This is the first in a series of reports Ohio correspondent Joe Lowe will write on Bolivia, its cloud forests and the threats they face.
The attention of the international press will soon be on Bolivia and its president, Evo Morales, although not for the typical reasons. No, the U.S. ambassador has not been thrown again. Something else is afoot. Evo, as he is popularly known in Bolivia, has called the first World People's Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth
. The reasons for this are many, not least of all the failure in Copenhagen. Another might be Evo's background. Being the country's first indigenous leader puts him in a unique position regarding environmental topics. With cultural and ancestral ties to the land, Evo speaks passionately about human responsibility toward the Earth, in a way that has been absent in other recent Bolivian presidents. But the political and economic realities of modern-day Bolivia make transforming this kind of rhetoric into action a tough job.
To understand Evo's relationship with coca it's important to know a little about coca and its role in Bolivian society.
is a great cash crop; it can be harvested several times a year, needs less care and requires less financial input than other tropical crops. It is also a traditional plant, sacred to the cultures that have cultivated it for thousands of years. While it's true that coca is used to make cocaine, that is hardly its only use, especially in Bolivia. Many farmers in the countryside chew coca leaves as a mild stimulant which provides them with the energy to work long days. Since it is a stimulant, bus drivers and others working at night often chew coca to stay awake. Also, drinking tea brewed with coca leaves helps fight off altitude sickness, which is common in the mountainous areas of Bolivia. Finally, coca leaves also play an important role in traditional religious ceremonies and are even used to read people's fortunes.
Having said that, there's no doubt that a certain amount of coca leaves (no one knows how much) do end up being refined into cocaine. In addition to the harm caused by cocaine abroad, coca growing creates problems in Bolivia, as well. Coca is hard on the land; bush-sized coca plants require high nutrient inputs, and, like cotton, eventually leave the soil infertile.
That's not all. Demand for coca is sufficient to send pioneers hacking into the tropical Eastern Andes to make a living. This means employing slash and burn techniques and, due to the area's extremely rugged geography, planting on hillsides (already vulnerable to landslides) rendering them defenseless against erosion, which in turn destroys habitat in this bio-diverse region. As if this weren't trouble enough, the loss of tropical forest in this part of Bolivia has already led to water shortage problems, which is incredible considering the high level of annual precipitation it receives.
The plant and politics
Evo and coca go way back; their roots thoroughly intertwined. Coming to power as a cocalero, or coca-grower, in Bolivia's Chapare
region helped provide Evo with the support of other cocaleros and farmers, which he used to organize blockades and, eventually, oust several unpopular Bolivian presidents. After becoming president, these grassroots supporters naturally evolved into his political base. To no one's surprise, official coca-growing limits, which the United States helped to institute, were relaxed. But that wasn't the only effect his presidency had on coca growing.
Not all coca growing is done under watchful eyes; the geography and vegetation of the Chapare make it easy for farmers to grow coca off the radar. And because many farmers in Bolivia see Evo's election as a mandate for coca, they are emboldened to expand into new areas despite laws and an official line to the contrary. This puts Evo in a delicate situation. As much as he might like to preserve Bolivia's tropical environment, it is hard to refuse demands for greater coca production when those demands come from the same supporters who put him in power. To make things more complicated, growing coca is widely seen by many Bolivian coca growers, Evo included, as an inviolable cultural right.
Do coca and conservation mix?
Carrasco National Park
, located in the heart of the Chapare, is home to an impressive spectrum of ecological zones: from alpine peaks to lowland tropical forest, the park contains a bit of it all. It also lies in the Madidi-Amboro wildlife corridor
, a loose chain of protected areas, which, it's hoped, will help maintain the region's astounding levels of biodiversity. That's not all the park is known for. Social confrontations have plagued it for years due to disagreements over land management policies.
The quest to find new cultivatable areas for coca production has opened up the park's interior to agricultural development and numerous villages have sprouted up inside its boundaries, so numerous, in fact, that no one knows exactly how many. Colonists see the park's rules as conflictive with their own efforts to eke out a living in the jungle and, consequently, have struggled to push officials out. For them, growing coca is a very serious matter. Several years ago, a park outpost was burnt to the ground and on at least one other occasion Bolivian soldiers have been met with armed resistance when attempting inspections.
Despite Carrasco's difficulties, efforts were made in 2002 to create another national park in Cochabamba's tropical zone, this time farther to the north in areas that had received little use, remaining in a comparatively pristine state. Again, the goal was to improve the Madidi-Amboro wildlife corridor and protect threatened habitat in the Eastern Andes.
The proposal was met with angry resistance, including road blockades and marches and efforts to create an Altamachi National Park
were eventually scrapped. However, from the wreckage sprang a smaller municipal wildlife reserve, covering about 25 percent of the originally proposed park land.
The Northern Tiquipaya Wildlife Reserve faced an uphill battle from its beginning. CIDEDER
, a nearby Bolivian NGO funded by the WWF, began visiting locals, talking to them in their native language, Quechua, making the case for a reserve. In the beginning there were doubts about workers' safety, but over time farmers began to warm to the idea, especially when CIDEDER began help locals design micro-finance projects to increase sales of the organic honey and pepper they produced. In time, the eleven communities situated in and around the reserve even agreed to build an eco-lodge, named Yunga Pampa, which would allow tourists to explore nearby cloud forests, waterfalls and lakes as well as prehistoric rock paintings.
The reserve also protects endangered animal species like condors, spectacled bears, tapirs and jaguars, as well as a diverse assembly of plant life, including 73 species of orchids alone. Because of the reserve's success, the idea is starting to catch on and officials in the neighboring municipality of Morochata are considering a proposal to create their own wildlife reserve.
The success of the Northern Tiquipaya reserve, however, is not without its threats. Even in isolated regions like this one, demands from encroaching cocaleros and outside farmers are beginning to be felt. There are reports that villagers living in the reserve's two recognized villages have already had confrontations with outsiders eager to settle on unspoiled land nearby.
Evo's next step
To successfully host the conference will certainly leave Evo poised to become an environmental leader on the global stage. Regardless, if Evo is truly committed to taking a leadership role he will have to start working on difficult problems at home. Tackling the issue of coca growth and conservation in the Eastern Andes won't be easy, but it could help Evo prove his seriousness in defending the rights of Mother Earth.
Photos: Wikimedia Commons (top) and Joe Lowe