Agroyungas Project

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The Agroyungas Project was a $21 million project of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and United Nations Fund for Drug Abuse Control (UNFDAC) in Bolivia from 1985-1991. Its goal was promoting alternative crops to decrease coca production in the Yungas region.[1]

The Agroyungas Project kicked off against massive U.S. backed coca eradication efforts that devastated peasant livelihoods.

"By 1985, the first year of the Agroyungas Project in Bolivia, eradication efforts soured peasants towards the idea of crop-substitution programs involving coca. Crop substitution was viewed as equivalent to prior eradication efforts, and both were deemed by campesinos as an assault on indigenous culture, values and society."[1]

The program was modeled on a successful project in Northern Thailand in the early 1970s, which encouraged growing coffee instead of opium poppies. "In conjunction with the crop-substitution approach of the program, the UNFDAC helped provide better medical and health care services, as well as increased access to better education in the form of new schools. By combining these initiatives together with government opium eradication, opium production in Thailand went from 150 tons in the early part of the 1970s to between 20 and 45 tons by 1987."[1]

A difficulty with finding substitute crops in Bolivia is that growing staples do not provide adequate income to farming families, but luxury crops have little to no domestic market within Bolivia, the poorest nation in South America.[2]

Coffee Instead of Coca

The Agroyungas delivered three million "high-yield" Caturra coffee seedlings to the Yungas region between 1985 and 1988. "Additionally, fifty three participating communities with approximately 10,000 residents were given incentives such as the repair and construction of roads, better health care, schools, and access to potable water, electrification, credit, and tools for joining the project."[1] For each hectare of coca a participating farmer eradicated, he or she received a loan of $2000 in the form of cash, tools, and coffee seedlings over three years. Farmers with less than a hectare of coca planted got an amount of money, tools, and seedlings proportional to their area planted in coca. The loans were to be secured with a land title, and failure to repay the loan at an interest rate of 3-5 percent in seven years would result in losing one's land.

The farmers were accustomed to preparing land for coca by slashing and burning it, and then growing maize on the land. After producing a maize crop, a farmer might also grow rice. "When the soil had been exhausted by these crops, coca was then planted in the exhausted field, because coca was able to grow where nothing else could." Coca required few inputs and provided a steady income stream, as it is harvested several times each year. Given these facts, the soil in the coca fields the farmers were to plant coffee on was "exhausted" and not suitable for growing caturra coffee.[1]

Farmers in Yungas did have some experience with coffee, with criollo (local) varieties. Criollo coffee trees produced lower yields, but they were well adapted to the local climate.

"Caturra coffee required high levels of fertilizer, insecticide and good soils to thrive, all conditions which the Yungas region lacked. Furthermore, caturra coffee needed a nursery at first, did not survive pruning, needed to be replaced after becoming exhausted, and came to harvest at a time of year when labor was limited due to multiple crops coming to harvest. Crops such as coffee have capital and labor input requirements that Bolivian campesinos could not meet."[1]

In 1986 and 1987, a new coffee pest appeared in the region, the coffee borer beetle, locally known as the broca. The beetle's damage was made worse by the fact that campesinos "did not use the insecticides they were given as instructed." The campesinos felt that the project was responsible for introducing the pest to the region. A drought in 1989-1991 further harmed their coffee crop. (Coca is relatively drought tolerant and they would not have suffered as much if they had continued to grow coca.)[1]

In addition to agricultural issues, the farmers faced major financial ones. They were to forgo their coca income while waiting for their new coffee trees to produce a crop. Meanwhile, coffee prices fell by 60 percent from 1986 to 1990. As their loans were calculated based on 1985 prices, they were unable to pay back their loans.[1]

The Death Road

One reason crop substitution failed in Yungas was its remoteness and the lack of transportation to markets. At the time, the road to La Paz ("the Death Road"), described as follows:

"The North Yungas Road, running from Coroico in the Yungas region to La Paz was constructed by Paraguayan prisoners of war in the 1930s during the Chaco War. Measuring an average of 3.2 m. across, the roadway either just barely or simply did not permit two vehicles to pass each other at the same time. The road possessed no guardrails and ran from an elevation of 4000 m. outside of La Paz to 1300 m. in Coroico for a length of approximately 67 kilometers. This meant for the agriculturalists of the Yungas that the drive to market for their agricultural goods was a 67 km. thrill ride uphill. In 1995, the Inter-American Development Bank named the North Yungas Road (nicknamed El Camino de la Muerte) the most dangerous road in the world. The road’s dirt and gravel packed surface was often turned into a slick gooey mud by heavy rains, creating extremely hazardous driving conditions. Motorists routinely had to contend with thin waterfalls, which could turn into raging torrents of water (depending on the rainfall) that could wash out the roadway for hours, days, or months at a time. Hairpin turns and sheer drops of thousands of meters were some additional road hazards that motorists also had to manage. If an accident, death, or car failure occurred on this road, no emergency services would attend to the problem and no mobile phone services worked in these remote and high altitudes. Up until 2006, this road (which claimed the lives of roughly 200-300 people per year) was the main artery out of the Yungas region into a major economic market. Simply put, the majority of Bolivian roads during the 1980s, not just the North Yungas Road, were “rough, steep, winding, and narrow.”"[1]

Another transportation issue were the open-air trucks used at the time. Without any enclosed, temperature-controlled vehicles, any crop headed for market from Yungas to La Paz was exposed to the freezing weather of the Andes before descending into La Paz.[1]

Articles and Resources

Related SourceWatch Articles


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 1.6 1.7 1.8 1.9 John D. Roberts, "Bolivia's Coca Headache: The Agroyungas Program, Inflation, Campesinos, Coca and Capitalism in Bolivia," PhD Thesis, September 2010, SUNY-Albany.
  2. Madeleine Barbara Leons and Harry Sanabria, Coca, Cocaine and the Bolivian Reality (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1997).

External Resources

  • John D. Roberts, "Bolivia's Coca Headache: The Agroyungas Program, Inflation, Campesinos, Coca and Capitalism in Bolivia," PhD Thesis, September 2010, SUNY-Albany.
  • The World of Coca Campaign’s “The Failure of Good Intentions: The United Nations in the War Against Drugs,” Narcotics and Development Discussion Paper No. 5 (London, UK: Catholic Institute for International Relations, 1993).
  • Noam Lupu’s “Towards a New Articulation of Alternative Development: Lessons From Coca Supply Reduction in Bolivia,” Development Policy Review 22 (July 2004): pp. 405-421.
  • Dominic Streatfeild’s Cocaine: An Unauthorised Biography (London, UK: Virgin Publishing Ltd, 2001).

External Articles