Case Study on Bolivia in UNDP Report: “Reflections On Drug Policy And Its Impact On Human Development: Innovative Approaches”

Protecting indigenous rights and promoting sustainable development: The story of Bolivia


“Bolivia is the world’s third largest producer of coca, the plant from which cocaine, as well as the secret ingredient in Coca-Cola, is derived. Coca leaves have been an essential part of Andean economic life and culture for thousands of years. In its natural form, coca is a mild stimulant that suppresses hunger, thirst, pain and fatigue, aids in digestion, provides vitamins and minerals lacking in local staples and has medicinal uses, including treating altitude sickness (Farthing and Kohl, 2014). Coca is an essential part of indigenous rituals and social interactions. Indigenous people have been chewing coca leaf for centuries, and millions of people in the Andean region of South America chew coca and drink coca tea daily.

In 2009, Bolivia enacted a new Constitution that gives the coca leaf legal protection, declaring that it is part of its cultural heritage and its biodiversity and a factor of social cohesion. The new Constitution also asserts that coca in its natural state is not a narcotic, distinguishing it from cocaine (Art. 384). Bolivia then argued that the obligation to abolish the traditional practice of chewing coca violated the rights of indigenous peoples. The UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues welcomed this approach and urged Member States to support Bolivia’s initiative (ECOSOC, 2010).

After unsuccessfully proposing to amend the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs (ECOSOC, 2009), Bolivia withdrew from the Convention in 2012 (UNSG, 2011). In 2013, Bolivia re-acceded to the treaty with a reservation protecting the right to permit traditional coca leaf chewing, the consumption and use of coca leaf for cultural and medicinal purposes and the cultivation, trade and possession of coca to the extent necessary for these uses.

Bolivia’s withdrawal and re-accession to the 1961 Single Convention is an important example both for development and indigenous rights and sets the stage for its further efforts, described below.

‘Coca yes, cocaine no’

Most coca in Bolivia is grown in two semi-tropical regions: the Yungas, east of Bolivia’s capital, La Paz, and in the Chapare. In both areas people cultivate coca as a cash crop, complemented by rice, bananas, citrus fruits and other initiatives. In the 1980s, coca production increased exponentially, in response to growing demand, in particular from the United States, corresponding with profound domestic economic and political crises.

When Evo Morales assumed the presidency in 2006, his government formalized a cooperative coca cultivation programme initiated by the previous administration in 2004. Under the banner of ‘coca yes, cocaine no’, the programme allows each registered farmer to grow a small plot of coca or cato (equal to 1,600–2,500m2) for the legal market. Grounded in principles of ‘community coca control’, it was conceived as a locally managed means to ensure subsistence income, maintain a high price for the coca leaf and reduce police and military violence.

‘Community coca control’ encourages farmers and their unions to exercise internal and informal controls to avoid State-applied sanctions. Coca federations’ leaders and compliance offices monitor cultivation through routine visits and eliminate excess coca. Farmers must also produce receipts for coca leaf sold. If the government monitoring agencies find surplus coca, they can take away a farmer’s cato rights for a year, and permanently for repeat offenders.

In 2008, with funding from the European Union (EU), the EU and the Government of Bolivia designed and implemented the Sectoral Budgetary Support Programme for Integrated Development with Coca (PAPS). The package included the Programme to Support Community Coca Leaf Control (PACS), a participatory coca control strategy headed by growers. EU support to Bolivia has continued to approach coca cultivation as a subsistence issue and a problem of structural inequality, poverty and exclusion.

The key elements of the EU-funded programme include:

  •  land titling for coca farmers;
  •  in exchange, coca growers join a biometric register to facilitate identification and monitoring of cultivation, sale and transit of the coca leaf;
  •  the government’s Integrated Development in Coca-Growing Regions Directorate registers and periodically measures each cato of coca by satellite and shares this information with UNODC;
  •  UNODC shares georeferenced aerial photography and satellite imagery and accompanying analysis, and carries out joint in situ verification missions with Bolivian authorities; “
  • a sophisticated database, SISCOCA, cross-references coca cultivation, land titling and the biometric register of authorized growers and traces coca leaf transport and sales;
  •  integrated development projects complement subsistence income generated by the cato; and
  • community coca control: the empowerment of the community to self-police to restrict coca cultivation to the one cato limit. This includes training for union representatives on database use, and community joint action to monitor and restrict coca planting.

This approach has been called a form of harm reduction for the supply side (Farthing and Ledebur, 2015). It prioritizes reducing police and military violence, ensuring a subsistence income for growers by permitting legal cultivation of coca and promoting its industrialization. In turn, it reduces the amount of coca diverted to production as cocaine. This approach also maintains a commitment to aggressive efforts to combat the production of illegal coca paste and cocaine production and trafficking.

Not all Bolivians stand to benefit from the cato programme, however, as it was designed to support farmers who grew coca in established coca-growing areas. The poorest, most marginalized Bolivians have no land to title and thus are ineligible for its benefits. Bolivia’s community coca control initiative has, nevertheless, provided farm families with a subsistence income and increased food security. It has strengthened governance and citizenship by improving access to information, enhancing legal identity and supporting meaningful citizen participation in government decisions and implementation of the programme. In providing a secure income, it has enabled farmers to take risks with other income-generating activities, including cultivating other crops, fish farming and opening small businesses (ibid.). There is evidence that community control of coca has also helped limit corruption (Bojanic, 2014).

In August 2015, UNODC reported that the area under coca bush cultivation had declined for the fourth straight year. It declined by 11 percent in 2014 and by more than one third (34 percent) between 2010 and 2014 (UNODC, 2015b). Precise collaborative monitoring and ground verification provides reliable crop estimates to implement policy. Violence has plummeted since the 2004 cato accord, alongside a reduction in coca production to 2003 levels (ibid.; ERBOL, 2014). UNODC (2015c) has lauded Bolivia’s successful coca control efforts, emphasizing the critical role of Bolivia’s commitment to dialogue, coca grower unions’ participation, and the policy of respect for human rights in ensuring sustained coca reduction. The Organization of American States (OAS, 2013a) has cited Bolivia’s social control programme as an example of ‘best practices that are not just well known but are also available for implementation and replication’ and of ‘initiatives that enrich dialogue and can inspire each country to understand how it can successfully manage the various challenges posed by drugs within its particular context and economic, political, and social circumstances’. The EU has also been a key supporter of Bolivia’s coca control efforts, describing them as ‘…a success; you can see the impact in the effective and sustained reduction of coca production…’ (ERBOL, 2014).

Bolivia’s experience with supply-side harm reduction could inspire and inform supply-side interventions and development policies in other countries. As experts have noted, it is most immediately relevant to countries where illegal and legal markets exist or can be developed, such as its neighbour, Peru, and, to a lesser extent, Colombia, though it cannot simply be adapted to other, different contexts. It demonstrates that respecting growers and local organizations and ensuring their meaningful participation in the design and implementation of coca control efforts can contribute to reduce poverty and hunger as well as sustain coca reduction.”


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