Bolivia: Chulumani, Chicaloma, Ocobaya, Irupana

The bus drops us off at the non-descript "tranca" in Chulumani -- the name given here to the place where all traffic comes to a halt, and where the trucks and buses stop to pick up passengers and unload. It's raining. The town is sleepy as always, but especially so now because it is noon-time and most villagers are either in the fields tending their crops, or they are back at home, having lunch.

We find our way to the market, the only place in this small town where business goes on as usual. Stalls of produce and meat are spilling out onto the street because the designated market building can't fit all the Untitled_2_2 vendors anymore. One of the caseritas we pass is selling red and yellow mangoes that are amazingly large, sweet and juicy. At a cost of almost fifty cents of a dollar each, these mangoes are considered a pricey delicacy. We try to bargain with her, but it gets us nowhere. "These mangoes came from around Coripata, almost four hours away, so I'd be losing money if I sold them to you for less," she says. As it turns out, most of the fruit sold in Chulumani is not grown around here. And yet it could be, and once was. The valleys and mountains surrounding this part of Los Yungas are incredibly fertile, but a closer look at the land reveals that it is being exploited to produce mainly one thing these days: coca.

Untitled_4 Roberto Ramírez and his wife, Sabina, have a small farm in Irupana, about two hours away from Chulumani. There are no signs or numbers at the entrance to their home, and their cell phone doesn't get reception in the area. At the town's main plaza, we ask a man sitting and nearly falling asleep on a bench, whether he knows Roberto Ramírez, but he tells us there is more than one person in Irupana by that name. We ask if he knows Roberto Ramírez, the one who grows organic coca, and he is able to take us there right away.

The Ramírez's land is a little overgrown and on a steep incline, perfect for producing coca year-round. But unlike most cocaleros in the area, the couple doesn't grow coca alone -- they also grow coffee, herbs, and a variety of fruit trees. And they're on a campaign to get other nearby farmers in the area to diversify their crops as well.

For many generations, the hills around Irupana, Chulumani, Ocobaya and Chicaloma have been prime coffee and Untitled_32 citrus producing areas, but years of coca mono-culture and pesticide-use have taken their toll on the productivity of the land. Many experts estimate that if the production of coca continues growing at the current rate, the most fertile parts of Los Yungas will become completely barren, and farmers will be forced to continue moving into the nearby forested lands. As it is, communities like Caranavi and La Asunta, which once were small enclaves in the middle of the cloud forest only five years ago, are now producing the majority of coca in Los Yungas, and growing at an alarming rate.

Roberto tell us that, unfortunately, most coca farmers are finding little incentive to diversify their crops and grow organically. In the legal coca market -- at the Mercado Villa Fátima in La Paz, for instance -- the price paid for organic coca is the same as that fetched by coca grown with pesticides or chemical fertilizers. The demand for organic coca has yet to generate a market with fair prices and quality standards -- even though the Bolivian government, and the few entrepreneurs that have their eyes on the industrialization of legal coca (for teas, lotions, food products and pharmaceuticals) are betting on good quality, organic coca as the ticket to a profitable legal coca market that could compete against the illicit cocaine market.

But not everyone agrees. Those who are skeptical of president Evo Morales' plans for coca industrialization, and are alarmed by the current increase in its production (namely, the United States), have their own differing views about the need to grow organic coca, if at all.