Dec 01

Into the Chapare – dispatches from a Bolivian coca farm part 1

by in Bolivia


Newstramp writing next to his new bed in Senda Beher Town Hall

Newstramp writing next to his new bed in Senda Beher Town Hall

I have taken a job in Bolivia working  for a farmer who grows coca – the same plant used to make the illegal drug cocaine.

As far as I can tell none of the coca we are growing supports the illegal narcotics industry but I have only been here for four days and the plants are very young. My boss, Marcelo Ramallo, says they have 63 more days before the first harvest.

The almond shaped leaves are used in traditional ceremonies and chewing them is the official habit of the nation.

Coca history in Bolivia

Political debate around growing coca in Bolivia has been much like the gun control debate in the U.S.

It is a deep part of the culture here and continuing to cultivate it is seen as a right by much of the population.

However, cocaine – a product of this green leaf processed with petrolem – has caused thousands, if not millions, of deaths around the world  in the past four decades in the so called War on Drugs.

In the last decade hundreds of Bolivians have died fighting to retain their right to grow coca.

According to the New York Times,  from 1998 to 2002 60 people were killed and more than 700 were wounded in the Chapare -teh region where I am now – in violence related to coca eradication.

The government has instituted a mildly successful regulation of coca production. By licensing growers, rather than making it illegal, Bolivia´s coca production dropped by 13 percent over the past year, according to the United Nations.

Bolivia is the world’s third-largest coca producer, after Peru and Colombia, where growing coca is illegal.

In Bolivia, farmers are allowed to grow 1600 square meters (2/5 of one acre) of coca per family. For centuries farmers grew coca in the Chapare without regulation.

Thesesdays cocaleros – or coca farmers – have a large feather in their cap. Evo Morales, President of Bolivia, is the president of the national cocalero union and it was from that post he found his way into Bolivian politics.

Not only do the cocaleros have a decades-long fight against the U.S.-led drug interdiction under their belts, but they have also developed what they believe is their own brand of socialism. Morales party is called MAS – Moviemiento Al Socialismo (movement for socialism).

From one Bolivia to another in 15 hours

How to get here

Bundled up in your new thick courduroy jacket – made in Bolivia – take the 5boliviano taxi across the mountain capital of Sucre on a cold afternoon just in time to catch the overnight floata to Cochabamba.

On time for the first time, the bus stumbles out of port with passengers still stretching to get inside.

You sit at the front of the bus now, ever since that time you missed you stop at Samaipata trying to climb over 10 meters of men sleeping in the aisle.

The bus stops for dinner at a highway town where women yell the names of strange juices into the darkness. After that you return to work cultivating the perfect sleeping position between the window and the nice Quechua grandmother who has fallen asleep on your shoulder.

The floata rolls into the bus terminal of Cochabamba at a busy 4 a.m., which is good because you have got to hurry to get across town to the so called Parada Chapare, where you find a shared taxi to Villa Tunari – Chapare´s principal town – before the highway closes at 9 a.m. where the road crew is still working out a massive washout caused by heavy rains a month before. The road doesn´t open up again until 3 p.m. and you don´t want to get stuck on the other side.

Taxi man takes you right here you need to go. Reserve your seat, wander to relieve yourself in a dirt parking lot from which you can watch your bag.

You sleep close with strange men like brothers you never knew in the shared-taxi darkness and when you arrive at  9 a.m. crossing the street you began to sweat with the jungle sweat of the new Bolivia for the first time.

This trip is all about business but you take a break for a hot cup of coffee and cheese empanada in the central market among the flies.

Jungle insects have  tropical colors, wild wings and funny looking faces that suck the ground with the fervency of something not caring to waste its short little life. And as you drink your coffee black swarms of them swim through your fingers.

Breakfast is quick.

The sign in front of Radio Sobernania, the voice of Bolivia´s Cocalero movement (as the sign says), located in Chipiriri, Cochabamba Department photo by brandon c janes iv

The sign in front of Radio Sobernania, the voice of Bolivia´s Cocalero movement (as the sign says), located in Chipiriri, Cochabamba Department · photo by brandon c janes iv

Radio Sobernania & the Senda Beher of Faith and Happiness

From Villa Tunari the town of Senda Beher is about 25 km. It is cheapest if you split the trip into three death-defying motorcycle taxi rides.

One town you pass is called Chipiriri, the headquarters of Radio Sobernania.

A week prior you were there talking – between broadcasts – with Walter, the voice of Radio Sobernania, who saw a good story in you and put you into contact with Ramallo, who is president of the Senda Beher cocalero syndicate.

Mi casa su casa

A white dove bathes in the same puddle as a pig. That puddle marks the driveway to Ramallo´s home from the other houses in the cocalero hamlet.

Nothing is painted here. All cinderblocks, concrete, and corregated tin, built sturdily with no frill save the political spray paint with phrases like ¨Vote for the Coca¨ splashed around town.

After waiting an hour, a girl in a red croptop tells you to walk down the road and search Ramallo´s farm.

At hot noon you find Ramallo, full of soup, sleeping on a plastic potato sack in the shade of the trees that line the brook that flows through his land. His wife and two-year-old child are half-sleeping by his side.

No one could work in this heat, and the creek is fed by a cool spring, from where now on you bathe and drink.

In the beating sun south of Ramallo´s head is his legal plot separated into about a hundred lines coca.

Propped between two rocks next to his head is a small battery-powered radio blasting Radio Sobernania´s middaybroadcast, recordings of the Morales and Vice President Alvaro Garcia Linera speaking at a university in the Department of Beni.

¨The change in Bolivia will leave no children behind,…¨ Linera says. ¨…The land of Bolivia produced more produce before the Spanish arrived than it does now,…¨

Ramallo´s wife, awake now, pours water over her baby´s face and speaks soft quechua into his ears as she begins to bathe him.

¨The debate was whether the indigenous people had souls or didn´t have souls. That was the question of the Pope during the colonialization of Bolivia…¨ the vice president rolls on. ¨They trapped us like animals and now, in 2013, people continue to ask that question of the people of Bolivia, do the people of Bolivia have souls?…¨


13 Responses to “Into the Chapare – dispatches from a Bolivian coca farm part 1”

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