“I have a cato as allowed by law,” explains Juan Mamani, a coca farmer in the semi-tropical Yungas east of La Paz. “We have an understanding with our president, Evo, so we control our coca better than anyone else in Bolivia. We work closely together as neighbors and union members to make sure no one grows any extra.”

Mamani is referring to a unique coca control model that has turned many of the basic precepts of the failed decades-old U.S.-financed drug war on their head. His words, and those of the other coca farmers in this article, come from research funded by the Open Society Foundation from 2013-2014. In late 2004 President Carlos Mesa, weary of constant protest and violent police repression, acquiesced to a long-standing grower demand, and permitted growers to cultivate a subsistence amount of coca leaf—a plot known as a cato, ranging in size from 1,600 to 2,500 square meters. Conflict abated almost immediately. “It’s very simple,” says grower Celestina Ticona. “The cato lets us feed our families.” “We bought our lot and built our little house thanks to the cato,” adds Alieta Ortiz, who has worked in community radio in the Chapare, east of Cochabamba.

When coca grower Evo Morales became Bolivia’s president in early 2006, he vowed to reassert national sovereignty, formalizing the cato program by strengthening its emphasis on negotiation, and enabling grower subsistence. Once considered the South American nation most dependent on the United States, under Morales, Bolivia has rejected U.S.-imposed forced eradication in favor of a more humane and ultimately, more effective strategy.

The novel policy approach, called “coca yes, cocaine no,” recognizes that Bolivia, which ranks third behind Peru and Colombia in leaf production, may be able to contain drug production, but will never entirely eradicate it. With its emphasis on community participation and respect for human rights, the approach stands out as the world’s first supply-side harm reduction initiative. Vice Minister of Social Defense Felipe Cáceres explains the logic behind the choice: “We decided to leave the machine guns, the bullets, and the bombs behind. We opted to include coca growing communities in the debate and analysis that created our policies.”

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