December 26, 1999

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
                  more money.

                  "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 to
                  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, in
                  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's government.

                  Banzer has vowed to get all of Bolivia out of illegal coca leaf growing and
                  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 of
                  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
                  some advantages.

                  "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 of
                  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
                  Uruguayan markets.

                  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 the
                  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.