Scraping a Living in Bolivia’s Outback: From Tin to Cocaine to Orchids
Uncle Sam has poured huge amounts of money and military equipment into its War on Drugs in Bolivia. US military outposts are sprinkled through the countryside.
But Bolivia was not always a major producer and trafficker of cocaine. Chewing coca leaves and drinking coca tea are ancient traditions among the indigenous people, like drinking coffee in the US, and is probably healthier than drinking coffee. As Bolivians are quick to point out, the chemicals needed to convert coca into cocaine are largely imported through the international market. And the growth of the illegal drug industry in their country is a response to the huge demand of the world’s biggest consumer of illicit drugs: the US.
But there is another reason why Bolivians blame the United States for the expansion of coca farming in their country. Tin. In the inhospitable mountainous reaches of central Bolivia where coca growing has flourished, the main source of income for local people used to be tin mining. Bolivia has one of the world’s largest reserves of tin. Export of tin was once the country’s biggest source of revenue. Work in the tin mines was backbreaking and the pay miserable. But thousands of unschooled, socially marginalized people depended on the tin mines for their subsistence.
During World War II, Bolivia supported the Allies by supplying vast amounts of tin to the US at very low prices. Tin was essential for production of weapons and military equipment. By the time the war ended, the US had a huge surplus of tin. It not only terminated its purchase of tin from Bolivia, but began selling its vast surplus on the international market, at tax-payer subsidized prices. So it was no longer profitable for Bolivia to keep mining its tin.
From one day to the next the tin mines were shut down, throwing many thousands of people out of work. Few other jobs were available in that remote mountain area. Desperate, people looked for any alternative to feed their children and keep the wolves from their doors. A few innovators used their meager severance pay to rent or buy a small plot of land, and began to plant coca for the clandestine market. (Controlled growing of coca for traditional local consumption is still legal in Bolivia.) Then everyone jumped on the bandwagon. That is how Bolivia became a drug-producing country and threat to the well being of the people of the United States.
In sum, US demand for tin was replaced by US demand for drugs. Bolivia adapted accordingly. Supply and demand.
In part at least, it appears that the War on Drugs in Bolivia has been a success. The World Bank and USAID have helped former tin miners cum coca farmers earn a living with alternative crops for export. Two of the most heavily promoted export crops are orchids and roses. Both government and private farms have been set up, as well as a few worker owned cooperatives, in which over 200 species of native and hybrid orchids are now grown for export. Most workers barely manage to eke out a living. But at least they don’t have to worry about raids by the soldiers or poisoning by cancer-causing herbicides sprayed by US helicopters. Coca production in Bolivia reportedly has greatly declined.
Social scientists and nutritionists in Bolivia are critical that the World Bank and USAID put so much effort into substituting coca farming with growing flowers for export, rather than by helping the farmers successfully produce nutritious food crops for the local market. Malnutrition remains a big unresolved problem. But as in the case of timber and natural gas, it appears that the Bank and USAID’s choice is influenced by its policy of rescuing the northern banks rather than the local people, of promoting production for export in order to generate dollars for servicing foreign debt.
After all, the illegal drug trade is a big part of the global economy. Fiscally, it is the world’s second biggest industry, after weapons. I don’t have the figures for Bolivia, but for Mexico, as far back as the 1980s the US State Department estimated that 70% of the money Mexico paid annually to service its US$110 billion foreign debt came indirectly from drug money. So it is understandable if the Bank and USAID want to replace Bolivia’s cocaine industry with another export-income generating crop, one that will provide Bolivia with US dollars to export as debt, rather than local income that could remain in the country to help alleviate poverty.