Bolivia Pushing Coca That's Good For You

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Bolivia is the third largest coca-producing country in the world. Although the illegal drug trade has given coca a bad reputation, indigenous people have used it for centuries as medicine, food and a symbol of their culture. Bolivia's president is a former coca farmer, and the country is trying to rebrand the coca leaf and create a legal industry from the controversial crop.


And now north to Bolivia. It is the third largest coca producing country in the world. Of course thats the raw material thats used to make cocaine. Although the illegal trade has given coca a bad reputation, indigenous people have used it for centuries as medicine, food, and a symbol of their culture. Bolivias president is a former coca farmer and the country is trying to re-brand that leaf and create a legal industry from the controversial crop.

Annie Murphy reports from La Paz.

ANNIE MURPHY: Victor Ladesma(ph) is a Bolivian mechanic who wants to make some money off coca. Its a dreary evening in La Paz. Were sitting in a window of this hotel room with two of Victors business associates. But its all legal. In Bolivia, its common to drink coca tea or to chew the leaf. And Victors products dont contain the buzz inducing cocaine alkaloid. Victors come up with an all natural soft drink called Coca-Coya(ph), a play on the old indigenous word for Bolivias high plains, known as (unintelligible).

Mr. VICTOR LADESMA (Creator, Coca-Coya Soda): (Through translator) I used to use Coca-Cola in my work as a mechanic. Id pour some on bolts that were stuck and in 10 minutes theyd loosen up. Coca-Coya is better than Coca-Cola and a lot healthier.

MURPHY: Since indigenous coca farmer Evo Morales became president in 2005, Bolivia has been looking for ways to commercialize coca, a traditional crop thats also the raw material for cocaine. Former coca farmer Melanio Rocabado helps run this government initiative.

Mr. MELANIO ROCABADO: (Through translator) In its natural state, coca is rich in protein and calcium. According to studies carried out by Harvard University, of the 14 alkaloids found in coca, just one is cocaine. The other 13 are good for your health.

MURPHY: The government is studying just how much coca is needed to meet Bolivias own legal demand. Meanwhile, Bolivians are busy coming out with new products they hope to export. Like these coca snacks Melanio invited me to try.

It looks like cereal or crackers.

(Soundbite of chewing)

MURPHY: Its a little bit sweet, little bit nutty. It's not bad, its kind like puffed wheat.

These crunchy puffs dont require just any old coca. It has to be organic. Right now, most coca is grown using chemical based pesticides and fertilizers. Farmer Marcella Dancada(ph) is one of the few who grow organic coca.

Ms. MARCELLA DANCADA (Coca Farmer): (Foreign language spoken)

MURPHY: Inside Marcellas house, one bedroom is filled with brightly colored plastic sacks full of coca. Leaves are green and smooth, no bigger than your thumb, and it smells like green tea. Marcella says this coca is ready for market. According to Marcella, people prefer the taste of organic coca. Its sweeter. But it comes at a price. A pound of regular coca normally costs a few dollars, while organic coca runs about $10 a pound. And everyone, including Marcella, know some of Bolivias coca goes to cocaine and with larger legal growing limits, it may be even harder to control drug trafficking.

Leaving Marcellas town, the jungles thickens and the road gets bad. At the end lies the town of Caranavi. It used to be a tiny hamlet dedicated to growing fruit. But Caranavi is rapidly changing. And thats thanks to coca.

(Soundbite of barking)

MURPHY: Longtime resident Augustine Coronell(ph) is sharply the machete before going to his coca field. His yard is full of rotting avocados that he doesnt bother to harvest because coca brings a better price. Augustine says that he sells his coca at the legal market in La Paz. But he admits that many people in Caranavi are involved in the drug trade.

Mr. AUGUSTINE CORONELL (Coca Farmer): (Through translator) Right here, people recently came and asked them to sell them coca. But they do use it for cocaine.

MURPHY: This is just what the U.S. government is worried about. Bolivia threw out the DEA in 2008, and larger growing limits for coca could mean trouble. John Creamer is the charge daffaires at the U.S. embassy in La Paz.

Mr. JOHN CREAMER (Charge Daffaires): So thats our concern, is that the increased cultivations here is leading to increased cocaine production and the arrival of more sophisticated international prime organizations.

MURPHY: Either way, Bolivias coca industry is at a turning point. Higher legal limits and new coca products may mean main profits for impoverished Bolivia. And the changes will definitely bring new challenges. Still, many Bolivians are betting on coca. Like Victor Ladesma, the creator of Coca-Coya soda.

Mr. LADESMA: (Foreign language spoken)

MURPHY: Victor says, I want to bring coca to the entire world, even to the United States. So maybe some day youll be able to buy coca products at your local supermarket.

For NPR News, this is Annie Murphy in La Paz, Bolivia.

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