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Bolivia Pledges Coca Destruction

May 22, 2000

LA PAZ, Bolivia (AP) _ Bolivia brushed aside threats of strikes and blockades by coca leaf producers and pledged Monday to continue destroying the plantations used to make cocaine.

Nearly 10,000 peasants gathered over the weekend in El Chapare in the heart of Bolivia’s coca-growing country and set a 30-day deadline for the government to stop the destruction of their crops.

Peasant leader Evo Morales warned the peasants would blockade roads, seize villages, go on hunger strikes and organize massive marches on La Paz if the government does not stop targeting their coca crops.

Interior Minister Guillermo Fortun said drug traffickers are behind the peasant leaders’ threats and the soldiers and police won’t stop eradicating the coca crops.

``We aim at reaching the year 2002 when the mandate of President (Hugo) Banzer expires, having destroyed almost all the plantations,″ Fortun said.

Fortun said hundreds of coca growers who staged violent protests in Cochabamba, Bolivia’s third-largest city, in March had ``all their expenses paid by the traffickers″ _ an accusation denied by the peasant leaders.

The coca leaf destruction program started in August 1997 as part of efforts to take Bolivia out of the cocaine making and trafficking circuit. The United States government has supported the plan.

Bolivia is the world’s third-largest cocaine producer after Colombia and Peru. Its production averages 70 tons a year, down from 250 tons before the eradication program.

Last year the government sent thousands of soldiers and police to El Chapare to destroy plantations, triggering clashes with peasants that killed at least 12 people in the region 480 miles east of La Paz.

The government said it succeeded in destroying 44,400 acres out of 71,510 acres targeted for eradication.

Fortun admitted that the eradication plan hurts nearly 200,000 peasants who make a living out of coca growing.

But he said they are increasingly accepting a government-sponsored program to develop alternative crops, such as coffee and bananas.

Peasant leaders complain that the government has failed to create markets for their new crops.

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