DRUGS -- Not cocaine, but made
Some coca ointment on your arm?
ALEXANDER PROVAN explores Bolivia's effort to market
non-drug coca products, from cookies to tea.
West Fargo Pioneer, December 07, 2006
By ALEXANDER PROVAN
"Coca, coca, coca!"
The Aymara women beckoned from beneath a golden
tent in a corner of Plaza de Alonso Mendoza,
elbow-deep in towering burlap sacks filled with
emerald leaves. Around them, other tents housed
pyramids of honey-stuffed coca wafers and bottles of
Cristobal Benavides, a 32-year-old Peruvian with a
frayed ponytail, condor earrings and a "Coma-Coca"
("Eat-Coca") T-shirt, encouraged me to rub my arm with
a coca-based ointment for "increased mental health and
vigor." Other vendors hawked coca bread, cookies,
candy, frosted cake and other comestibles;
coca-infused alcohol, reminiscent of tequila crossed
with lemon liqueur; ointments and medicine to treat
gastritis, hemorrhoids, fungus, gout, arthritis and
The only thing missing was the Evo Cola, a
coca-infused soft drink inspired by Bolivian President
Evo Morales that should be on the market sometime next
The Fourth Annual Coca and Sovereignty Fair,
sponsored by the government and a host of advocacy
groups, provided a public showcase for the latest
industrial coca products. Though the plant is better
known as the source of cocaine, coca has long been
sacred to Bolivia's many indigenous groups for its
palliative and therapeutic properties.
COCA, THEN AND NOW
Coca leaves have been found in the hands of mummies
buried over 4,000 years ago. And in the mines of
Potosi, Bolivia, Spanish overlords doled out the plant
to slave laborers, who chewed it to stave off hunger
and endure inhumane conditions. They worked up to 40
hours without sleeping.
Today, construction workers, taxi drivers and
farmers pack their mouths with wads of leaves to stave
off hunger, stay awake and make physical labor more
bearable. Coca tea, the most widely consumed
derivative of the plant, is even recommended by the
U.S. Embassy to alleviate symptoms of altitude
"The leaf produces so much more than the drug,"
says Nora Chambilla, a 35-year-old Bolivian selling
orange and banana cakes made with coca flour. She
hopes the fair proves that "coca products offer so
much more than the leaf," and notes that her mother
has eaten the cakes for 20 years to ease the pain of
COCA & THE WORLD
Morales, an Aymara Indian, cut his political teeth
battling the U.S.-led war on drugs as a coca growers
union leader. He campaigned on the slogan, "Yes to
coca, no to cocaine."
Since Morales took office last December, this
poverty-stricken nation has embarked on a campaign to
manufacture and trade a variety of coca products on
the foreign market. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez,
a Morales ally, recently provided $1 million for
research on the benefits of coca and for construction
of two factories to manufacture coca products.
The Bolivian government expects to make the first
major shipments of coca products to Cuba and Venezuela
by the end of the year. China, Argentina and India
have also expressed interest in importing coca tea.
But the government and coca merchants face a major
hurdle: Since the U.N.'s passage of the 1961 Single
Convention on Narcotic Drugs, all illicit manufacture
and trafficking of derivatives of the coca bush,
including frosted cake and hemorrhoid ointment, have
A clause in the convention permits "the use of coca
leaves for the preparation of a flavoring agent" -- an
exception made for the benefit of Coca-Cola, which has
used elements of the plant in its secret formula since
1886 and continues to buy coca imported by a third
party from Peru under a special deal with the U.S.
Drug Enforcement Administration.
At the U.N. General Assembly in New York in
September, Morales brandished a coca leaf he had
smuggled into the country above the rostrum and
accused the U.S. of hypocrisy. "This is the coca
leaf," he said. "It is green, and not white like
But the reality of coca isn't that simple.
In Washington, where Morales was once referred to
as a "narco-terrorist," senior officials have
expressed dissatisfaction with Bolivia's eradication
efforts and are threatening to repeal trade
preferences. Morales, in turn, has said the U.S.
should focus on curtailing demand in its own country
and has denounced the war on drugs as "blackmail" and
an attempt at "re-colonization."
Despite this, in the first week of November, the
Bolivian press reported on an agreement between the
two countries to build a military base to curb
trafficking in Bolivia's Yungas region.
ECONOMICS & LAW
Jorge Hurtado, the government's counselor on coca
affairs, is spearheading what he calls the "huge
enterprise" of developing international markets for
coca products and removing the plant from the U.N.
convention. He says it's unlikely Bolivia will be able
to convince U.N. member states of the feasibility of
Morales' "Yes to coca, no to cocaine" mantra when the
convention comes up for amendment at the 2008 meeting
of the U.N. Economic and Social Council.
Most experts agree that "coca was mistakenly
included as a dangerous substance" by the U.N., says
Coletta Youngers, Senior Fellow at the Washington
Office on Latin America. Youngers laments that
subsequent studies recommending coca be removed from
the list, "including a major effort by the World
Health Organization in the 1990s, have been
consistently squashed by the U.S. government."
"We are fighting 500 years of disinformation,"
stresses Hurtado, Bolivia's foremost coca expert.
A gregarious psychiatrist, Hurtado can detail
coca's chemical properties and quote an indigenous
legend chronicling the plant's divine origin in the
same breath. He's been working to amend the U.N.
convention for over a quarter century.
"I don't think we have a very good chance this
time," he says, "but in the coming years we will."
The effort echoes the work of industrial hemp
advocates in the U.S. In California last month, Gov.
Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed a bill that would have
rejected the federal government's position and
established clear guidelines for farming industrial
Because the cannabis sativa plant is classified as
a drug under the Controlled Substances Act, it is
illegal for U.S. farmers to grow industrial hemp,
which contains trace amounts of THC -- the active
ingredient in marijuana -- and is used in a variety of
food, body care and industrial products. Domestic
retail sales of such products, which can be purchased
legally, exceeded $270 million last year.
While any coca-fueled economic windfall in Bolivia
is years away, the cultural symbolism of exporting
coca was palpable at the fair. Jacinta MamanĆ, a
43-year-old member of the Regional Federation of
Chamaca, a coca growers union, believes exporting coca
products will help expose people to indigenous
cultures that have been historically repressed.
"We believe that coca needs to be known
internationally, as medicine and as culture," she
asserted at the fair as she packed leaves of
organically grown "ecological coca" into translucent
"Coca is the force of Andean culture," said Oscar
Gabriel, who displayed his hand-crafted guitars inlaid
with images of coca leaves and Mother Earth.
"In America, they know nothing of our culture -- to
them coca is only a drug. Banning coca is like
outlawing corn for American Indians if you found out
that a drug could be made with it."
asap contributor Alexander Provan is a freelance