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Coca Compost Boosts Bolivia's Anti-Drug Campaign

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Coca Compost Boosts Bolivia's Anti-Drug Campaign

Latin America

Coca Compost Boosts Bolivia's Anti-Drug Campaign

Coca Compost Boosts Bolivia's Anti-Drug Campaign

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The government in Bolivia has come up with a novel use for decommissioned coca leaves. It's using the leaves as fertilizer. The government hopes it will deprive drug traffickers of coca's raw material for making cocaine.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Bolivia produces a lot of coca, which is the raw material for cocaine. It is not illegal to grow it for medicinal purposes, but production always far exceeds legitimate demand. Much of that extra coca ends up in the hands of drug traffickers and then the Bolivian government tries to take the coca away from the traffickers, but it has to go somewhere. So the Bolivians are experimenting with turning that extra coca into fertilizer. Mattia Cabitza reports.

(Soundbite of banging)

MATTIA CABITZA: With a small hoe, Lucio Copa mixes the top soil of his small coca field with organic fertilizer.

Mr. LUCIO COPA (Farmer): (Foreign language spoken)

CABITZA: He's just applied coca compost to test whether it will help his coca bushes sprout more and healthier leaves. Vegetables, tubers and fruit trees should also do well with this fertilizer.

In the Yungas region, one of the two main coca areas in Bolivia, growing the plant is protected by the constitution. But some of this production falls in the hands of drug traffickers, who make cocaine for Europe and the United States.

Mr. LUIS CUTIPA (Bolivian Coca Director): (Foreign language spoken)

CABITZA: The government's coca director, Luis Cutipa, explains that Bolivia confiscates almost 700 tons of illegal coca each year.

Mr. CUTIPA: (Through translator) This is why we started doing experiments with coca compost last year. We took it to the University of Cochabamba for testing, and they gave us good results.

CABITZA: Burning coca is expensive, so for now it's held in warehouses and government buildings, even in Mr. Cutipa's office. But he's optimistic they could soon make compost on an industrial scale.

Mr. CUTIPA: (Through translator) We need $700,000 to process all the coca. Unfortunately, it's a lot of coca that's going to drug trafficking. And it's this coca that we want to turn into fertilizer.

CABITZA: After a long drive in the mountains on a bumpy dirt road, I've finally arrived at the pilot plant. It doesn't look like much, just a big grassy field, maybe the size of a football field. And in one corner is a roof made out of bamboo and straw. And under the roof are three large rectangular holes. It looks like you could bury a person in there, but this is where they made the fertilizer.

The head of the project, Miguel Callisaya, explains they made 1,500 pounds of compost using household garbage, tree leaves and chicken manure.

Mr. MIGUEL CALLISAYA: (Through translator) We waited 120 days for this mixture to decompose. And the result was a fertilizer high in nutrients, which is of better quality than earthworm compost. It's the best fertilizer.

CABITZA: Testimony to this achievement is the ground where the compost was made, where weeds are now growing larger and taller than in the neighboring field. Plants seem to thrive on the compost. And Kathryn Ledebur, a coca analyst, applauds the initiative, but not as a solution to Bolivia's drug problem.

Ms. KATHRYN LEDEBUR (Coca Analyst): One of the things you would have to do to address that problem significantly is address international demand for cocaine, and that is something that's completely out of Bolivia's hands.

CABITZA: The country's under constant international pressure to stop the diversion of some of this coca to drug traffickers. Analysts agree it will take more than compost to give a real boost to Bolivia's anti-drugs campaign.

For NPR News, I'm Mattia Cabitza in La Paz, Bolivia.

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