Page last updated at 00:01 GMT, Thursday, 18 December 2008

Bolivian farmers choose coca or rice

By Andres Schipani
BBC News, El Chapare, Bolivia

Honorata Diaz and Peregrina Paichucamo
Farmers Diaz and Paichucamo see coca as a natural resource

In a precarious-looking bar in the small, steamy rainforest town of Puerto San Francisco, a Coca-Cola is being ordered.

"No, I don't have that here, I'm afraid," replies Valentina, her long and dark pigtails swinging as she shakes her head.

"But I can offer you a very nice and healthy coca tea."

Welcome to El Chapare, one of two Bolivian regions where it is restricted, but legal, to grow coca.

In a place that fought against US-inspired anti-drug policies, it seems fitting that Valentina's bar - patronised mainly by the "cocaleros" or coca-growers of the surrounding area - turned its back to the ubiquitous American product in favour of a local one.

"This is one of our main natural resources," says Honorata Diaz, a coca farmer dressed in thatched hats and flouncy skirts.

"It is part of our culture, of our identity," chimes in fellow farmer Peregrina Paichucamo, while drying coca leaves under an intense sun.

"This is food for us, and also a natural medicine. Coca is everything here".

Rice profits

Despite such superlatives, a symbol of El Chapare's passionate defence of coca, a radical change is taking place.

Remi Gonzales
We are implementing a system that gives a lot of incentives to farmers to switch crops
Remi Gonzalez, Bolivia's deputy minister of rural development

Some local farmers have begun to sow their fields with crops other than the "sacred" leaf that also produces the main ingredient in cocaine.

It is not, however, US-backed crop eradication efforts or government restrictions pushing farmers away from coca, but the ebbs and flows of the global commodities market and a government policy response to rising food prices.

At its peak this year, the price of rice had tripled, in Bolivia and all over the world. This persuaded local farmers to consider this alternative to coca growing.

In addition to market motivations, the government pays them to grow rice instead.

Thousands of farmers have signed up for the programme in an area where the war on drugs not so very long ago spurred harsh fighting and left several coca growers dead.

In defence of coca

The government hopes a new reality will reduce coca production and help feed South America's poorest country.

President Evo Morales
Long live the coca leaf, death to the Yankees
President Evo Morales

"We are implementing a system that gives a lot of incentives to farmers to switch crops," says Remi Gonzalez, Bolivia's deputy minister of rural development.

"First and foremost, we are guaranteeing food security, because this will give us enough to feed Bolivian families.

"And the surpluses, as long as we keep advancing, we think we can export to help people in other parts the world."

Rice exports would also boosts the country's poor trade balance.

This programme has an unusual advocate: Bolivia's first indigenous president, Evo Morales - a man who champions the coca leaf, once brought a handful to the United Nations General Assembly, and still grows it himself.

As the leader of the coca growers union - a position he still holds - he fought foreign crop-substitution and coca eradication efforts for years.

Many times President Morales has raised his left fist and in the indigenous Aymara language said: "Long live the coca leaf, death to the Yankees."

Soaring prices

These days, the President's plan is to redirect government money from food imports to support for coca farmers who diversify their crops.

Coca market
Tempting farmers to produce rice instead of coca is not always easy

"We are not giving up coca, that is out of the question," the secretary general of the powerful coca growers' federation, Julio Salazar, explains.

"But we are asking our members to help the world during these harsh times. Bolivia and the world need food and we can supply that."

The country, which has considerable tracts of virgin, arable land and a sub-tropical climate in many areas that allows farmers several harvests each year, could become a global breadbasket.

During summer, when food prices hit fresh record highs, the International Monetary Fund reckoned that Bolivia, a country generally listed among the world's economic losers, could improve its trade balance as a result of soaring food prices.

Other poor countries of the region, such as Guyana and Paraguay, are also on the list, but Bolivia could benefit more than most from becoming a major food exporter, the IMF said at the time.

Often overlooked Latin American countries such as this has the potential to help feed the world while reaping big rewards for their underdeveloped economies.

"I plant rice and coca, but I am planting more rice now to feed Bolivia," says Jose Lopez standing in between his coca bushes and his recently planted rice field.

New mix

These days, the price of rice is well below the summer's peak, though even if prices were to bounce back and rice to become a profitable venture for farmers in El Chapare, it would still have to compete with the ancient local Indian tradition of the coca leaf.

And most of all, there is strong demand for cocaine from Brazil and, especially, from Europe, the two top destinations for drugs derived from Bolivia's coca.

Bolivia is the world's third-largest producer of coca, after Colombia and Peru, and the crop's production increased this year.

The mix of economic and social factors contributing to this new mix of coca and rice seems to be providing previously neglected parts of Bolivia with a heady brew.

It is certainly a headier one than the pleasant but otherwise ordinary tasting coca tea offered by Valentina.

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