Bolivia Promotes Market for 'Legal' Coca Products

Bolivian president Evo Morales has pledged to boost production of the coca leaf, which is mostly used to make cocaine but also has legitimate uses. Morales, a former coca farmer, wants to more markets for legal coca-based goods, ranging from coca tea to coca soap. Sarah Bush visited the heart of Bolivia's coca-growing region to report on how farmers are reacting to the news.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

Bolivia is the world's third largest producer of coca, the plant used to make cocaine, not a distinction anyone's been proud of so far, but the country's newly elected president, Evo Morales, is a former coca farmer, and he's promised to end programs to eradicate coca leaf and to create markets for goods ranging from coca tea to coca soap.

Sarah Bush reports.

SARAH BUSH reporting:

Evo Morales arrives at an army base in the tropics in a region where previously he was imprisoned for leading the coca growers movement. Today, he's commander- in-chief, after taking over the presidency on January 22.

(Soundbite of vehicles)

BUSH: He solutes the military officers festooned in coca leaf garlands, then rides into town to give a speech to the coca growers.

President EVO MORALES (Bolivia): (Speaking foreign language)

BUSH: In our government, Morales says, there will never be zero coca. The future of coca cultivation is a hot topic in the Cipate. It's here that U.S. financed eratification efforts have been focused. In front of his ramshackle house, 68-year-old Salastino Kolcay(ph) sweeps coca leaves. He's drying them for the market.

(Soundbite of sweeping)

BUSH: Kolcay says he grows less than the allowed 1700 square yards of coca. Bolivian army soldiers can appear at any time to rip up his plants.

Mr. SALASTINO KOLCAY (Bolivia): (Foreign language spoken)

BUSH: The leaf itself isn't a drug, Kolcay says, we don't want it to be made into a drug.

But Kolcay is supplying a demand, just like Apalonia Sanchez. Sanchez migrated to the tropical lowlands in 1980 when coca cultivation became lucrative. Now she leads the female coca growers federation. She's been fighting for her livelihood since eradication began in Ernest about ten years ago.

Ms. APALONIA SANCHEZ (Bolivia): (Through Translator) For us, this is how we eat, clothe ourselves, everything. It's our health, how we educate our children. This coca is everything. That's why I take care of it. Truthfully it feels like part of my family. When they cut it down, I cry for my coca because this is everything.

BUSH: Sanchez says tradition plays little into her decision to grow coca. For her it's pure economics. But coca has a long history in the Andes. It's been used in ritual ceremonies and chewed as a mild stimulant as far back as 3000 B.C. Those traditions still exist today. Sadastian Nina(ph) and Polates Argote chew coca together while listening to a concert after Morales' speech.

Mr. SADASTIAN NINA (Bolivia): (Foreign language spoken)

BUSH: Nina says chewing coca gives him strength and energy to work. For an upset stomach, coca tea is said to be good. The U.S. Embassy's Web site recommends it for travelers suffering from altitude sickness. Coca is also used in earth-based rituals, and to read fortunes in the Highlands. Still production beyond strict limits is criminalized under Bolivian law and the leaf is listed by the United Nations as a dangerous and restricted substance. Morales vows to decriminalize the leaf and industrialize production, but that could mean friction with the Bush Administration. Jim Shults Executive Director of the Democracy Center, a policy analysis organization in Bolivia.

Mr. JIM SHULTS (Executive Director, Democracy Center): The United States really wants to look like it's fighting a war on drugs; so if the Morales government changes that, it puts the United States at risk of losing this, you know, slogan that it likes to promote of, you know, Bolivia shows that we can make it work.

BUSH: Though he's sticking to his zero cocaine policy line, eradication efforts are currently at a standstill; and Morales just named a former coca farmer as Bolivia's drug czar. President Bush telephoned Morales after his victory to offer congratulations despite discomfort with plans to expand legal coca production. The Bush Administration is waiting to see how Morales' policies will play out.

In the town of Epizana the local coca market still buzzes with activity. The smell of sweat and coca leaves mingles under the tin roof. Men scoop dried leaves from the concrete floor and stuff them into big sacks. Women hefted the thirty-pound sacks onto a metal hook to weigh them. These coca growers are largely responsible for bringing Morales to power. The decisions he makes regarded coca over the next few months could affect both his mandate and relations with the United States.

For NPR News I'm Sarah Bush in Bolivia.

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