Social Movements and Political Strategies. Cocaleros in Bolivia

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Social Movements and Political Strategies. Cocaleros in Bolivia

Vibeke Andersson, Aalborg university.

Paper for the Conference: Social Movements and/in post Colonial Dispossession, Development and Resistance in the Global South. Nottingham, June 23-25, 2008.


"This is a green coca leaf, it is not the white of cocaine, this coca leaf represents Andean culture, it is a coca leaf that represents the environment and the hope of our peoples. It is not possible, that the coca leaf is legal for Coca Cola and that the coca leaf is illegal for other medical purposes in our country and in the whole world" (Evo Morales at the General Assembly of the UN, September 19th, 2007)

For the coca producers of Bolivia it is very important to stress that coca and cocaine are two very different things. In Andean communities coca is an important element in social and daily life. In the coca producing communities of both highland and lowland Bolivia poverty is the main obstacle to development. The production of coca leaves might be a way out of poverty if the Bolivian peasants were allowed to cultivate it in general. This is a political question which is much contested in contemporary Bolivia.

The strategy of organising in social movements is very common in Bolivia. Cocaleros of the Chapare region have had, and still have a very strong union with political power to influence national policies - especially since the union leader, Evo Morales has become president of Bolivia. Their demand for new policies has been supported by indigenous and other social movements in Bolivia and elsewhere. One of the focal interests of cocaleros is to bring the cocalero economy out of the marginality caused by the stigma of association with the production and commercialization of cocaine. This is attempted by organising both at local, national and international levels.

The paper will discuss the development of and challenges met by the coca producers' organisation, the problems the union address at all levels and the response of local actors, government and international organisations.

When studying social movements and local organisations the question is how to ‘locate’ the study of these in current academic discussions. The vision of social movements’ actions as resistance to Neoliberal Globalisation (Cox & Nilsen, 2007) is one option. Another is seeing the only way for agrarian movements as that of class struggle over state power (Petras & Veltmeyer, 2007). This paper will discuss the issue of the cocalero movement in Bolivia both seen from a social resistance aspect and seen from the power aspect as struggle over state power. But the cocalero movement in Bolivia is more than resistance to neoliberal globalisation and struggle for state power. Livelihood strategies on the local level and resistance to state policies are important as well, and this does not exclude a connection to a larger movement of movements towards resistance to neoliberal globalisation.

There are two key notions when studying movements like the cocaleros’ (indigenous) movement in Bolivia; the notion of ‘democracy’ and the notion of ‘rights’. These are interlinked, of course, but will be presented separately here.
Cocaleros in Bolivia

Growing coca in Bolivia is an ancient tradition. The optimal conditions for the coca plant in Bolivia are the Yungas valleys to the north east of the capital of La Paz. Coca has had an important role in indigenous belief and religious rituals. It is used in all kinds of celebrations and sacrificed to deities like Mountains and Pacha Mama (mother earth). The coca produced in the Yungas valleys is sold at the legal coca market, primarily in La Paz. Coca is used to chew to reduce the effects of altitude sickness; it is used for tea, in cosmetic products and in herbal medicine. All of this is legal use of the coca leaf. The illegal use of coca is primarily happening in the Chapare region. This region is located in the tropical lowlands of eastern Bolivia. The people cultivating coca in this region are primarily migrants from the altiplano (high lands). When the tin prices reached a bottom in the mid-1980’s the mines in Oruro and Potosí were closed down and thousands of miners were fired, creating massive poverty in these areas, since employment in the mines has been almost the only option for many people. To alleviate the problems created by these mass-firings, the government offered the ex-miners the possibility of migrating to the Chapare region to cultivate land there. The main products to be cultivated were supposed to be tropical fruits and vegetables. But since the government failed to improve the infrastructure in the region, it was very difficult to transport the fruit and vegetables to local markets. The producers were thus not able to make a living on cultivating these products. Coca leaves, on the other hand, are easy to transport, since they do not weigh much after being dried, and it can be transported by foot. Additionally it is fairly easy to grow in the Chapare region, and consequently many of the migrants from the altiplano switched to coca as main cash crop (Jeppesen, 2004). This caused some controversy in Bolivia. The government at that time argued, that the coca produced in Chapare was mainly sold for illegal cocaine production, and they tried to forbid coca production in Chapare. The peasants, on the contrary, had to fight poverty and earn money, so they had no other options than to produce coca. Eventually the US administration also intervened by supporting the Bolivian government and the army with the purpose of erradicaion of coca fields in the region. This, of course, triggered the the coca peasants into opposing the government and government policies on eradication. In 1990 they arranged a march to La Paz knitting together the wish to produce coca as cash crop and indigenous identity, where coca has a crucial role. This mixture of fighting for indigenous rights (resistance to neoliberal globalisation) and fight within the union structure against the government (class struggle over state power) has described the practices of the cocalero movement in the Chapare region. Apart from that, the organisation has been very well structured and has been able to close down roads with blockades and altering national policies to meet their demands.

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