Bolivia Could Increase Legal Coca Cultivation Limit by 66%

Coca farmer, Bolvia

Coca farmer, Bolvia

Bolivia looks set to expand the area of legally cultivated coca in the country, though questions remain over whether the proposed amount exceeds demand in the country and whether this excess could be diverted to the cocaine trade.

Deutsche Presse-Agentur reported last month that President Evo Morales’ government could increase the amount of land allowed for growing coca legally from 12,000 to 20,000 hectares. A final decision will be made in the coming months once the results of a study into the medicinal effects of coca leaves have been published.

Any increase in the area of licit coca cultivation would require an amendment to Law 1008, in place since 1988. This law permits the cultivation of 12,000 hectares of coca, but only in the main growing region, Yungas de la Paz. Any increase would likely see the area extended outside of the Yungas.

While coca is predominantly known as being the raw ingredient for cocaine, it has traditionally been used by Bolivia's indigenous population to help reduce the symptoms of altitude sickness and fatigue, and is relatively benign. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), 23,000 hectares of coca were cultivated in Bolivia in 2013, the lowest level since 2002 (see graph, below).

The tradition of chewing coca is fundamental to the Bolivian people; there is even an article in the Constitution declaring that the State shall protect native and ancestral coca as cultural patrimony, a renewable natural resource of Bolivia’s biodiversity, and as a factor of social cohesion.

Despite the importance of coca in Bolivia -- and its relative lack of associated harms -- its legal cultivation has been an enormous point of contention between the country, the United States and the United Nations (UN). Both the US and UN have vehemently opposed any legal cultivation due to coca's inclusion in the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs as a scheduled, and thus banned, substance. For this reason, Bolivia withdrew itself from the 1961 Convention in June 2011 (with effect from January 2012). 

The UN backtracked, however, issuing a ruling in early 2013 that deemed traditional uses of coca not to be illegal, resulting in Bolivia rejoining the 1961 Convention that year.

Questions are still likely to be raised about the proposal to increase the upper limit to 20,000 hectares given the discrepancy between this figure and previous estimates of the amount of legal coca required to feed Bolivia's domestic market; in 2013, a government report put the area of coca required to satisfy demand at 14,705 hectares, well short of the proposed 20,000 hectares.

Bolivia is the third largest producer of cocaine in the world and is Brazil’s main supplier of the drug. By increasing the amount of land legally allowed to be growing coca plants, the government would be working to ensure the rights of the growers are protected and that their involvement with the illicit market is significantly diminished.

With all this in mind, it will be interesting to see whether this law -- if indeed amended -- has an impact on the illegal coca and cocaine trade in Bolivia and what type of reaction may come from other states, in particular the US.