Coca, a mild stimulant, has been used for millennia by people in the Andes in tea and food, though it is most often chewed raw to give energy and treat ailments ranging from altitude sickness to menstruation pain. The plant is also the source material for cocaine and the target of anti-narcotics efforts across South America driven in part by the United States. From 1997 to 2004, a US-funded program seeking to eradicate coca in Bolivia by force plunged the Chapare into traumatic conflict.
"They would turn up suddenly, at any time of day or night, and start interrogating us — they would hit you or kick you for no reason," the farmer says, recalling the paramilitary anti-narcotics police forces once backed by the US Drug Enforcement Administration. "We used to sleep out in the open, in the coca field, so they couldn't find us."
Even though his crop has been fully legal since 2004, when the Bolivian government took the unprecedented step of legalizing production for domestic consumption, these dark memories still prompt the farmer to insist his name does not appear in print.
Wherever you go in the Chapare — one of Bolivia's two coca-growing regions — you hear similar stories of life in the 1990s and early 2000s: narco-slayings, police violence and rapes, and coca-grower protests ending in violence and death.
You also hear gratitude that Bolivia has replaced a strategy of eradication with one of regulated production to meet historic national demand for coca.