Dec 08

Into the Chapare part 2 – war stories

by in Bolivia

Marcelo Ramallo, president of the Senda Beher Cocalero Syndicate in the Chapare jungle of Cochabamba, Bolivia chews coca before returning to work on his coca farm / photo by brandon c janes iv

Marcelo Ramallo, president of the Senda Beher Cocalero Syndicate in the Chapare jungle of Cochabamba, Bolivia, chews coca before returning to work on his coca farm / photo by brandon c janes iv

Monday – after a hard days work and a dinner trading war stories – my boss, Don Marcelo Ramallo, asked if I wanted to fish the river with a machete.

“You can do what you want but tonight I am going to work,” he said.

Using flashlights and the flat back of the blade we walked the creek until 1 a.m. and brought in 36 fish, most of them perch about the size of a woman´s hand.

Ramallo, 42, owns 16 hectares in the town of Senda Beher, where in January he was elected president of his syndicate, which is much like being the mayor in his town of about 700 inhabitants in Bolivia´s Chapare jungle.

The law of coca production allows each family one coca field 40 meters by 40 meters, or as they say here “my 40 by 40.”

Cocaleros can earn around $800 U.S. per harvest and they can harvest every three months.

“That $800 dollars is you bank,” Ramallo said.  “Without coca there is no life in the Chapare.”

Although $800 ($3,000 bolivianos) doesn´t buy luxury, Ramallo´s family does not spend much. Nearly everything comes from the farm. On their way back from the field, they lop off a fresh papaya, avocados, platanos, mangoes and yucca; harvest honey from the apiary, rice from the feild; last year Ramallo rented a back hoe to dig a fresh water pool where he raises pacú, a fresh water fish, for personal consumption.

Volitile fields

But life wasn´t always so peaceful for Ramallo and his family.

Before Evo Morales was elected president in 2005, the cocaleros of the Chaparte region waged a long war with the anti-coca policies of past neo-liberal presidential administrations, the Bolivian Army, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and the U.S. Army.

During the first term of Bolivian president Gonzalo Sánchez Lozada in the early 1990s Ramallo bought his 16 hectares to start earn for his family growing coca as his father had taught him.

After investing years of labor and money he and his wife had saved from years working on other farms, the Army cut down all of Ramallo´s coca farm in accordance with President Lozada´s zero coca policy. Months later disease of banana plants wiped out his only other form of income.

“The times were very bad, I didn´t have anything to feed my family so I went to work in the interior,”  Ramallo said.

Deep in the jungle he found a place to grow coca, living without food and drinking from a hole in the ground, he began to earn again from the coca. Presidents changed and so did the policies towards coca production.

After harvesting coca from the farm of the family of Ruperto Guzman in Senda Beher, Chapare, Cochabamba, Bolivia, the coca is dried on large tarps for consumption / photo by brandon c janes iv

After harvesting coca from the farm of the family of Ruperto Guzman in Senda Beher, Chapare, Cochabamba, Bolivia, the coca is dried on large tarps for consumption / photo by brandon c janes iv

War stories

In 2004, under the administration of Presdient Carlos Mesa, the government attempted to institute another zero coca policy in the Chapare.

It is recognized across the country that the power of the cocalero movement is its ability to organize. The government had agreed to meet with the six  head directors of the cocalero departments in the city of Sacaba – the capital of the Chapare Province.

The day of the meeting hundreds of cocaleros loaded into trucks and stood outside of the government building. Ramallo was one of them.

To meet them were hundreds of Bolivian and U.S. troops in full riot gear standing shoulders to shoulder, Ramallo said.

After waiting until 9 p.m. outside the building, the farmers believed their leaders to be kidnapped and began chanting for their release, he said.

“When we caught sight of one of the directors, who had escaped or maybe had gone to use the bathroom, we pushed through the police knocking them to the ground,” he said.

The scene then turned violent. Bullets and tear gas flew between the bodies. Ramallo said he saw his friend shot in the shoulder and hip and helped drag him away from the line of fire calling for ambulance.

A can of tear gas knocked Ramallo unconscious, but not until after he had climbed a wall away from the fighting. When he woke up a few minutes later he saw other young men running around to make another attack on the government troops.

“We grabbed rocks and whatever we could – I had my slingshot – whatever we could to fight,” he said.

The fighting went on for four days and eventually the government left without a resolution.

“It was a war,” Ramallo said. ” The newspapers always say how many of us died but there is no telling how many of them died too.”

War continued in the fields of Chapare as well, as Bolivian and U.S. troops attempted to eradicate the coca. Cocaleros learned to rig dynamite on the roads and ignite it as the military vehicles passed.

“We knew better than to sleep in our houses because of all of the leaders who had been picked up in the night never to be seen again,” Ramallo said.

But, now that Morales is president, the Chapare is a peaceful because the president, who everyone in the Chapare calls simply “Evo,” was a coca farmer with a biography much like Ramallo´s.

Morales´farm and modest house – which is falling over from disrepair – is located about 12 miles (20 kilometers) down the road from Senda Beher. And just as Ramallo serves his community as president of his syndicate of about 40 small farms, Morales started his public service career as secretary of sports of the syndicate of Villa 14 of September.

“We are Evo´s soldiers,” Ramallo said. “When he comes into the Chapare he doesn´t need bodyguards because we are his protection.”

Doña Augustina Ramallo and her son Christian Ramallo, 14, prepare a meal in the family kitchen in Senda Beher, Chapare, Cochabamba, Bolivia / photo by brandon c janes iv

Doña Augustina Ramallo and her son Christian Ramallo, 14, prepare a meal in the family kitchen in Senda Beher, Chapare, Cochabamba, Bolivia / photo by brandon c janes iv

Women work the hardest on the coca farm

But the true hero of the Ramallo family is Doña Augustina, Ramallo´s plump chola wife, whose thick callused hands tell the story of a life of coca harvesting.

Doña Augustina was born in Sacaba into a family of seven children. She left home at age 12 to sell fruit on the street in Villa 14 de September.

She said she had to leave home after he mother grew ill because the family did not have enough money to eat. She said her father spent all his money at the local pensión drinking beer and chicha – a fermented corn drink, most often homemade and bootleg.

One of the first things Ramallo said to me when I started working for his family was that his wife works harder than he does.

Augustina gets up at 5 p.m. to cook breakfast for her husband and seven children. Only three of them live at home. Since his election as president of the cocalero syndicate, many days Ramallo does not make it to the field, stuck with duties in town.

But each day Augustina makes the trek through the forest to the family´s 40-40 with her two-year-old on her back and her thick, pleated skirt to continue the endless task of cultivating coca under the hot tropical sun.

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