For the people of Andean Bolivia the rising demand for cocaine in the United States is rapidly restructuring their economic and social relations.

In recent years, underground, illegal economic activities have emerged on a grand scale. Surpassing most other legal economic endeavours, these underground activities are distorting patterns of economic development and the social wellness of the Andean peasant majority.

While Bolivia produces approximately 40 to 45 percent of the world's supply of coca leaf and coca paste, the Chapare tropical rain forest area in the Department of Cochabamba alone supplies 70 percent of the nation's coca leaf crop. Farmers from the highlands who migrated here cleared tens of thousands of hectares of forested lands to grow the plant on small plots.

Coca-paste making and international trafficking, however, traditionally has been the domain of elites such as the cattle ranchers of the Beni Department, the agro-business groups within the Department of Santa Cruz and a small group within the Bolivian military. But in 1982, when a major military drug trafficking group lost national power and a civilian, democratic government took office, the Cochabamba peasants began making coca paste because of its incomparable profits and wages.

The growing international demand for cocaine has stimulated and increased coca leaf production in Bolivia by these small farmers. The US Drug Enforcement Agency estimates the flow of cocaine into the United States has climbed from 35 metric tons in 1981 to 85 metric tons in 1985. Bolivian coca leaf production likewise jumped from 35 metric tons to 120 metric tons between 1978 and 1985 according to official Bolivian government figures.

Meanwhile, elites have continued their coca-paste production and some have turned to the production of pure cocaine, which Colombians previously controlled. These groups enjoy greater political protection than the peasants and have the capital and other resources to engage in direct international cocaine trafficking.

Economic depression estimulates production:
Drug-trade creates labour shortages in agriculture

Bolivia's economic depression and a severe drought in the mountain provinces during the 1982-83 growing season, has made the coca/cocaine trade attractive. Caught in an international debt-repayment squeeze, Bolivia's gross national production since 1980 has fallen by 17 percent, its per capita consumption by 30 percent and its per capita income by 20 percent. During this same period, unemployment doubled. In addition, inflation went from 297 percent in 1982 to 328 percent in 1983. In 1984 it soared to 2,800 percent and then to about 10,000 percent during 1985 (Central Bank of Bolivia). Small farmers in all regions of Bolivia continue to suffer declining terms of trade from such inflation — a trend that began in the late ‘60s.

Against this background, it might appear that the flow of economic benefits from the cocaine trade has been unambiguously positive. The 35,000 producers of coca leaves in the Chapare region can each net up to $9,000 annually from the production of 2.2 acres. The next most profitable crop in this area, citrus, earns producers only $500 from the same size plot. In addition, small farmers benefit from the coca leaf's unusual characteristics which make it a "wonder crop." Its light weight and non-perishable qualities also make it ideal for low-cost, long-range mountain transport and its production requires no imported petrochemical products or expensive institutional credit. Highland peasants who do not own land in the Chapare are increasing migration to the area to earn wages in coca-production activities and as pisadores. These workers stomp the coca leaves with their feet in the clandestine paste-making laboratories.

Wages for coca leaf production are higher than for any other cash crop in Bolivia, and wages for paste-making are greater even than wages earned in urban areas; they are also six to eight times higher than any other skilled or unskilled labour in the legal, rural economy. Despite the increasing income for small farmers in the Chapare, the cocaine-boom is leading them and their country down an illusory development path. The coca-trade has induced peasants to shift land from food production for such crops to coca leaf production. This mono-cropping trend leads to greater dependency on purchased foodstuffs, raises food prices and creates shortages of these crops.

In the coca-growing and paste-making areas of the Chapare and upper Cochabamba Valley during 1984 and 1985, inflation has reached the highest levels in Bolivian history. In the Chapare town of Shinahota, the cost of a piece of bread has risen to $1.00 and the daily cost of living has ranged from $20 to $100 in recent years (Los Tiempos, July 18, 1985). The regional urban capital city of Cochabamba, once one of Bolivia's least expensive cities, is presently the most expensive. In the Chapare, wage labour is displacing traditional forms of exchange that have provided stability, continuity and even equity to peasant communities. Reciprocal labour patterns and mutual support structures, characteristics of local Andean life, are breaking down, and there is a marked increase in the monetarisation of the peasant economy (Flores, 1984). In the highland areas, such as the upper Cochabamba Valley and Norte de Potosi, there are reports of labour shortages for such crops as potatoes and maize, because so many peasants have fled to the proliferating "cocaine factories" to work as pisadores.

The coca leaf lost its cultural context a long time ago:
Its trade impacts negatively the environment

In the pursuit of quick profits the peasants' rush to produce coca leaves and coca paste also is taking its toll on the Cochabamba region's ecosystem (Flores, 1984). In the upper Cochabamba Valley, recent reports indicate that chemicals used in making coca paste sometimes are dumped into the streams and irrigation ditches contaminating agricultural lands and livestock. The basic quality of life remains poor, as well. Most communities in the Chapare still have no potable water, electricity and indoor plumbing (Flores, 1984). In Bolivia, these services are provided by the Ministry of Health and the regional public development corporations, who are supposedly not receiving revenues from the coca-trade. Serious levels of infant mortality, malnutrition and gastrointestinal illnesses tend to trend.

While becoming a commodity exclusively for cash exchange and commercial gain, coca, the so-called sacred plant of Andean societies, lost its traditional cultural value centuries ago. For its uses in religious rituals make no sense today. Chewing the coca leaf, provided once energy for arduous tasks in pre-columbian times. But now the price of the coca leaf has risen so high, more than a million and a half Bolivian peasants can no longer easily afford it. But while chewing it is waning, smoking it, has become a trend among pisadores from poor peasant families. Drug traffickers often remunerate pisadores with “pitillos,” and because of the exposure in their own clandestine laboratories, families have also turned into consumers.

Coca paste has more impurities than the hydrochloride consumed in the United States and is the cause of many serious health problems. Bolivian medical researchers are investigating the health impact upon the pisadores, whose feet come into contact with kerosene over many hours. The researchers' preliminary reports are extremely alarming. While stomping on the leaves in a tedious and monotonous crushing process, the pisadores are often given alcoholic beverages, coca paste, a special meal and regional music, all of which are used "to increase their productivity.”

Cocaine-trade breeds corruption and violence

The expanding drug trade has pulled the peasantry into illegal activity as pisadores and owners of makeshift cocaine factories, as well as smugglers of coca leaves and various processing chemicals such as kerosene and sulphuric acid. Peasant women have entered en masse into prostitution in these factories’ peripheries and into petty commerce with the processing chemicals. Some of these women also cook for the workers in the back of these factories.

The repression against the drug trade in Bolivia falls disproportionately upon the peasants because of their lack of political and economic power. Drug-related arrests and detentions have led to overcrowding in the major detention centres. Meanwhile, members of the trade’s cartels are seldom arrested or prosecuted because of their ability to curry favour with or pay off the Bolivian authorities.

The cocaine-boom in Bolivia has stepped up violence in rural areas as well because of officials' efforts to repress the illegal trade and widespread arms trafficking. Arms have become necessary to protect the factories and the transport of the material. The illegal cocaine processing and trafficking, while violating international treaties and national laws, breeds not only violence but corruption among the public institutions employing the local public officials, the police force and the military. It has also brought sinister criminal traffickers from Colombia, Brazil and Venezuela into the rural areas of Cochabamba, Santa Cruz and Beni in Bolivia.

Finally, as a consequence of burgeoning economic interests, the rapidly spreading cocaine-boom is causing considerable problems for leaders of local peasant unions. Bolivia has one of the most active national "indigenous" social movement in Latin America, but cocaine-related rivalries, charges and counter-charges, threaten to weaken the federation's cause and legitimacy.

Bolivia, a poor, debt-ridden country, is caught in the grip of an expanding drug economy and a mirage of economic development. Despite the substantial flow of dollars, jobs and income, it has been at the cost of major social and cultural changes. Similar to other so-called "boom" periods in Latin American history, the country's peasantry absorbs in diverse and perverse forms the major costs of these changes. Given Bolivia's increasing economic dependency in the world economy, it is unlikely that this trend will slow down or that conditions will improve in the near future,* not at least until the need for cocaine in the United States declines substantially.


Drug-trade's impact in Latin America

Ismael Ogando (ed.)
January 17, 2020

* This is an anonymous report originally titled: The Cocaine Industry in Bolivia – Its Impact on the Peasantry, dated December 1985.


N/A Inside Bolivia's legal cocaine factories. (2007)

Vox America's cocaine habit fueled its migrant crisis. (2019)