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Indigenous Bolivian coca farmers fear return of 'abusive' Morales

Valeria PACHECO
·4-min read

Evo Morales was Bolivia's first indigenous president -- but not all of the South American country's native people are fans, and some are calling on president-elect Luis Arce to undo what they see as the harm done under the former leader.

Morales' and Arce's Movement for Socialism (MAS) garners much of its support from communities with the largest percentage of indigenous people in the country -- but one such community in the Los Yungas area just north of La Paz is wary.

"Arce needs to tie up his trousers tightly to not put Evo (in the government), he has to tell him: 'you're the ex-president, I'm going to govern'," said Regina Mamani, a mother of two whose family cultivates coca leaf in El Choro, Trinidad Pampa, a forested area of the Andes to the north of La Paz.

Coca farmers in the Los Yungas area have a long-standing gripe with Morales, whom they accuse of being "abusive."

They were angered by Morales's decision in 2017 to legalize coca cultivation in the Chapare lowlands of his native Cochabamba region, an area where he commands loyal support.

Until then, Las Yungas enjoyed a monopoly on legal coca plantations that Mamani describes as "an ancestral heritage."

When Morales resigned in November 2019 after almost 14 years in power, many in Las Yungas felt relieved.

In Chapare, though, coca farmers demanded the return of their leader, under whose government coca leaf prices doubled in its two authorized markets in La Paz and Cochabamba. 

- Main cocaine ingredient -

Mamani's 84-year-old mother Natividad Quispe takes part in harvesting the coca leaves despite 95 degree Fahrenheit (35 degree Celsius) heat.

One generation after another has labored in coca plantations where every leaf must painstakingly be picked individually.

The coca leaf has been used by indigenous people since long before the Spanish conquest in the 16th century and is still chewed, boiled to make tea or used in religious rituals.

But it's also the primary ingredient that makes cocaine.

Bolivia is the third largest producer of cocaine in the world, after Colombia and Peru.

According to some experts, 90 percent of coca leaf grown in Chapare is used to make cocaine while 30 percent from Las Yungas is turned into the drug.

"We're upset with Chapare, it's not legal coca, it's surplus coca, the (Morales) government has allowed this," Daniel Mamani Quispe, 55, a former coca union leader, told AFP.

Controlling the production of cocaine is a challenge for authorities, as well as coca unions. Up to October, police had seized 12.5 tons of cocaine this year.

- 'Don't generate hate' -

Coca leaves provide the main source of income for the Aymara peasants living in Las Yucas. They used to grow mandarine, oranges and coffee but say it's not profitable anymore and they don't grow well.

"Coca leaf has been economically beneficial for me, I've come out of it well, I gave my daughter an education," said Mamani.

On her land she produces two 49-pound (22-kilogram) packages of coca leaf every month, worth 1,000-1,500 bolivianos ($145-$215) each.

Children in the Trinidad Pampa village where she lives helped their parents harvest coca leaf, when they're not at school or playing football. 

But that's something Mamani wants her daughters aged three and 13 to avoid. 

"I want them to study," she said.

As well as individual plots of land, there's also a community plantation that is used to finance public works in the community.

Even though the Trinidad Pampa community expect better times under Arce, no-one is resting on their laurels.

"We respect the election (result) but we want to be respected and we want a conversation with Arce," said Mamani Quispe.

Morales has vowed to return from his Argentine exile in less than two weeks.

"I don't want him to come back. He was abusive ... he divided us. Evo has done damage, he looked for corrupt, bad, persecutor leaders," said Mamani.

She hopes that Arce "doesn't generate hate, that he treats us all as equals."

She also hopes Arce doesn't bring Morales into his government, because if he does "the people will go out (to protest), even if they have to sleep in the streets, it doesn't matter, we're already used to being tear-gassed" by police.

"I have faith" in Arce, adds Mamani.

val/fj/dga/bc