End of coca growing brings deep changes to Bolivian region
CHIMORE, Bolivia (AP) -- Claudio Beltran used to grow coca plants, but
now he oversees dozens of other Quechua Indian farmers as they pick and
process bananas for export.
He's happy with the changes brought by a government campaign to wipe out
production of the raw material for cocaine, and not only because he makes
"The situation in the region is much more peaceful since coca farming
disappeared," he says.
In the 1980s, the Chapare region around Chimore was a no-man's land
where cocaine gangs and coca-leaf farming unions held sway over as many
as 250,000 people who depended on the trade for their livelihoods.
But in recent years, the Bolivian government has campaigned aggressively
convert the region's coca leaf plantations to other crops, first with financial
incentives for farmers and lately with the coercive power of the army.
Beltran came to Chapare, a lush tropical region in the heart of Bolivia,
1982 during the heyday of coca leaf cultivation and cocaine production and
became a coca grower.
Today, he works for Chapare Export, a pioneering banana company that
exemplifies the new, coca-free Chapare pursued by President Hugo
Banzer has vowed to get all of Bolivia out of illegal coca leaf growing
cocaine production before five-year term ends in 2002.
The government says its agents have destroyed at least half the estimated
100,000 acres of coca that were grown in Chapare since Banzer took office
two years ago. A record 35,000 acres were eradicated this year alone.
At first, the government paid farming communities $1,000 for every acre
coca plants they voluntarily destroyed. But now, with soldiers and police
presiding over the campaign, coca plantations and nurseries are being cut
down without compensation.
Some farmers are known to have moved their coca fields deeper into the
forests and away from roads and airfields used by authorities.
Others, however, are accepting the government's policy -- and discovering
"We realize we have no choice but to get out of coca farming and find other
sources of income," said Seferino Yucra, 37.
He now earns the equivalent of $150 a month harvesting bananas, compared
to $100 from growing coca. And, he adds, he no longer risks arrest or
harassment by anti-drug police.
The United States government and the United Nations are investing tens
millions of dollars in the development of alternative crops to replace coca
and fight the illegal drug industry.
Miguel Zambrana, owner of Chapare Export, began experimenting with
banana plantations nine years ago, backed by $500,000 in seed money
provided by the U.S. Agency for International Development.
Assisted by Ecuadoran agricultural experts and additional loans from the
World Bank-financed Bolivian Export Foundation, Zambrana has built up a
highly successful operation. He employs 200 men and women, most of them
former coca leaf growers, and produces bananas for the Argentine and
While preparing the fields, he found the remains of dozens of cocaine paste
maceration pits that were only a few hundred yards from the highway that
crosses Chapare, the main road linking eastern and western Bolivia.
The most successful crops in Chapare are bananas and hearts of palm.
Breaking into the markets in neighboring countries for pineapples, tomatoes,
watermelon and other perishable crops has not been as easy.
Private investors are beginning to move into Chapare, too, attracted by
agriculture changes and a growing tourism business.
Increasing numbers of tourists from Bolivia and other countries are visiting
Chapare for its diverse wildlife and scenery and modern hotels are going up
across the region.
"Driving through the Chapare today evokes images of eco-tourism, tropical
fruits and wildlife and moneymaking ventures, images every day more
powerful than the region's past association with the seediness of drug
trafficking," U.S. Ambassador Donna Hrinak said after visiting the area.