The United Nations illicit crop monitoring program reported an increase in coca prices and new crops in Bolivia in 2017, signs of an ongoing trend that has been altering drug trafficking dynamics in the Andean nation and its surrounding area in South America.
Last year, Bolivia reached a total of 24,500 hectares of land used for coca farming, a six-percent increase compared to the 23,100 hectares registered in 2016, according to the 2017 Coca Monitoring Survey in the Plurinational State of Bolivia issued by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).
The report also mentioned that coca leaf prices grew by 16 percent, up from $8.1 per kilogram in 2016 to $9.4 in 2017.
Growth was highest in the Cochabamba Tropics in central Bolivia. The region registered 1,200 hectares more than in 2016, an increase of 17 percent, while in La Paz department’s forested Yungas region it grew a paltry one percent and in Northern La Paz it decreased by eight percent.
Of the total crops, 65 percent are in the Yungas of La Paz, 34 percent were cultivated in the Cochabamba Tropics, and Northern La Paz registered just one percent.
Since 2017 and under the country’s new General Coca Law, the Bolivian government expanded the authorized zones for coca leaf farming from 12,000 to 22,000 hectares. This means that only 2,500 hectares could theoretically be considered illegally grown.
The report also cited figures on Bolivia’s anti-drug efforts, reporting that 7,327 hectares of coca were eradicated, 660 hectares more than were eradicated the previous year. Seizures of coca leaf and coca base grew by five and 13 percent, respectively. But those of cocaine took a nosedive, plummeting by 78 percent.
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Coca farming in Bolivia declined between 2010 and 2015 and picked up again in 2016, when it increased by 14 percent. Although 2017 saw an increase as well, the figures remain lower than those recorded between 2006 and 2010 and are not considered to be particularly significant. However, the repeated increase in the price of coca leaves in the country could prove to be influencing the drug trafficking dynamics in that part of South America.
Bolivia’s figures “are a very small percentage of coca cultivation at the regional level,” Kathryn Ledebur, executive director of the Andean Information Network (Red Andina de Información – AIN), told InSight Crime. This is true when comparing Bolivia’s 24,500 hectares to the other two coca leaf producers in the region -- Colombia and Peru -- whose most recent figures are 146,000 and 50,000 hectares, respectively. (The 2017 reports for Colombia and Peru have not yet been published.)
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Ledebur explained that the higher coca prices reported in Bolivia -- where the UNODC says coca leaf is significantly more expensive than in Colombia ($0.95 per kilogram) or Peru ($3 per kilogram) -- illustrate the current drug trafficking dynamic in the country.
It means that, “right now, it’s not as profitable to make base paste or crystallize cocaine in Bolivia, but to send the Peruvian product on to consumer nations like Brazil,” the expert said.
Moreover, the AIN director believes that the high prices also mean Bolivian coca farmers can make enough profits by simply farming it and selling it on the local market. There is no need for them to resort to manufacturing coca base as well, as happens in Colombia, for example.
According to Ledebur, the growth trend in Bolivia’s coca production in the coming years will depend on how its government manages its highest producing regions, which are divided among areas where the crop is grown both legally and illegally.