Coca Farmers and Coroico
Driving into coca country
With the election of Evo Morales, a great victory for the indigenous communities - especially coca farmers, what better time to visit a coca farm? One town that survives on both the trade in coca and tourism is Coroico, approximately four hours drive (depending on your vehicle) north-west of La Paz. How did we get there? The ‘World’s Most Dangerous Road’ of course.
At 4:30, eight of us wrapped in layers of clothing poured into a bright orange ‘74 Volkswagen. Ten minutes later we were on the side of the road for two hours of car ‘maintenance’ (actually the cable from the accelerator to the engine broke, but it was not a major problem). Regardless, by the time dawn was approaching, we were on the road again.
Two hours later we stopped at the summit of our path through the Andes. At 4,800m this was the highest part of our journey. Looking out into the distance the mountains disappeared into a mysterious fog that draped the scenery. Quite eerie and totally devoid of colour, there was a dramatic beauty to this cold barren landscape. It was then that we blessed the car and road with alcohol, paying respect to Pachamama and asking for safe passage through her lands.
Back into our safely blessed vehicle we began driving down until we came to the small roadside village of Unduavi. Here locals survive on trade from traffic stopped at the check point. Officials search vehicles for a long list of equipment or substances used to manufacture cocaine. This was the first sign that we were entering coca country.
Further down we came to the beginning of the jungle, and the road split into two. To the left there was a stable and comfortable looking concrete road. Branching to the right, a steep eroded gravel path disappeared into a dubious looking road. Did we need to think twice?
The tiny dirt road, only a car width wide, wound through deep steep sided valleys of giant proportions past lush vegetation. At times there were sheer drops to the side of the road, and the edge was always steep. Massive landslides had occurred recently due to the wet season, and workmen constantly repaired the bits of the road that had been worn or washed away. The repair was done by hand with no heavy machinery - just shovels and wheel barrows, stone by stone.
There is a culture of people who live (and die) by this road, with road-workers, women and children waving red or green flags at blind corners to stop vehicles colliding. Driving around the corners you rest your fate on their judgement (some children are only eight years old). Then there are the drivers. The road is used by large vehicles that barely fit on the road. We stopped and watched buses backing quickly for hundreds of meters until they came to a spot wide enough for oncoming trucks.
We light-heartedly joked about the dangers of the road, but on our return to La Paz we learnt that during that day a bus load of 25 people had fallen off the edge killing everyone. The road was built in 1944 by prisoners of war, and many died during its construction. There is a myth that their spirits have stayed by the road and each year vengefully pull vehicles off the edge. Whether you blame the negligence of the drivers or something more sinister, the infamous reputation of the road is well deserved.
A great reward at the end of the road is the town of Coroico. It is warm and humid with the odd mosquito buzzing around – definitely tropical. At its centre locals and tourists lazily watch the hours tick by, and narrow cobble stone streets disappear between labyrinths of colonial buildings. In some places there are gaps between the buildings where you can see jungle covered-mountains across the valley.
Back in the hills behind Corioco is the coca growing region. It was on a small farm here that we met Santos, a local coca farmer. He told us how important the traditional crop is to his family’s heritage.
“My family has always been here, for as many generations as we can remember. And now this tradition will pass on to my son who will learn the family tradition,” Santos explained.
When asked how he felt about the US government’s opposition to the farming of coca, he said: “We cannot say anything about the US. Every country has its own policy, and we have our own policy. My policy is to grow and sell coca, naturally.”
He pointed to the coca plants “This is not a drug, this is a little plant. The US says that this is a drug, but they don’t understand. Making the drug it is completely different, you need chemicals.”
“In our community it is our policy that no one makes cocaine, only coca,” he added. “If anyone is found making cocaine, then first we beat him and then give him to the authorities. That’s our rule,” Santos stressed. “We just live from the coca plant.”
Coca is a way to feed his family, and there is no alternative to coca, he told us. “On this land we can only grow coca, as it’s the only thing that will grow. On the other hill we can grow fruits and vegetables, but we can not transport them, there are no roads,” he said.
When asked about his views on Evo Morales, Santos was reluctant to praise Evo too highly, as he said that Evo still needs to prove himself to his people. “He is from my own blood, we have the same blood in our veins.”
Santos strongly believed in standing by his word, and that Evo must do the same thing. “With my land, if I say that I will finish a crop in one month, then I have to do it or my name is not Santos. Evo needs to achieve what he has promised, if he doesn’t then his name is not Evo.”
Santos said he is not expecting politics to change his life dramatically.
“I don’t think that Evo is going to improve my life, because it is in my own hands to do that,” he said. However, he said he hopes that Evo will create more opportunities for future generations: “It would be good if Evo built more schools, so my children could have a better education and the life of my family could improve. But for me it is just in my own hands.”