It's a burning hot and sweaty morning in the jungle in El Chapare and I've traveled five hours from my hometown Cochabamba. We're harvesting the coca leaf and as sweat streams off my face, I pick a leaf and drop it in my sack; I do this leaf after leaf until the branch is empty and move to the next one. There's a misconception among the city dwellers of my country that coca farmers are lazy and grow coca because it's easy. I challenge anyone to work here for a day, where simply moving and breathing is difficult due to the heat.
Although this pretty little green plant is a fundamental part of my life, this is the first time I'm witnessing a coca mitana (coca harvest). Growing the coca plant is hard work, even the youngest of our group, a six-year-old says 'coca is money,' when I accidentally drop some leaves.
We, the indigenous people of Bolivia, have a relationship with the coca leaf that goes back thousands of years. The coca leaf helped save our people from genocide during the 500 years of Spanish colonization. In 1859 a German chemist discovered how to extract the 'cocaine' alkaloid from the coca leaf creating an industry that now spans the globe.
In Bolivia people chew the coca leaf and drink coca tea. The cultural practice of chewing coca leaf is identical to the use of coffee around the world. One can compare the relationship between the coca plant and cocaine as the same as grapes and wine. But today the coca leaf is listed as a schedule 1 drug. This little green plant is considered a criminal outside Bolivia.
I grew up like most Bolivians with no notion of whether cocaine was good or bad. To me, it was a way to get out of poverty.
In 1972, U.S. President Nixon launched the War on Drugs heavily targeting Latin America. During the '80s Bolivia became their battleground and the coca farmers their target. I remember when the DEA (Drug Enforcement Administration) came to Bolivia and trained our soldiers to destroy the coca plantations. This triggered terrible violence where the coca farmers and soldiers were killing each other. Regardless of this extreme effort, cocaine consumption and production simply kept increasing. What was going on? Did the U.S. simply want control of the cocaine industry?
In Bolivia one kilogram of cocaine is worth about $2,000; in Brazil or Argentina its worth increases to $10,000, in Europe and the U.S it goes up to $120,000; the street value of 1 kg of pure cocaine in Australia is at least $600,000. It's a no-brainer business when you do the math, but the fact of the matter is that Bolivians aren't even making 1 percent of the final profit.
After following U.S. drug policy for 25 years, Bolivia was in an ever-deepening hole, poverty was rampant and there didn't seem to be a solution other than to continue accepting conditions and cash from the World Bank, the IMF or over $100 million annually from the U.S. government. However, while the U.S. did play a key role in the War on Drugs in Bolivia, it was our own government who carried out their policy. It was simply another way to keep the wealth and power in the hands of the traditional ruling class.
In December 2005, Bolivia elected Evo Morales, our first indigenous president. Evo was the leader of the coca growers union and put a stop to the violent policy pursued by the U.S. government. This change in policy put us at odds with the U.S., and both countries expelled each other's ambassadors. The U.S. has since cut military, counter-narcotics and security aid to Bolivia and also cancelled trade preferences. Fortunately for our country the situation is improving for all of us. Bolivia has a growing middle class, we're fighting illiteracy with more children attending school than ever and the number of people living below the poverty line is decreasing by the day.
Bolivia is the third largest producer of cocaine in the world, although only four countries can produce it: Colombia, Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador. Bolivia's relationship with cocaine is not like Colombia where the cocaine business is controlled by cartels through violence. Statistics show that Bolivia has one of the lowest violence rates in Latin America. There are no Bolivian drug cartels. As a young man sentenced to eight years in prison for transporting 2 kg of cocaine told me, "We make it, we shake it, but we don't take it." Cocaine consumption is not a big issue in my country. In Bolivia cocaine is just another commodity produced for export and traded in a consumer-driven global market.
The failure of the War on Drugs is becoming an accepted fact. While there is much discussion about the decriminalization of illegal drug consumption, there is no talk about the people who produce these drugs, the little fish and cocaine workers who pay the price of a hypocritical system that jails the vulnerable in Europe, the U.S. and Latin America but fails to convict anyone when international banks get caught laundering billions of dollars of cocaine money every year.
Imagine an alternative reality where drugs were legal and regulated; the money generated by the cocaine industry in Bolivia wouldn't flow into an illicit economy but would go to the development of schools, hospitals, roads and other essential public services. The potential for corruption in the political and judicial systems would decrease, half the people in prison wouldn't be there, the coca leaf could be industrialised to produce other products, tax revenue would be generated and power would be taken away from international organised crime. Those who choose to consume cocaine in Europe, the U.S. and other countries would have a product that is quality controlled.
Ultimately, as long as there's demand for cocaine, there will be cocaine production in Bolivia.
Violeta Ayala is an indigenous Bolivian filmmaker working on a trilogy titled "From the South looking North." Cocaine Prison and The Bolivian Case will be released in 2014. Credits include STOLEN that was aired on PBS, premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival and won 15 awards.
This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post to mark the theatrical and on-demand release of "How To Make Money Selling Drugs," a new documentary by Matthew Cooke that examines the drug trade from a variety of angles. For more info on the film, click here.