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With new president, Bolivia coca growers see new hope

Farmers seek end to US-funded eradication effort

ETERAZAMA, Bolivia -- At a muddy camp in the vast tropical lowlands known as the Chapare, about 150 Bolivian soldiers and police officers responsible for destroying the area's illegal coca plants have done little in recent weeks except kill time. They chat outside crude tents built of tree limbs and sagging tarps, haul water from a nearby river, and sweat through the fatigues the US government bought for them.

''We're not doing anything these days," one soldier said, ignoring the mosquitoes alighting on his exposed forearms. ''We're just waiting to hear what's going to happen next."

It's the $100 million question in Bolivia: What will become of the US-financed program to eradicate coca, the plant used to make cocaine, now that the longtime head of the coca growers' union, Evo Morales, is about to become the country's president?

Morales, 46, who will be inaugurated today, said during his campaign that he might withdraw Bolivia's support for the eradication program, a keystone of the US-backed antidrug and alternative crop development campaign here. He has hinted at decriminalizing the cultivation of coca, which is legally chewed as a stimulant and used in traditional medicines, and he has criticized regional US antidrug programs as false pretexts for establishing a military presence.

But Morales has toned down his rhetoric since being elected in December, suggesting that the government might maintain current limits on cultivation, at least until a study assessing the potential demand of the legal coca market is completed. He consistently reminds people that he is committed to fighting cocaine, but not at the expense of the farmers who want to make a living growing coca for legal use.

That ambiguity leaves the door open to continuing cooperation with US counternarcotics authorities, while feeding an unprecedented optimism among Morales supporters who want to create an international industry of legalized coca. Those ''cocaleros" envision a country where their crop, instead of being associated with crime, is a key ingredient in exports from soft drinks to shampoo.

Morales's announcement Thursday that he would appoint a coca farmer to head the ministry responsible for fighting drugs was a signal to coca farmers that pressure might shift away from growers toward those who process the leaf into cocaine.

''A lot of people completely changed their attitudes after the election, because finally we're in power -- it's our country now," said Apolonia Sanchez, 42, a coca farmer who tends her plants a few miles from the eradication camp. ''There's a feeling of happiness and optimism right now."

The Chapare is one of two coca-producing regions in Bolivia. Under an agreement with the government, farmers in the Yungas region are allowed to grow 29,600 acres of coca in areas where it has been a traditional crop for centuries. But the US government estimates an additional 31,100 acres were grown illegally in the Chapare and the Yungas in 2004. Altogether, a little over 60,000 acres of coca leaf were grown that year.

After clashes between farmers and eradication troops in the Chapare, the government made a truce in 2004, exempting 7,900 acres from eradication. That allotment is split among about 26,000 households, and it has eased much of the tension associated with eradication in the region.

The villages around Sanchez's farm and the eradication camp are considered Morales's home base, the place where he launched his career as a coca farmer after an impoverished childhood. In an interview before the election, he said his political sensibility was formed when he witnessed an innocent coca farmer burned to death on the street by police.

Later he became the leader of the coca growers' federation, openly advocating legalization, rebutting charges of links between farmers and drug dealers, and criticizing US intervention.

After his election as president last month, residents of the Chapare threw a massive party for him in this small town. Sanchez helped cook the food, and thousands filled the dirt streets until dawn.

''We are winning the green battle," Morales told revelers, according to a report by the Associated Press. ''The coca leaf is beating the North American dollar."

The farmers say their coca goes to legal uses. They strip it from the plants, dry it, stuff it in 50-pound sacks, and sell it at local markets on Sundays. But the US government estimates that Bolivia sends out about 70 metric tons of cocaine each year, mostly to Brazil, which would mean that much of the coca it grows is used for cocaine.

The Bolivian military and police reported that in 2005 they uprooted about 19,800 acres of coca fields, destroyed more than 3,800 cocaine labs.

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