For thousands of years, the coca leaf has been a part of Bolivian culture. Its first uses are traced back to 3 000 B.C., when it was used for ritual, medicinal and religious purposes. Today, moun-tain dwellers use it to fight altitude sickness, the poor use it to stave off cold, hunger and fatigue, and the superstitious use it to foretell their future.

However, coca leaves are also the basis for cocaine. Bolivia is the world's third-largest producer of the drug, which is responsible for almost 1 percent of Bolivia's GDP, worth US$75 million, and direct and indirect employment for thousands of Bolivians.

Cocaine not only causes human suffering all over the world, but coca leaf cultivation has an adverse effect on Bolivia's forests. Although Bolivia ranks eighth in the world in terms of biodiversity, species are lost at an alarming rate. Forests are slashed and burned to clear land for coca and other crops and, because farmers seldom add nutrients to the soil, the land quickly loses its fertility. As a consequence, the fields are abandoned and more forest is cleared.

FAO's Forestry Department has in cooporation with the United Nations Drug Control Pro-gramme, USAID and the Government of Bolivia taken a first step to battle the cocaine production and the deforestation by giving nearly 2,000 poor Bolivian farmers an alternative to growing coca. In the Cochabamba Tropics, where 300,000 hectares of forest have been cut in the last 30 years, a five-year FAO project was introduced in 1997 aimed at diversifying and strengthening local economies so that the farmers in the area will have less incentive to grow coca illegally.

"If we are to give these families the chance to lead healthy lives in a healthy environment and keep them from becoming dependent on the coca-cocaine industry, we must offer them the opportunities and the skills to make a decent living from the resources available in the Cochabamba Tropics," said Victor Villegas, the project's national director.

The US$ 9.5 million project fosters sustainable production of wood and introduces farming techniques that combine agriculture and forestry. In these systems, trees and legume cover crops are interplanted with annual and perennial crops. In combination with home gardens and small livestock raising, these systems are designed to bring in immediate extra income for farm families and improve their nutrition. Over the longer term, they help diversify food production and reduce the threats posed by unstable markets, insufficient rainfall and pests. They also protect the environment by maintaining soil fertility and preserving forest cover.

To ensure the sustainability of the project the Cochabamba Tropics Centre for Forestry Technology has been established. This centre provides local farmers, business groups and the government with ongoing technical support in forestry and agroforestry management.

The project has strong potential, although nobody claims it is a cure-all against drugs. "We don't pretend these agroforestry systems will be as profitable as growing coca illegally," said Greg Minnick, FAO's chief technical advisor for the project. "What we're trying to do is provide an attractive income comparable to other legal economic activities that farm families have at their disposal. If we can raise local standards of living and improve household nutrition and health, we can make farmers far less interested in running the risks of growing coca," said Mr Minnick.