The southern Peruvian region of Cuzco, whose like named hub was the imperial capital of the Inca, defied the central government Tuesday by enacting an ordinance expanding the legal cultivation of coca, the raw material of cocaine.
Regional President Carlos Cuaresma, member of a party that is part of the governing coalition in Lima, formalized the measure before coca farmers in Cuzco's Tupac Amaru square, whose name evokes both the last indigenous Inca ruler and his great-grandson, Tupac Amaru II, leader of a 17th-century revolt against the Spanish.
Several sectors, chiefly the government of President Alejandro Toledo, see the measure as posing the risk of a dramatic increase in the amount of coca leaf grown to supply the cocaine trade.
Local Indians have chewed coca leaf as a mild stimulant, similar to coffee, for centuries, and Andean nations have maintained set-asides for cultivation of coca "for traditional use." Peasant unions of coca leaf growers, increasingly powerful on the political scene in both Peru and Bolivia, have been demanding increases in the allotment of acreage dedicated to such cultivation.
Small scale coca leaf growers make a better - though still generally meager - living for themselves and their families growing that crop instead of beans, corn, potatoes or other products. They say that unless they are provided with government support for crop substitution that allows them to make nearly the same amount of money for their work, they will continue to cultivate coca leaf.
Anti-drug authorities in the Andean capitals, and their U.S. counterparts who provide most of the funding for eradication projects, say most of the crop ostensibly grown for "traditional" use ends up being refined into cocaine.
Cuaresma said in his speech Tuesday that the measure "is completely constitutional" because it establishes the cultivation of coca leaf for legal use in three valleys within the Cuzco region. The output from those areas, he said, will be destined for medicinal, ceremonial, religious and traditional use and sold legally to the state-owned firm that supplies coca leaf for such purposes. He said his ordinance, far from promoting cocaine production, "is drawing a line with regard to drug trafficking."
Cuaresma criticized the work of Peru's anti-narcotics agency, Devida, for failing to listen to any of the proposals presented to it by the region, located some 1,200 kilometers (750 miles) southeast of Lima.
He said that, on the contrary, the measure "seeks to organize the unorganized." Toledo's prime minister, Carlos Ferrero, said that the measure could increase the legal cultivation of coca from its current 9,000 hectares (22,500 acres) to the 36,000 hectares (90,000 acres) needed for legitimate consumption.
Ferrero said that if the regulation is implemented, the government will challenge it before the Constitutional Court because putting it in place is not within the powers of a regional administration.
Devida head Nils Ericsson expressed his concern over the matter because if the measure were adopted by other regions where coca is grown - he said - Peru could be transformed into "a narcostate." The top officials of other regions also have expressed their disagreement with Cuaresma, with the northern Lambayeque region's president, Yehude Simon, saying in statements reported by the local press that it was "playing with fire." Cuaresma, who said that the peasant farmers supported the measure in all its aspects, announced that in the next few hours he will travel to Lima to meet with Toledo to discuss the matter.
The United Nations reported last week that coca cultivation grew in 2004 in the Andean region, which includes Colombia, Peru and Bolivia, reversing the declines registered in the past three years.
By country, Bolivia posted an increase in the amount of land used for coca growing of 17 percent, while Peru registered an increase of 14 percent and Colombia experienced a decline of 7 percent, said the head of the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime, Antonio Maria Costa.
According to the 2004 Andean Coca Surveys for Bolivia, Colombia and Peru, released in Brussels, Colombia had 80,000 hectares (197,530 acres) of land under coca cultivation last year, compared with 86,000 hectares (212,345 acres) in 2003.
In 2004, Peru had 50,300 hectares (124,198 acres) planted with coca, compared with 44,200 hectares (109,136 acres) in 2003, the report said.