Coca Farmers Claim Partial Victory

In what local observers described as a "partial victory" and "relative triumph" for Peru's insurgent cocalero (coca farmer) movement, cocalero leaders met Wednesday with President Alejandro Toledo, who took some small steps to alleviate their plight and promised more. Since April 8, cocaleros from around the country had been marching on Lima to demand that the government redress their grievances and the president meet with them personally. When thousands of cocaleros began pouring into the heart of the capital Monday, pressure began mounting on Toledo to heed the demand for a meeting, and by Wednesday, after preliminary meetings between cocalero leaders, Prime Minister Luis Solari, and Peruvian drug agency head Nils Ericsson, the long-awaited event took place.

Peru is the world's second largest coca producer after Colombia, and Peruvian coca farmers, eyeing the success of their brethren in Bolivia, have increasingly mobilized to try to block eradication of the crops, to argue for a larger government-recognized crop, to seek an uncorrupted alternative development program, and to demand the release of leaders such as Nelson Palomino. Palomino, the head of the Peruvian Confederation of Coca Growers (Confederacion Nacional de Productores Agropecuarios de las Cuencas Cocaleras del Perú, or CONCPACCP), was jailed last month in Ayacucho on the charge of "support for terrorism" after he led mass protests in that city.

Palomino remains jailed, and the much hated drug law of 1978, which mandates the eradication of coca crops, remains in effect; but the government of President Toledo has promised to take steps to better the situation of the cocaleros. That was enough for cocalero leaders to call off the mass mobilization for the time being, according to Peruvian professor and coca expert Baldomero Cáceres Santa María (http://www.cocachasqui.org). "The peasants are returning to their lands," he told DRCNet, "but [federation sub-secretary] Nancy [Rufina] Obregón [Peralta] and other leaders are remaining in Lima for further negotiations with the government."

Although at this point the victory appears more symbolic than real, the cocaleros have already achieved important advances, according to Caceres and former Peruvian drug agency advisor Hugo Cabieses. "They won, even if not completely," said Cabieses. "The poor peasants with their women and children, the combative and beautiful women who spearheaded this important movement, have won over everyone. Those who opposed them at the beginning are now allies in their struggle for dignity," he told DRCNet. "The mass media, which was skeptical at first, has taken up the cause."

And they appear to have won over President Toledo, although how far and how fast the government will move to redress cocalero demands remains to be seen. Cocalero leader Nancy Obregón, who stepped forward to replace Palomino after his arrest, brought Toledo and his advisors to tears during the Wednesday meeting, Cabieses said.

"You, Mr. President, taught us to struggle against autocracy and for dialogue when you did your own marches," said Obregón, a mother of five. "You, Mr. President, who come from the same poverty as us, sit in the presidency because of us," she told Toledo in front of a crowd of thousands of peasants at a Lima soccer field. Then in a moment rife with emotion and symbolism, Obregón, along with fellow cocalero leaders Marisela Guillen, Elsa Malpartida, Diodora Espinoza and Lucy Macedo, handed Toledo a gift of coca leaves. Standing before the assembled multitude, Toledo took the leaves from their bag, held them aloft, and said, "These leaves are sacred and you cocaleros are not drug traffickers."

"This is a partial victory, an important first step," said Cabieses. "The cocaleros have been recognized as citizens, and the Confederation of Peruvian Coca Growers has been recognized as the legitimate interlocutor of the growers before the government -- much to the fury of the bureaucrats, aristocrats and the US Embassy."

The US Embassy is not just sitting idly by, said Cáceres. "Prime Minister Solari went from his meeting with the cocalero leaders to a meeting at the embassy," he told DRCNet. While details of that meeting are not known, US policy in the Andes has been steadfast in its insistence on eradication as the central component of any regional drug strategy. But US intransigence on the issue led Bolivian President Sanchez de Lozada into a bitter struggle with cocaleros there and helped push the cocaleros to political prominence. Peruvian President Toledo undoubtedly hopes to avoid that trap, and Caceres, for one, hopes the Americans will have learned a lesson from Bolivia. "We hope the Americans will be willing to allow an Andean solution to this problem," he said.

Also on Wednesday, President Toledo signed a decree acknowledging the legitimate grievances of the cocaleros and instituting a series of minor reforms. Although cocaleros have repeatedly said they are tired of promises from the government, Toledo's agreement to meet with them, his acknowledgement of their cause, and his initial moves to address grievances have convinced them to give the government more time to act. Obregón and other leaders remain in talks in Lima, but the peasant masses, with their signs saying "We are peasants, not terrorists," "Coca is protein and medicine" and "Liberty for Nelson Palomino," are heading back to the fields -- for now. If the government's action's this week are not followed up, the cocaleros vow to return.

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