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LIMA — After months of social unrest by thousands of coca farmers objecting to forced eradication of their crops, the Peruvian government has agreed to stop uprooting long-existing coca plants, an apparent surrender to demands that could weaken one of the few clear successes in the war against drugs in Latin America.

President Alejandro Toledo bowed to the demands after groups of Peruvian peasants with coca leaves stuffed in their pockets came on foot from hundreds of miles away to confront the president in the capital. But the government says it can meet the protesters' demands — and still eradicate at least 21,000 acres this year.

Once the 18-day journey ended, the farmers' protest in the capital was brief but successful.

Toledo signed into law other promises that gave coca farmers something they always craved: legitimacy. And Toledo used a word the farmers really liked, describing eradication as "gradual." Then he offered them buses, and most protesters hopped aboard and went home to the upper Huallaga Valley and Monzon Valley where the bulk of the coca is grown.

Last month's moves to end a protest of throngs of farmers promise to test Toledo's will to crack down on drug trafficking — and his resolve against an increasingly angry segment of his nation's population. The number of Peruvian acres devoted to growing the leaf that makes cocaine is rising, and the programs designed to stop it are flopping.

The 3,000 coca farmers who took up the cause against forced eradication argued that they had been duped by U.S. promises of alternative crops and insisted that the government stop destroying their plants and release a beloved leader from jail.

"My children were born and raised on coca," said Graciela Hidalgo, who has been growing the plant for 22 years. "We have to eat."

As the acreage of coca crops diminishes in neighboring Colombia, the U.S. war on drugs is focusing again on a familiar battleground in Peru, where U.S.-backed efforts to eradicate cocaine made it a model of a successful antidrug policy by reducing the total acreage devoted to coca. But last year, prices went up, and the extent of coca fields increased once more.

Although the government manually eradicated some 17,000 acres last year, the number of acres still went up 8 percent, according to international observers. Last year's increase was the first spike since 1995, according to U.S. figures.

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The farmers say U.S. crop substitution programs were a failure because they offered crops with low prices or no market. Community aid packages included new schools or bridges, which farmers say may have served transportation and education needs, but did not feed their families. The only ones who profit, they said, are the aid groups.

"You know what 'alternative development' means here?" congressman Michael Martinez said. "It means latest model 4x4 vehicles and pretty offices." As the Peruvian government pulled up plants and launched a five-year, $300 million U.S.-funded crop substitution program, more coca farmers turned to violence, even trashing aid group offices. The government was forced to stop eradicating and quit substituting crops.

"They are taking bread from our mouths," said farmer Santiago Sanchez, one of the thousands who marched to the Ministry of Justice. "They talk about alternatives. What alternatives? If they had given us choices or jobs, you think we would have walked 18 days to get here?"

The coca farmers said they would not end their protest until two conditions were met: an end to eradication and the immediate release of jailed coca leader Nelson Palomino. After the months of sporadic violence, Palomino was arrested in February for "promoting terrorism."

Copyright © 2003 Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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