Facts on coca from UN question politics of drug war

The UN Office of Drugs and Crime issued its annual World Drug Report this week. Despite its fluffy image in the United States, the UN and this office in particular are committed to the global drug war. However, the office is also one of the most important factual sources on the production, circulation, and use of drugs.

Participation in the drug war is a vital metric on which the richest countries rate the progress/goodness/aid-worthiness of countries like Colombia, Peru, and Bolivia. In Colombia, this has meant American drug enforcers, military trainers, and herbicidal chemicals on the ground for over a decade now. However, the United States’ annual evaluation of countries’ cooperation in the drug war often has more to do with access for these arms of the American state, and rewarding loyal allies while punishing governments that question US foreign policy, than with actual results. In recent years, this has meant annual certification of Peru as effectively carrying out the drug war, while decertifying Bolivia. The main cost of decertification is cutting off drug aid funds and market supports for alternative products grown in coca-producing regions.

Let’s look at some facts provided by the UN to put this in perspective:

  • Coca leaf cultivation by country (p. 99): Back in 1999, coca eradication efforts had peaked in Bolivia, due to the militarization of the Chapare coca-growing region. Lethal clashes had accompanied eradication, but the area of Bolivia where coca is grown reached its low point: 14,600 hectares.  Colombia then dominated coca growing: 163 thousand hectares out of the global total of 221 thousand. In the past decade, coca growing in Bolivia bounced back (to 25,400 hectares in the years before Evo Morales, and since then more slowly to around 31,000 hectares). Meanwhile Peruvian cultivation has shown steady growth (two small annual declines vs. eight years of annual growth), moving from under 39 thousand hectares to around 61 thousand. The big squeeze in Colombia through eradication (including aerial spraying of pesticides and burning of fields) got production there down to about 62,000 hectares.
  • Overall, Colombia, Peru, and Bolivia now have a 40-40-20 split of coca production, but only Bolivia is decertified by the United States. Peru, which is open to DEA agents and has been welcoming to US corporations, seems to have gotten a free pass on its doubling coca cultivation.
  • The global burden of cocaine seizures has shifted to police in South America (p. 99-100): Who’s fighting the drug war on cocaine? Measuring by seizures of the drug, it’s primarily South Americans, who accounted for 60% of the 732 metric tons of cocaine captured by drug enforces in 2009. This is a dramatic shift from 30-40% around the turn of the century.
  • Most cocaine consumed in the United States and Europe comes from Colombia: US authorities trace 90% of the US supply to Colombia. European drug seizures with a country of origin are 25% from Colombia, but another 44% comes from primarily Colombian transit markets in Venezuela, Ecuador, and Panama. “Cocaine produced in Peru and the Plurinational State of Bolivia, in contrast, is used more within South America, notably in countries of the Southern Cone.”
  • All of these seizures are failing to put any economic squeeze on cocaine use: The cocaine industry is the deadliest in terms of trafficking related violence, but this death and the drug war have not diminished overall use. As with production, we see a move in the centers of use. In this case, however, there’s no overall reduction. US consumption has slumped over the past twelve years, but European usage doubled from 1998 to 2006 and stayed steady since. (by the way: Despite these shifts, US users are still more common and consume more total cocaine than European users.)

Events in all three producer countries are linked to increased questioning of the role of coca eradication in the drug war. While Bolivia’s case is the most dramatic—the current president leads a union of coca-growing farmers—the traditional importance of coca leaves to Andean cultures is a shared factor in all three countries. The Plurinational State of Bolivia is committed to a formal expansion of the legal area for cultivation to include part of the Chapare. It has invested in the commercialization of products other than the ancient uses of coca leaves for chewing and brewing mate, such as coca candies, liquor, and foods. It also is interested in exporting leaves for traditional use by the 1-2 million Bolivians living in Argentina.

In Peru, President-Elect Ollanta Humala has expressed support for greater freedom for traditional cultivation and concerns about Peru’s eradication policy. And Colombia withdrew its initial objections and backed the removal of coca chewing as a penalized activity under the 1961 Vienna drug convention. And Colombia’s high court ruled Thursday that indigenous peoples must be consulted about coca eradication on their lands.

It’s important to note that none of these policies constitute a general open growing policy. In Bolivia, “social control” of coca cultivation which limits acreage per family and continues eradication outside authorized regions is the policy of the day. Social control policies are backed by the European Union, and Brazil has stepped in to replace US funds for drug control measures.

Finally, Ollanta Humala’s election offers a new test of the politicization of US drug war certification. Will the new government take the blame for Peru’s rising coca production, while friendlier governments have gotten a pass for the past decade? If the US moves to decertify Peru this year, blaming Humala for Alan Garcías failed policies, it will be a clear case of making drug aid a political stick to attack critics of American economic policies.

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