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Bolivian coca crops follow a planned highway through indigenous lands

  • Bolivia’s Isiboro Sécure National Park and Indigenous Territory hosts 33 hectares (82 acres) of illegal coca crops, despite being an ostensibly protected area.
  • Indigenous leaders blame the encroachment on the coca growers who formally occupy part of the park and are steadily expanding beyond their territory and into indigenous lands.
  • Central to the conflict is a planned highway that would cut through the park and has already splintered the indigenous community into camps opposing or supporting the project.

Matilde Noza says she has never chewed a coca leaf. Noza, an indigenous woman, lives in the Nueva Galilea community of the Isiboro Sécure National Park and Indigenous Territory, better known by its Spanish acronym, TIPNIS. She respects the coca plant, she says, but it’s not part of the traditions of her community or others nearby, and she wants an end to its spread within the protected area.

Farmers have for decades colonized the southern portion of the park, and today formally occupy about 1,240 square kilometers (480 square miles), much of it within a zone known as Polygon 7. The cultivation of coca, a key cash crop in Bolivia, is permitted within Polygon 7, but restricted to just 1,600 square meters (17,200 square feet) per farmer. However, on indigenous lands outside the colonized area of ​​the TIPNIS, coca production is not allowed. Yet despite this prohibition, coca production has increased throughout the park.

Illegal coca cultivation on indigenous lands in the TIPNIS spanned 33 hectares (82 acres) in 2017, up 10 percent from a year earlier, according to a report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). The report also found 1,109 hectares (2,740 acres) of coca crops inside Polygon 7 — nearly three times the 400 hectares (990 acres) reported by Felipe Cáceres, the deputy minister for social defense.

Cáceres’s office had previously been tasked by President Evo Morales, a prominent supporter of coca growers, or cocaleros, to evict settlers living near the Isiboro River.

“People who are on the red line cannot go beyond it, they have an obligation to respect it,” Morales said in 2017 of the cocaleros farming outside Polygon 7. He added that during his presidency he had ordered the eviction of violators, and declared that “we will not allow” them to return.

But the persistent spread of illegal coca crops past the so-called red line that demarcates the limits of Polygon 7 has indigenous people asking the government for a “strict policy” to prevent settlers from entering new areas.

A view of the Isiboro Sécure National Park and Indigenous Territory (TIPNIS) in Bolivia. Photo courtesy of ABI

Heart of the problem

“The coca leaf,” says Fabián Gil, “is the heart of the problem.”

Gil is the president of Subcentral TIPNIS, the indigenous organization that holds the collective title to the land in the park outside the colonized zones of Polygon 7 and a cattle-ranching area in the north. The problem he alludes to is a planned highway that would cut through the national park. Already the plan has splintered the area’s indigenous community. Gil and other leaders of Subcentral TIPNIS oppose the project, but a faction led by former president Domingo Nogales supports it. The Indigenous Council of the South (CONISUR), which represents indigenous communities in Polygon 7, is also in favor of the highway.

“If the settlers would not grow coca in Polygon 7 and past the red line, there would be less interest in building the highway in that area,” Gil says. “What they want is a way to get their coca production outside.”

There’s evidence that the deforestation wrought by coca cultivation is steadily pushing north out of Polygon 7, beyond the red line and into the indigenous territory of the park — effectively following the path that the highway would take.

Map showing the location of Polygon 7 and the section where the three bridges have been built. Map by Mary Luz Soruco

Jacinto Noza, a CONISUR leader, acknowledges that coca production has been going on for a long time in Polygon 7, but says the growers abide by the plot restrictions.

Nogales, though differing with Gil over the highway project, agrees that the Polygon 7 settlers should refrain from pushing past the red line. “Our president requested it. Our brother colonists should not enter beyond the red line as it is illegal because the rules must be respected,” he says.

Coca crops on protected land

The TIPNIS is one of 22 protected areas in Bolivia that cover a total of 16 percent of the country’s territory. Coca crops were present in six of these protected areas in 2017, according to the UNODC report: the TIPNIS and Carrasco in the tropical region of Cochabamba; Apolobamba and Madidi in the north of La Paz; Cotapata in Yungas of La Paz; and Amboró in the Ichilo province of Santa Cruz.

Coca production inside protected areas (ha). Credit: UNODC

Combined, these illicit plantations spanned 253 hectares (625 acres) in 2017, unchanged from the previous year. The UNODC report highlighted the dual legal status of the TIPNIS and Carrasco parks: On one hand, they are protected areas under the administration of the National Service of Protected Areas, and on the other hand, both have been surveyed and titled by the National Institute for Agrarian Reform, also known by its Spanish acronym, INRA.

A key difference, though, is that in the case of the TIPNIS, this latter status granted title to the colonists and cocaleros of Polygon 7. In Carrasco, it put a red line all around the park, thereby preventing the establishment of any settlements.

This article is a collaboration by Mongabay’s Latin America (Latam) team and Bolivian newspaper El Deber. This story was first published in Spanish on our Latam site on August 26, 2018.

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