Bolivia Joins U.S., Brazil in Satellite Monitoring of Coca Crop

By Dialogo
August 19, 2011

Bolivia, Brazil and the United States are on the verge of signing a trilateral agreement to monitor coca cultivation in Bolivia through the use of modern satellite and GPS technologies.
With Bolivia as the recipient, the United States is expected to contribute $100,000 to the one-year pilot project to assist with GPS systems. Brazil will add another $200,000 and provide satellite images and training for Bolivian technicians. The project costs are relatively low since most images will be obtained from existing Brazilian satellites.
“The United States is an important actor in this fight against drug trafficking. It’s important to learn from the U.S. experience, and this is a positive sign that Bolivia is able to work hand in hand with interested parties in the international community,” said Murilo Komniski, an official of the Brazilian Embassy in La Paz.
Brazil has been pushing for this type of arrangement for years in order to stop the influx of drugs into its territory from neighbouring Bolivia, which has long been a source of drugs but is increasingly a transit country as well. Bolivia’s Vice Ministry of Social Defense says that 56 percent of the cocaine seized in Bolivia is of Peruvian origin. Ministry figures show that between January and April 2010, Bolivian authorities confiscated 6.3 tons of cocaine — 3.5 tons of which came from neighboring Peru en route to Brazil.
Komniski, head of the Brazilian Embassy’s Human Rights, Illicit Transnational and Social Issues sector, said that over the last 10 years, there’s been an increase in the drug flow from Bolivia to Brazil — “not just related to increased production in the Andean region but also due to increased consumption in Brazil and Western Europe.”
He added: “The trilateral agreement has two positive aspects for Bolivia. It creates the practical opportunity to learn from technical cooperation with the United States, and it sends a symbolic message that Bolivia is able to guarantee open dialogue with Brazil, the U.S. and the international community.”
The trilateral plan dovetails with the existing bilateral Bolivia-Brazil Action Plan aimed at combating narcotrafficking, and which was signed Dec. 16, 2010, in Foz de Iguaçu.
At a press conference following that signing, Bolivian Interior Minister Sacha Llorenti and Brazilian Justice Minister Paulo Barreto agreed that the “major breakthrough” in the action plan is joint police and intelligence operations at border regions. In accordance with the agreement, police from both countries will exchange information to identify drug trafficking routes and conduct investigations on both sides of the border.
The Bolivia-Brazil Action Plan lays out five priority areas: joint police and intelligence activities; capacity building for police forces; cooperation to combat money laundering; control of border areas, and worker migration. Komniski explained that the trilateral pilot project falls under the rubric of the first two priorities: police intelligence and training.
“With these issues in mind, we began talking to our Bolivian and American counterparts toward the latter part of last year, paying special attention to the issue of the eradication of coca leaf,” said Komniski. He emphasized that the joint monitoring would respect Bolivia’s policy of negotiating with farmers before eradicating any plants. He added that human rights will remain a key principle throughout the entire bilateral — and, by extension, trilateral — program.
The two South American countries have already implemented one of those action-plan items this year. Currently, 110 Bolivian police officers are receiving training in Brazil to improve their skills in protecting border areas, sharing intelligence and controlling transit routes.
Even before the Action Plan, Brazil’s cooperation with Bolivia had been increasing in recent years. In November 2010, for example, the two countries conducted a joint police operation where 1.5 tons of cocaine originating from Bolivia was seized in Brazil thanks to Bolivian police cooperation. One Bolivian, two Brazilians, one Croatian and some Western Europeans were arrested in connection with the drug bust, which reveals the transnational nature of the threat they face.
Meanwhile, Bolivia has been strengthening its own efforts to eradicate the coca crop in its territory. According to official Bolivian figures, in 2010 the government eradicated 8,200 hectares of coca — a progressive increase over the years from the 5,070 hectares eradicated in 2006.
Earlier this year, Llorenti, speaking to a group of experts in Cochabamba, boasted that Bolivia had eradicated more than 4,000 hectares of coca in the first five months of 2011. “This is a record in our efforts to reduce the cultivation of coca leaf, not only by quantity, but also within a framework of full respect for human rights,” he said.
The proposed trilateral program has received some negative press for duplicating the efforts of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) in La Paz. Indeed, the UNODC currently uses satellite images, purchased in the international marketplace, to conduct annual surveys of coca cultivation in Bolivia.
Komniski insists, however, that the program will complement and not compete with the UNODC initiative. He explained that UNODC will be the fourth partner in the pilot project, with full collaboration between their respective initiatives. At present, UNODC relies on annual surveys. The trilateral project will add value to existing monitoring by providing more regular, up-to-date imagery from Brazilian satellites to view existing coca growing areas, monitor new planting areas and analyze potential replanting zones.
The pilot program will be evaluated at the end of its first year to decide how to improve upon it, and potentially expand it to include other partner countries. One possibility is that it could be folded into UNODC’s activities, which would allow for full multilateral participation in the future.