FAO helps Bolivia in fight against cocaine trade

FAO is lending its expertise to help the Bolivian Government put an end to the country's cocaine trade. In the Cochabamba Tropics, the tropical lowlands east of the Andes, FAO is implementing a Bolivian Government project designed to raise the standard of living for farm families by introducing alternative forestry and agroforestry practices. The project's goal is to diversify and strengthen local economies so that farmers will have less incentive to grow coca illegally.

The project has been financed through the United Nations International Drug Control Programme (UNDCP) with funding coming from Austria, Bolivia, the Republic of Ireland, Italy, Sweden, the United Kingdom and the United States.

The Cochabamba Tropics, home to around 35 000 families, covers 3.7 million hectares of land, most of which is covered in forests. Even in the areas that have been settled, which account for just over half a million hectares and where most of the coca is grown, 80 percent of the land remains forested.

"It makes good sense to help local communities use their forest resources more rationally and profitably," says Greg Minnick, FAO's chief technical advisor for the project. "The native forests in this area contain about 50 trees species that have commercial value. These resources are readily at hand for rural families, and they offer an immediate and sustainable source of income."

An aerial view of the forests of the Cochabamba Tropics

FAO Photo

Fighting cocaine means fighting deforestation

The Cochabamba Tropics has suffered severe losses in its forest resources as a result of coca leaf cultivation and subsistence farming practices. The forests are slashed and burned to clear land for coca and other crops. 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. Over the last 30 years, this cycle of deforestation has led to the loss of 300 000 hectares of forest in the Cochabamba Tropics. Despite these losses, more than enough native forests remain accessible to rural families to provide them with sustainable livelihoods.


Taking stock of forest resources is part of making forest management plans

FAO Photo

Although forestry has been extremely important to the local economy, the forests in the Cochabamba Tropics have not been managed with long-term sustainable economic development in mind. "Often loggers work during the wet season, which does tremendous damage to the soil, or they harvest too close to rivers and streams, which causes soil erosion," says Mr Minnick. "Also, they often take only the most valuable trees and cut them down in ways that damage the remaining forest cover and many timber operators make no effort to regenerate or reforest the land once they have finished." 

The project in the Cochabamba Tropics began in 1997 and will continue to 2002. Its work focuses on two types of alternative development activities. The first involves developing forest management plans that will allow for the sustainable production of wood and non-wood products and, when possible, for local wood processing. Over the course of the project, 30 forest management plans will be established in collaboration with local farmers.

The other aspect of the project's work deals with introducing farming techniques that combine agriculture and forestry. In these agroforestry systems, trees and legume cover crops are interplanted with annual and perennial crops. (Click here for a description of two types of agroforestry systems) 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 to 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.

Nearly 2 000 rural families will benefit from the forest management and agroforestry practices introduced during the course of the project. One of the project's principle goals is to increase farmers' returns by 20 percent through reducing production costs and/or improving yields. (Click here for a report from the field)

The limits of alternative development

Mr Minnick is quick to dispel two misconceptions people often have about the role of alternative development projects in the fight against the cocaine trade: "First, we don't pretend these agroforestry systems will be as profitable as growing coca illegally. This would be unrealistic, given that farmers have reported earning US$2 000 to $6 000 annually per hectare of coca. 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. The other thing people have to understand is that, on their own, projects like this can't put an end to coca cultivation."

Local farmers receive training in wood processing.

FAO Photo

Alternative sustainable development projects are only one element in the Bolivian Government's four-pronged approach to shutting down the cocaine industry. The other elements are:

  • interdiction - cutting off the supply of cocaine-processing materials to manufacturers and intercepting cocaine exports;
  • eradication of coca fields; and
  • prevention of cocaine use through education.

Between 1990 and 1999, eradication campaigns reduced the country's coca fields by more than half, from 50,300 hectares to approximately 21 800. Just under 10 000 hectares of coca fields remain marked for eradication; the rest of the fields are in traditional coca growing areas and are cultivated legally for uses such as chewing or making tea. About three quarters of the 10 000 hectares of 'transitional coca' to be eradicated are found in the Cochabamba Tropics. By 2002, 4 000 hectares of coca will have been eradicated in the project area.

Success depends on community involvement

If the forest management plans and agroforestry systems are to succeed over the long term, local communities must be willing and able to accept the responsibility for their maintenance once the project ends. Consequently, the project includes a high level of community participation. FAO has worked to bring together farmers, local governments, the business sector and other groups that have a stake in community development, with an emphasis on training. The ultimate goal is to generate the 'critical mass' of popular support needed for these new systems to take root and endure.

Perhaps the most important element for assuring the sustainability of the project has been the establishment of the Cochabamba Tropics Centre for Forestry Technology. This centre will provide local farmers, business groups and governments with ongoing technical support in forestry and agroforestry management.

Mr Victor Villegas, the project's National Director, notes that the majority of the farmers in the Cochabamba Tropics are recently displaced migrants from high altitude arid valleys and the mining districts of the Bolivian Altiplano. "They have hardly any experience with tropical agriculture," he says. "If we are to give these families the chance to lead healthy lives in a healthy environment and keep them from becoming dependant 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."

March 30, 2000

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