Peruvian Congress’ National Defense Commission approves ordinance authorizing farmers to produce coca flour, sparking controversy

The Peruvian Congress’ National Defense Commission last week approved an ordinance – pushed forward by Ollanta Humala’s Nationalist Party – authorizing farmers to produce and manufacture coca flour, and to use it as a flavoring in beer, wine, candy, and other food products.

Though the ordinance is pending a ratification vote by the full legislature, it has already sparked controversy.

“Where are the hundreds of tons of coca leaf going to end up?” said the President of Peru’s National Commission for Development and Life Without Drugs, or Devida, Rómulo Pizarro. “And how are we going to prevent people in other areas from (illegally) cultivating coca, and channeling it to drug traffickers?”

The ordinance will only foil the government’s promotion of alternative crops, such as bananas or pineapples, Pizarro added, and slow down eradiction measures.

If the ordinance is approved in plenary, said Julio Jara, the President of Peru’s National Coca Enterprise, or Enaco,”there will be no way of controlling or eradicating the illegally cultivated coca, as the law will protect the farmers.”

Coca leaf, which is the raw material for the manufacture of cocaine, plays an important role in traditional Andean culture and is also widely used by Peruvians of all social classes for therapeutic teas used to alleviate fatigue, hunger, gastrointestinal disorders, rheumatism, and, among other things, altitude sickness.

Coca leaves sold for teas, flour, soft drinks and chewing, as well as the small amount of legally produced cocaine which is sold to pharmaceutical companies, is marketed by the state-owned Enaco. This “legal” coca is produced on 10,000 hectares, or 25,000 acres of registered land in the Cuzco province of La Convención y Lares, the Huallaga Valley, and small areas in the departments of Huánuco, La Libertad, Ucayali and Puno.

The precise number of hectares of illegally grown coca, however, is much more difficult to ascertain.

Édgar Núñez, the head of Congress’ National Defense Commission, initially said that Pizarro and Jara were overreacting.

How is it fair that Enaco “buys 14 kilograms of coca leaf from a campesino for 60 soles, or $20, but then retails the same amout for 450 soles, or $140?” Núñez said last week. “The law will only allow the farmers to process their own crops.”

But he made an about face over the weekend, telling daily El Comercio, “If the specialists from Devida say it has no nutritional value, that would make me change my opinion.”

Many government critics contend forced crop eradication policy implemented by the Peruvian government over the past 25 years has largely failed and left many poor regions to fend for themselves.

According to the Transnational Institute, “the official strategy has exacerbated social conflicts; contributed to various types of subversive violence; jeopardized local economies, also affecting the national economy; and destroyed forests as crops have become more scattered. Worst of all, it has not resolved any of the underlying causes of drug trafficking, such as poverty, marginalization and government neglect.”

And, although U.S. officials hail Peru as a success story because coca cultivation dropped by nearly 70 percent between 1995 and 2001, the sharp drop was not entirely due to the government’s eradication efforts and Peru President Alan García’s stepped-up counter-drug rhetoric, with a call to “bomb and machine-gun down” all coca paste maceration pits and clandestine airports used to transport illegal drugs out of the Peru’s jungle.

Rather, the drop can be attributed to the Fusarium oxysporum fungal epidemic that swept through Peru’s Huallaga Valley in the 1980s and 1990s, a shift in production to Colombia, and low coca prices.

But by 2002, the number of hectares used to illegally grow coca in Peru increased as efforts to eradicate the crop in Colombia forced production southward.

This can be explained by the balloon effect, or the drug fields’ tendency to shift elsewhere and sometimes to smaller and harder-to-reach plots in response to local eradication campaigns, and the fact that for farmers, the coca harvest provides more money than any other crop: up to five times as much can be earned for a kilogram of coca than for a kilogram of coffee.

In June 2008, a study conducted by Devida, and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime indicated that coca crops had increased by 4.5 percent in 2007 and that approximately 92 percent of Peruvian coca production is destined for the fabrication of cocaine paste and cocaine hydrochloride.

Last January, the International Narcotics Control Board, a United Nations agency, released its 2008 report that found an increase of 181,600 hectares of coca crops in Bolivia, Colombia and Peru in 2007, an increase of 16 percent over 2006.

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