LA PAZ – Clashes between coca growers and Bolivian police intensified on Tuesday with a pitched battle outside the capital’s legal coca market.
Though coca is the raw material of cocaine, Bolivia – like neighboring Peru – allows cultivation of the leaf for legal use in Andean religious rites and as a folk remedy for altitude sickness.
With police barring them from the market, hundreds of coca growers attempted to enter the premises by force, setting off sticks of dynamite and throwing rocks at police cars.
Police officers launched tear gas to disperse the rioters at different locations in the Villa Fatima district, where the confrontations lasted for more than an hour.
Police took at least five people into custody, although official figures do not reveal the total number of individuals actually arrested or injured.
The riots have been going strong ever since a large number of coca growers on Monday arrived in the capital from Yungas, a coca-growing area in La Paz province.
The aim of the militants is to reclaim control of the market for their organization, Adepcoca, which is angry about legislation that established a ceiling of 13,000 hectares (32,000 acres) for coca cultivation in Yungas, the traditional home of the crop, while authorizing the planting of 7,000 hectares in Cochabamba province.
Prior to the law, only the Yungas growers enjoyed legislative protection.
President Evo Morales, Bolivia’s first indigenous head of state, first rose to prominence as leader of the coca growers union in the Cochabamba and he remains the nominal head of that organization.
From the start, Adepcoca accused Morales of designing the new legislation to benefit growers in Cochabamba.