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Saturday, 7 September, 2002, 13:36 GMT 14:36 UK
New government, same old coca war
Troops confront coca growers and their families
The coca growers have vowed to defy the government

When new Bolivian president Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada took office on 6 August, he called for a 90-day truce, asking the disillusioned, poverty-stricken population of this Andean nation to give him a chance to drag South America's poorest country out of a three-year economic crisis.

But the truce did not extend to the coca war being fought in the steamy tropical heat of Bolivia's Chapare region.

Within two days of its inauguration, the new government was ordering troops to carry out forced eradication of illegal coca plants.

Without coca we can't even afford to send our children to school

Coca growers' leader Leonardo Marco
The poor coca farmers and their families, who over the last decade have seen their livelihood destroyed, were furious to see the US-backed eradication programme again taking precedence over their economic plight.

Armed with sticks and machetes they are now gathering, man, woman and child, in groups of hundreds to confront the temporary military camps set up as eradication bases in distant parts of the Chapare.

Godofredo Reinicke, representative of Bolivia's human rights ombudsman, was returning from one such stand-off on the day I met him in the Chapare town of Villa Tunari.

On that occasion he had persuaded the coca farmers not to challenge the group of armed soldiers to leave their camp. But the overwhelming sense was that he had only delayed the inevitable.

"It may be tomorrow, the day after or next week," said Mr Reinicke. "But there will be a confrontation, and serious as well."

No alternatives

The coca farmers' main complaint is that while thousands of hectares of coca have been forcibly eradicated in the last five years, promises to offer alternative crops have not been fulfilled, leaving families without any source of income.

Young protester
Men, women and children confront troops
"Many coca farmers cut down their crops and tried alternatives and now they can't sell what they grow," lamented Leonardo Marco, leader of the coca growers union in the village of Chipiriri. "Without coca we can't even afford to send our children to school."

Even technicians working for alternative development agencies acknowledge that many projects have achieved nothing in five years.

"A farmer spends a year or more preparing a new crop and then after two years of selling it the market disappears and he has to start again," said one agronomist who asked not to be named.

But attempts to explain these problems to the authorities have been met with violent repression.

In one protest last year farmers lined the streets in the town of Chimore with bananas, pineapples and other produce they could not sell.

Our brothers aren't going to stand for any more suffering

Coca growers' leader William Condori
Members of a special military unit paid by the US embassy broke up the protest killing one unarmed man and leaving another crippled.

"It is events like this that have led us to defend ourselves," said Guido Zurita, a leader at the Chimore coca growers association who saw his two friends being shot that day. " We will keep fighting until they listen to us."

Calls for change

The six federations of coca producers have called a meeting this weekend to plan a response to the continued eradication.

At the same time the main opposition party in parliament headed by the coca farmers' leader Evo Morales, is arranging meetings with the new government to demand a change in policy.

The probability is that these appeals will fall on deaf ears. The government has so far made no attempt to start a dialogue with Chapare coca farmers.

Interior Minister Alberto Gasser has only stated that there will be no back down on eradication policy and that the government won't allow army camps to be taken hostage.

There is also a degree of pressure from the US Government which has made access to American markets under the Andean Trade Preferences Agreement conditional on a nation's adherence to US anti-drug policy.

But if the eradication continues without the creation of real economic alternatives then the writing is on the wall for the Chapare.

"If the government doesn't change the policy there will be another five years of conflict, and bloodshed," said William Condori, leader of the coca growers' federation in the town of Zinajota. "Our brothers aren't going to stand for any more suffering."

See also:

20 Aug 02 | Country profiles
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