. They are less afraid of eradication forces, or of alternative development programs that will ask them to replace coca with less profitable crops like coffee or fruit. Coca is a now commodity in Bolivia much like gold is in the international market -- its price fluctuates on a weekly basis, and in the last two years, it has steadily been going up. This, despite the fact that there is a large and growing supply -- there is more coca available in the Bolivian market today than in the last 10 to 15 years.

But Carlos remembers the time, only 10 years ago, when this wasn't the case. He still grew coca for a living, but he could barely make enough to pay for food and electricity every month. So he worked where the money was -- in the production of cocaine paste. "There were 'pozas' all around Los Yungas, and we were hired to step on the mountains of coca leaves and mix the paste with the chemicals," he says. "There were dozens of these kinds of places around, and we knew it was illegal, but it was work for us."

Untitled_4 As Carlos walks us through his cocal, we realize that his father may have left him with more land than we initially thought -- and with more coca plants than should be allowed by the law. He has more than four catos -- about a hectare -- when he should only be allowed to have a fourth of this amount of land. This makes him the perfect candidate for "rationalization." But no one is likely to ask him to reduce the size of his crops. And if the price of coca continues to rise, Carlos should have little problem getting by in rural Chulumani. Before we leave, he tells us that thanks to his coca production, two of his children are now starting college in La Paz, and he's saving to buy them their first computer this summer.