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Bolivia coca cultivation to grow if Morales signs law

Bolivia's Senate has voted to nearly double the amount of land allotted to legal coca cultivation. That could bring the South American nation's expected production to up to 30,000 tons of leaves.

On Friday, Bolivia's Senate passed a bill to increase the land area allotted to legal cultivation of the coca crop from 12,000 hectares (29,650 acres) to 22,000.

For centuries, people in Latin America's Andes mountain range have chewed coca leaves to ward off the effects of high altitude or brewed them into tea for a quick boost. Many of the region's indigenous peoples - including the Aymara, the tribe of Bolivian President Evo Morales, who is expected to sign the bill into law - consider the plant holy.

"The important thing has been to stop demonizing the coca leaf, to decriminalize it, to release it," Alberto Gonzales, the president of Bolivia's Senate, said on Friday. "We are talking about a noble, sacred leaf that did not deserve to be stigmatized in the way it was for almost 30 years."

Bolivia needs about 25,000 tons of coca for traditional and religious rituals, said Cesar Cocarico, the minister of rural development and land. He added that Bolivia could industrialize and legally export about 6,000 tons of that to regional nations such as Ecuador and Argentina.

There's always opposition

Approved by the legislature's lower house on Thursday, the bill increases a limit put in place in 1988 to combat narcotics trafficking. A 2004 decree allowed for an cultivation on an additional 3,000 hectares, though the real output was estimated to be about double that. The cultivation of cocaine has been constitutionally protected in Bolivia since 2009.

The right-wing senator Wilson Santamaria voted against increasing the limit, saying studies showed that 14,000 hectares - still above the current boundary - would meet the legal demand. And Jorge Quiroga, Bolivia's president from 2001 to 2002 and by miles the third-place finisher in the 2014 election, said increasing the limit would bring on "national shame."

The government originally sought to raise the limit to 20,000 hectares. Officials increased the proposal to 22,000 hectares after an incident in the capital, La Paz, earlier this week, when police teargassed protesting coca farmers who have sought to abolish limits on cultivation altogether.

mkg/tj (EFE, dpa, AP)