Food rise has Bolivia's coca farmers planting rice

Soaring food prices may achieve what the United States has spent millions of dollars trying to do: persuade Bolivian farmers to sow their fields with less potent crops than cocaine's raw ingredient.

The unlikely advocate for change is Bolivian President Evo Morales, who as leader of a powerful coca growers union fought U.S. crop-substitution programs for two decades.

But rising grain prices and food shortages have made him reconsider. He's now asking coca farmers to supplement their crops with rice and corn as a way of holding down coca production while helping to feed South America's poorest country.

U.S. programs have often banned the planting of coca - a small green leaf sacred to Andean peoples and the base ingredient of cocaine - as a condition for farmers to receive aid to try new crops.

In his own twist on alternative development, Morales is willing to split the difference: Growers can maintain up to one "cato" of coca, or about a third of an acre, which earns them about $100 a month while they receive a loan to plant other products as well.

The cato limit - in practice since 2004 - is seen by U.S. drug officials as a questionably legal concession to drug smugglers, but it has become the linchpin of Morales' strategy to fight narcotics while supporting the leaf's traditional use as a mild stimulant with medicinal qualities.

"There won't be zero coca, but there won't be free cultivation of coca either," Morales told thousands of cheering peasants in the small town of Sinahota last month.

Then Bolivia's first indigenous president raised his left fist and switched to the Quechua language: "Viva coca! Death to the Yankees!"

The Chapare region's coca growers union, of which Morales is still president, is requiring each of its 35,000 members to plant 2 1/2 acres of rice this year, part of a government plan for coca farmers to plant 125,000 acres of rice. The region, a stretch of central Bolivian foothills, now raises just 22,000 acres of coca.

If they limit their coca crop to just the cato, growers are entitled to $500 loans to plant rice, corn and other increasingly lucrative foodstuffs, and even a $2,000 grant to build a house.

Experts say Morales' plan may help keep growers afloat while alternative crops have a chance to take hold - and global food prices continue to climb.

"The U.S. required growers to quit planting coca before they could access alternative development programs, without considering that their families needed to eat. Now the cato guarantees the farmers' income, giving them the chance to take risks with new crops," said Kathryn Ledebur, director of the Andean Information Network, which monitors anti-narcotics efforts in Bolivia. "Evo's a coca farmer, but he's also a farmer."

But rice will have to compete with rising demand for cocaine in Brazil and Europe - both top destinations for Bolivian products. Bolivia's coca crop, the world's third-largest after Colombia and Peru, still increased 5 percent last year, though government officials say that's a victory compared to 27 percent growth in top-producer Colombia.

"The total area used for coca is unlikely to be reduced significantly given market prices," said Bruce Bagley, a drug expert at the University of Miami.

Farmers in the Chapare are responding to Morales' plan. On a recent tour of the region, The Associated Press found growers saying they will plant rice next to their cato of coca when the Southern Hemisphere spring begins later this year.

Leaders in the key coca-growing region recently kicked out programs financed by the U.S. Agency for International Development, claiming the U.S. was trying to undermine Morales' government. U.S. officials say they weren't.

"Before, we rejected alternative development because it was an excuse for ( U.S.) interference," said Julio Salazar, secretary-general of the Six Federations of the Tropic of Cochabamba, the Chapare growers union. "Now it's different. This is coming from the producers."

In the village of Villa Tunari, Julian Romero said he is happy to plant alternate crops. The 47-year-old farmer's teeth are green from a lifetime of chewing coca leaves, but he says he can't feed his family on a cato of coca.

"In August we'll start burning the hills to prepare the earth, and in October and November we'll be planting," he said, stooping to pull weeds from between his coca plants.

The amount of rice that the coca union is requiring could earn the same as a cato of coca, though it requires six times the land and a lot more labor. But the price of rice has tripled in Bolivia since last year and is continuing to rise.

Rice also feeds a hungry domestic market, whereas the U.S.-backed crop replacement efforts promoted exported products like bananas and pineapples and pitted the Chapare's poor farmers against global agribusiness giants like Dole and Chiquita.

Morales is offering incentives to further sweeten the market. He redirected $26 million in government money for importing food to rewarding coca farmers who want to diversify their crops, later upping the total to $60 million and lumping in donations from other countries meant to help Bolivian agriculture recover from catastrophic flooding earlier this year.

In Sinahota, Morales handed over a $450,000 check from the fund to build a palm-heart processing plant. He delivered $455,000 to nearby Bulo Bulo for a plant to process 60 tons of rice a day by year's end.

It remains to be seen whether farmers will fall in line when Morales brings the program to the Yungas, a larger coca-growing region to the north where the president's union holds no sway.

Meanwhile, skeptical U.S. drug officials say time will tell whether Morales' strategy has any real effect on coca production.

"For us, this is not a philosophical question," said Joe Manso, head of the U.S. Embassy's Narcotics Affairs Section. "It's simply whether it works or not."

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