May 22, 2000

Bolivia pledges to eradicate coca leaf plantations

                  LA PAZ, Bolivia (AP) -- Bolivia brushed aside threats of strikes and blockades by
                  coca leaf producers and pledged Monday to continue destroying the plantations
                  used to make cocaine.

                  Nearly 10,000 peasants gathered over the weekend in El Chapare in the heart of
                  Bolivia's coca-growing country and set a 30-day deadline for the government to
                  stop the destruction of their crops.

                  Peasant leader Evo Morales warned the peasants would blockade roads, seize
                  villages, go on hunger strikes and organize massive marches on La Paz if the
                  government does not stop targeting their coca crops.

                  Interior Minister Guillermo Fortun said drug traffickers are behind the peasant
                  leaders' threats and the soldiers and police won't stop eradicating the coca crops.

                  "We aim at reaching the year 2002, when the mandate of President (Hugo)
                  Banzer expires, having destroyed almost all the plantations," Fortun said.

                  Fortun said hundreds of coca growers who staged violent protests in
                  Cochabamba, Bolivia's third-largest city, in March had "all their expenses paid by
                  the traffickers" -- an accusation denied by the peasant leaders.

                  The coca leaf destruction program started in August 1997 as part of efforts to
                  take Bolivia out of the cocaine making and trafficking circuit. The United States
                  government has supported the plan.

                  Bolivia is the world's third-largest cocaine producer after Colombia and Peru. Its
                  production averages 70 tons a year, down from 250 tons before the eradication
                  program. Last year, the government sent thousands of soldiers and police to El
                  Chapare to destroy plantations, triggering clashes with peasants that killed at least
                  12 people in the region 770 kilometers (480 miles) east of La Paz.

                  The government said it succeeded in destroying 44,400 acres out of 71,510
                  acres targeted for eradication. Fortun admitted that the eradication plan hurts
                  nearly 200,000 peasants who make a living out of coca growing.

                  But he said they are increasingly accepting a government-sponsored program to
                  develop alternative crops, such as coffee and bananas.

                  Peasant leaders complain that the government has failed to create markets for
                  their new crops.