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Last Updated: Wednesday, 22 October, 2003, 09:35 GMT 10:35 UK
Peruvian anger over coca plans
Anger is mounting among Peru's coca leaf growers over efforts by the US and its own government to eradicate the crop, which is used to make cocaine.

Cocaine slabs
The coca leaf is the principal ingredient of cocaine
A mood of militancy is sweeping through the fields of the country. Some 15,000 farmers, or cocaleros, embarked on an 18-day march earlier this year from their villages to the capital Lima in protest at the eradication.

"The coca farmers have become more politicised in the last two years," Hugo Cabieses, an adviser to the cocaleros, told BBC World Service's Living Beneath The USA programme.

"They're demanding an end to the eradication of coca by force, and they also want more of a say in the programmes to develop alternative crops."

As coca production increases, the US, in co-operation with the Peruvian Government, has stepped up efforts to wipe out the crop.

The authorities are trying to encourage farmers to switch from coca to alternative crops such as coffee and tropical fruit, but the cocaleros say these do not currently offer them the prospect of a decent living.

Increased production

It is estimated that over a million Peruvians use coca leaves on a regular basis. Consumption has been part of the culture of the region since before the Incas.

Coca paste
Ms Obergon says those found making coca paste are turned in to the police
Consequently Peru allows 12,000 hectares of coca to be grown legally, for traditional use in teas and herbal medicines.

"We're fighting to defend legal cultivation," Nancy Obergon, the new national leader of the coca farmers who led the 15,000 marchers, told Living Beneath the USA.

"We're not defending trafficking - we're defending our cultural heritage. And we know it's very difficult for the US to understand this."

There is also anger among the cocaleros at the tactics used in eradication.

"First of all they come into the fields in a very violent way," said Ms Obergon.

"The last time it happened here the locals saw a number of police helicopters landing in this area, with about 500 people hired to eradicate.

"They started to pull out the plants one by one, and then chop them up with a machete.

"People are still traumatised by this. Seven of the villagers committed suicide because they'd lost everything in life."


Ms Obergon however admitted that much of the coca crop ended up as cocaine.

But she said that for farmers growing coca was a question of economic necessity.

Peruvian women sewing cotton
Attempts have been made to encourage alternative crops, like cotton
"We're aware that the scourge of the world is narco-trafficking. But for us the scourge is hunger," she said.

"We feel very bad about it because we don't like to see people destroyed by cocaine.

"But we also need opportunities to survive."

A farmer can produce around 2,500 kilos of coffee a year from one hectare of land, for which payment is $350. But on the same land 600 kilos of coca leaves can be grown - for which the legal price alone is $3,000.

Consequently, attempts to get the farmers to plant alternative crops often fail.

"The cocaleros are happy to reduce coca planting - but they want to do it gradually, when they have a viable alternative income," said Mr Cabiezes, adviser to the cocaleros.


Nonetheless, from the perspective of the US, the policy has elsewhere proved an effective one.

Recent United Nations data from Colombia has shown that eradication has produced a substantial drop in cocaine production for the first time.

In Peru, the US has allocated a budget of $140m to the battle against drug production.

Half of this is spent on supporting the Peruvian army and the police, while the rest is spent on alternative development projects in areas which have seen the most intensive eradication.

"It's true that the US puts pressure on us, but we share their objectives," said Nils Ericsson, head of Peru's Drug Control Policy Unit.

"There are moments when there are differences and tensions. We would actually prefer for a Peruvian agricultural agency to run the projects, but the US insists on having their own team of people in charge.

"Basically though we agree on most things, and especially now that we're starting to see a resurgence in terrorists, who are the natural ally of the narco-traffickers."

Roger Noriega, the US assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, told Living Beneath The USA that he recognised most of the cocaleros did not want to grow coca for illegal use, but insisted their anger at US policy was misdirected.

"It's very clear to me that farmers of coca, both in Peru and Bolivia, are manipulated by others who have a broader ideological agenda - and just as importantly, by those who have greed as a motive," he said.

"These people want to use these cocalero farmers as shock troops to sow chaos in a country so they can continue to carry out their deadly criminal enterprises.

"Most Peruvian farmers don't want to be on the wrong side of the law."

And he added that he sympathised with the cocaleros, most of whom simply wanted to be able to feed themselves.

"Their interests are to generate enough income to feed their families," he argued.

"We just need frankly to do a better job - both the Peruvian and US Government - in helping farmers find a legal way to make a living."

Country profile: Peru
29 Aug 03  |  Country profiles
Peru coca production increasing
16 May 03  |  Americas
Peru's coca farmers stage protest
22 Apr 03  |  Business
Peru's coca farmers accept truce
05 Mar 03  |  Business
Bolivia wages war on the coca leaf
09 Jun 00  |  Americas

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