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Bolivia

Coca, Land and a Farmers’ Market Provide Hope

Julie McDowell, Upside Down World online magazine, August 22, 2006

Javier Quisbert (R), an Aymara native, weeds coca plants observed by Goya Carhuani (L) and Aide Carhuani (C) in the town of Machacamarka, in the Yungas valley, north of La Paz, Bolivia. (Photo: Aizar Raldes / AFP-Getty Images)

It was a small crowd that marched down the cobblestone streets to the newly designated mercado campesino (farmers' market) in the town of Chulumani on the morning of Saturday, Aug. 9. Many farmers from the surrounding communities were unable to attend, as rains the night before had made the roads impassable in the Yungas cloud forest region where Chulumani is located, several hours east of La Paz.

With the Wiphala flag waving in the front, a traditional symbol of the Aymara and Quechua nations, and a band of Andean pipe players taking up the rear, the group made its way from the Peasants' Federation headquarters, through the plaza filled with market goers, and down the narrow streets lined with vendors to the crossroads that are to become the mercado campesino.

It is not an impressive space — to the unknowing eye it would simply appear an extension of the Saturday market already sprawling through the streets of Chulumani. But to the Aymara campesinos who have managed to arrive from various towns throughout the Yungas, it is a space of possibility.

"There are many complaints that in Chulumani everything is expensive," said Jesus Gallo Quispe, Director General of the Peasants' Federation of the Sud Yungas Province. "We want that our peasant brothers from the Yungas and also from the altiplano bring products at an affordable price…we cannot continue tolerating the monopolization of the current market."

Most of the goods sold every Saturday at this market do not come from the Yungas region. Instead, entrepreneurs from Chulumani travel to La Paz or the Beni rainforest region to buy the yucca, tomatoes, cabbage, bananas, and other produce that they bring to Chulumani to sell at a premium price. Vendors even come from La Paz to sell at the Chulumani market.

"Some vendors have been here for twenty years," said Damazo Torrez Cuba, Mayor of Chulumani. "Each vendor has their puesto (spot on the street to sell) and they do not want to share. They sell at very high prices. They are very organized, but we need more vendors to compete and lower the prices." With no space to sell their goods, local peasants have been boxed out of the market and everyone in Chulumani suffers high food prices as a result.

The Road to Chulumani

While many campesinos and residents claim that the high prices are a result of price gouging, cost of transport also certainly plays a role. The condition of the road to Chulumani, which is unpaved dirt and gravel for most of the journey from La Paz, makes what should be a short trip into a five hour adventure. The one and a half lane road to Chulumani clings to the side of steep mountains, curving in harmony with the landscape. A complicated system of right-of-way has been devised: the descending vehicle must yield to the ascending vehicle by inching over to the side of the road, sometimes having to back up a great distance to find a section of road wide enough to allow the other vehicle to pass.

While breathtakingly beautiful, the route is extremely unsafe, and each year several buses plummet down the precipices, resulting in dozens of deaths. While there are apparently plans to build a more direct and paved highway to Chulumani, this will likely not be realized for years, meaning that the price of goods transported by the current system has no decline in sight.

The cost of transportation is also an issue for local producers, and has prevented their ability to sell in the markets of La Paz. The trip from Chulumani to La Paz costs 18 Bolivianos each way, the equivalent of US$2.25, a hefty sum for most campesinos. Additionally, lodging and market space have their costs.

"In La Paz, we are forced to sleep with our goods in the street like animals," says one farmer who has attempted to sell his produce in city. "The owners of the stores even charge us to use their sidewalks to sell our goods."

The Peasants' Federation had to lobby long and hard for the market space, but finally after a year of negotiating with the municipality, the space has been granted and will be used exclusively by local producers on a rotating basis, each community having a chance to bring its goods to market on alternating Saturdays.

"When money is not available, trueque will be used," said Sergio Tarquí, the Yungas Representative to the national Confederation of Peasants' Unions of Bolivia (CSUTCB). Trueque is a system of bartering that has been used by Aymara and Quechua communities for centuries. By reviving it in the mercado campesino Mr. Tarquí hopes that the currency-scarce peasant economy can be overcome.

Land Scarcity and the Minifundio

Even by creating a market and a system trueque for poor campesinos, however, the major dilemma of land scarcity cannot be avoided. Unlike in many regions of Bolivia, the land reform of 1953 was surprisingly effective in redistributing unproductive lands (both state-owned and latifundista, or large land-holder, properties) to peasants in the form of minifundios, properties of one to two hectares (three to five acres). Also unlike most areas of Bolivia, the vast majority of fertile land in the Yungas is already being farmed. This presents a problem that neither the Ley INRA, President Sánchez de Lozada's 1994 agrarian reform law, or President Evo Morales' revision of the reform, has solved.

"A couple has their children, and the land has to be divided. My parents gave me two and a half acres, but now that I have two children and they will each get half, and when they have children, and so on, the available land becoming smaller. For us, the agrarian reform has not been very helpful," said Fortunata Cuaquira, representative of the town of Huancane to the Peasants' Federation. Therefore, many young campesinos are joining the masses of rural migrants to La Paz and El Alto. They look for work, but it is difficult to find, and many are returning to live with their parents, uncertain of their futures.

The abysmal state of education in Chulumani only makes matters worse. Only 46.35 percent of the total age-appropriate population is attending high school (National Institute of Statistics, 2005). Many children live in communities several hours outside of Chulumani, where the high school is located, but there are no buses to transport them. For those who do not have relatives in Chulumani, the only option is to rent a room, an expense that is often out of reach for peasant families. Higher education is still more inaccessible. The closest university is in La Paz and, while public, it is difficult to gain admission. Furthermore, living in La Paz is expensive. Thus, acquiring the skills that would allow land-poor campesinos to compete in labor markets in La Paz and other urban areas is a serious obstacle.

The other option for peasants with insufficient lands, then, is migration to other rural areas. Many campesinos at the Chulumani market complained of the enormous tracts of land held by those in the eastern part of the country, particularly in the department of Santa Cruz. There, the latifundio system still dominates, with many land-holders possessing tens of thousands of acres. Successive agrarian reforms have done little to fix this situation. The Ley INRA was marred by corruption, with the transfer of state lands not to landless peasants, but to friends of the Sánchez Administration. Also, the Ley INRA did little to change the latifundio system, because it proposed that not only those working the land, but those paying taxes on it, had a right to ownership. According to anthropologist Alison Spedding of the University of San Andrés of La Paz, many wealthy landholders retain to huge tracts of unproductive land in eastern Bolivia not for production, but for use as collateral in banking transactions for other business endeavors.

There is grumbling among the peasantry around Chulumani about this inequity, but few seem to think that the MAS (Movement Towards Socialism) agrarian reforms will provide them with lands elsewhere. The Center for the Study of Labor and Agrarian Development reports that the MAS's agrarian reform, which will distribute 2,200,000 hectares (5,400,000 acres) of state-owned lands, "privileges the residents of the area [where the lands are located] in this sense; these lands that are located fundamentally in Santa Cruz, Beni, and Pando would not be accessed by poor campesinos in the valleys and of the altiplano, which are, exactly, those who do not have sufficient land." This means that even if the MAS agrarian reforms are successful in redistributing the quantity of land they propose, residents of the Yungas would be given secondary status in receiving land in the most likely areas for redistribution.

Coca Production: One of Few Viable Options

This situation leaves the campesinos of Chulumani with few options. With small tracts of land that rarely produce beyond subsistence consumption, and with issues of transportation and monopoly barring the market entry for their small amounts of surplus produce, it is easy to see why many turn to coca production, which can be grown on small tracts of land for several times the profit of other crops. The cultural value of the plant and local consumption also drive coca production. The Yungas region is one of two major regions for growing the plant (the Chapare near Cochabamba is also a traditional region for coca growing), and cocaleros (coca growers) have long fought for their right to produce it.

Coca leaf is a sacred and traditional plant used by the Aymara and Quechua cultures for thousands of years. A mild stimulant, the leaves are chewed for energy, suppression of hunger, and relief from altitude sickness. Though they are widely consumed in the domestic market, many of the leaves also unfortunately end up in the hands of narcotraffickers to make cocaine which is sold to the U.S. and European market. The U.S. demand for cocaine has consistently resulted in poor, misdirected, and ineffective U.S. foreign policy in the form of pressure on Bolivian governments to force eradication of coca crops. U.S. trained anti-narcotics forces have been responsible for hundreds of deaths and the abuse of countless cocaleros in the Yungas and Chapare regions over the past several decades.

Many in the Yungas have voted the MAS for just this reason: as a cocalero himself, President Evo Morales has promised to protect the right to grow coca for domestic uses. Sabino Gomez, Director of Radio Yungas, a regional radio station that diffuses news, music, and talk programs, says he has noticed a distinct change in the sentiment of the region. "Before the elections of 2005," he said, "there was much uncertainty about the production of coca. There were threats of the total eradication of coca in the country. Now with Evo Morales in the Presidency, there is more tranquility … now there is a policy of consensus."

Gomez speaks of Morales' promise to international actors that he will reduce the amount of coca produced so that the excess does not end up as cocaine. Instead of forced eradication, however, the Morales Administration is implementing a program of "rationalization," or voluntary eradication.

In the Yungas, the program is clearly failing. As the Vice Minister of Social Defense, Felipe Cáceres, told La Razon (Aug. 14), "Caranaví [another town in the Yungas region] is not going to rationalize like in the Chapare, because here the production of coca is very small. The majority have almost one hectare (2.5 acres) or less than one hectare. The plots are hilly. Furthermore, it is not good for agriculture. There are communities that live off of coca because no other produce comes out well."

In Chulumani, the case is similar. Gomez says, "There is not much talk of rationalization. People have tiny tracts of land that they can barely live off of ... so here production of coca is small-scale. Rationalization will not happen." The campesinos are dependent on the income from their coca, and it would be impossible for many of them to eradicate and switch to other crops. The government must provide viable alternatives to campesinos in Chulumani, including better education, access to land, and transport infrastructure, if it is to expect them to voluntarily eradicate their only source of income.

An Optimistic Inauguration

At the humble crossroads which are to become the mercado campesino, coca leaves are set out on a colorful aguayo (shawl) in the street to be shared among the crowd of farmers and community leaders in attendance. Cigarettes are sprinkled on top of the green leaves, and a bottle of pure alcohol is placed next to them to challar. No celebration in rural Bolivia is complete without a challa (offering) to pachamama (mother earth). The revelers pour some of the alcohol on the ground in gratitude and recognition of what the earth has provided them: life, crops, family and community.

Speeches in Aymara and Spanish (nearly everyone at the celebration and most of the Chulumani residents speak both) are made by the local campesino leaders, the local women's leader, Mayor Torrez, and Mr. Tarquí. They speak of the improved economic condition of indigenous peasants that the market will bring, and of liberation from the monopoly of the Chulumani vendors. The mayor promises an independent, covered market space within the next year — a mercado verdadero (real market). Mr. Tarquí's speech takes a decidedly more political tone. He speaks of the poor state of education in the town, the inadequacy of the teachers, and the necessity of elevating the indigenous population in all aspects. He also demands that the mayor deliver on his promise of a real market, with a roof, and that affordable transportation be available for peasants. With a call for unity, the ribbon is cut, and the revelry begins. Cases of beer are brought out. People are optimistic. Coca is chewed and everyone talks about a victory for campesinos. Marta Gonzalez is one such celebrator.

"Sometimes we don't have a place to sell, and must return home with our produce. Now we have a place of our own, and we will be able to afford to buy other products," she said. Gonzalez has a small farm two hours from Chulumani, and mentions that while she, like many of the campesinos, has supported the MAS, she doesn't have much hope that the reforms will improve her situation. For now, she is happy to have a place to sell her lettuce, cabbage, and flowers.

The market is a short-term solution to provide much needed income and access to affordable products for the poor campesinos of the region. Without more profound reforms and sincere government investment, however, stress on land resources will only worsen. The campesinos of Chulumani need more than a market; they need sustainable options for their children and their grandchildren. While celebrating a small victory, the Peasants' Federation of Chulumani, like many around the country, continues to work for future reforms and peasants' rights to make productive use of Bolivia's lands.

This article was originally published in UpsideDownWorld.org, a Web site uncovering activism and politics in Latin America.

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