In the burning heat of the late afternoon sun, members of the Ponce family are working together to harvest their small crop of coca leaves, the raw material used to make cocaine. Orelio Ponce and his wife, Juana Aruquipa, have been picking the small, delicate leaves and stuffing them into oversized aprons since early morning. Their daughter Flora has joined them in the field after a full day at school, which is an hour and a half walk away.
It is the first day of a four-day harvest.
The coca leaves, collected three times a year, are the family's only source of income, and the Ponces simply can't imagine of life without them. ``Everything we buy comes from the coca,'' explains Juana Aruquipa, whose features reflect her Aymara Indian ancestry. ``There is nothing else we could grow that could replace it.''
But in the capital of La Paz, United States pressure on the Bolivian government to force peasants like the Ponces out of the coca business is escalating sharply. In early October, the US announced it had cut off $8.5 million in aid that was scheduled to be disbursed by Sept. 30 because Bolivia had not met its eradication targets or made ``substantial progress in drug interdiction efforts.''
A further $14.6 million that is part of an overall aid package of $67 million, could also be in jeopardy because it is tied to the drug issue by the US Congress, US Embassy spokesman Mark Jacobs said in an interview.
While not specific about what exactly Congress means by ``substantial progress,'' Mr. Jacobs said Bolivia would have to have eradicated at least 200 hectares (one hectare is 2 acres) of coca leaf by mid-September to receive the promised aid.
Bolivian officials insist there never was any specific target or deadline given them for eradication. More importantly, they say that because an estimated 450,000 Bolivians depend on coca production for a living, they must create an alternative instead of simply using force.
Acting under US pressure, the government had previously intended to declare coca growing, a centuries-old tradition, illegal and to start a huge eradication plan backed by the police. But it changed its mind last May after more than 10,000 peasants organized a roadblock around the city of Cochabamba near the Chapare, the region which produces 75 percent of Bolivia's leaves.
In a June 6 agreement signed with the Bolivian Workers' Federation and federations representing coca growers, the government agreed to stop plans to make coca growing a criminal offense and to seek only voluntary reduction of coca fields. To show it could do it, the government took the news media to the Yungas - the subtropical, high altitude region where the Ponces live - to watch peasants voluntarily wrench out 15 hectares of coca leaf normally destined for chewing and making tea.
Peasants who pull out the coca will get $2,000 per hectare in compensation and are eligible for low-interest, long-term loans. They can also benefit from community aid projects that are part of the payoff through a 1-year-old project run by the UN with Italian funding.
Some 53 communities, comprised of 2,140 families are participating so far in the $20.5-million project set to run until 1990, and another 193 communities have applied. The UN program aims to stop peasants from increasing coca production while experimenting with other crops such as citrus fruits and coffee.
While the UN project's success can only be measured in the long term, Bolivian officials say it does not have the money to carry out such a comprehensive development program, which is needed to diversify the coca-dependent economy and to convince farmers to switch.
Coca production accounts for some 30 to 45 percent of Bolivia's agricultural production. About $50 million worth of leaves are grown in the Yungas and another estimated $250-million worth in the Chapare. The leaves destined for cocaine production generate an estimated $600 million annually and stimulate extensive commerce based on contraband and imported luxury goods.