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Last Updated: Wednesday, 1 February 2006, 00:00 GMT
Colombian farmers launch Coke rivals
By Mike Ceaser
In Nasa Indian territory, Colombia

The Fernandez family has found new markets for the coca leaves, the main ingredient used to make cocaine, which are piled up in front of their home in the mountains of western Colombia.

Nasa Indian coca farmer in the mountains of western Colombia
Growing coca in the Colombian mountains is hard work

But the project ought to worry Coke, Pepsi and Seagram's more than drug enforcement officials.

The leaves are destined to become ingredients in coca-flavoured wine, soft drinks, tea and cookies.

"The idea is to give [the coca leaf] a new image," says Jairo Pardo Fernandez, who with his six brothers and sisters tends the family's 60 coca bushes.

"People have always looked at coca as something bad, but it also has its good uses."

Escaping poverty

The indigenous Nasa people, about 30,000 of whom live in the mountains of western Colombia, are betting that coca-flavoured foods and drinks can not only change the leaf's image, but also help alleviate their poverty.

The products provide new markets for the coca leaf, which the Nasa traditionally grow on small plots for chewing, religious and medicinal rites and to barter with neighbouring peoples - although in remote parts of Nasa territory, larger coca plantations serve narcotraffickers.

The Nasa people could do with an economic injection.

Nasa Indian coca farmers in the mountains of western Colombia
More legal uses for coca leaves would give the Nasa a boost

They survive primarily by farming yucca, bananas, beans and other subsistence crops.

Coffee, planted in small plots on the steep hillsides, is their primary export crop.

Educational opportunities are limited, malnutrition is high and the region is afflicted by attacks by leftist guerrillas who roam the mountains and have, in past years, invaded towns.

This endemic poverty motivates some people to plant coca for narcotraffickers, who pay much more than coffee traders do.

The guerrillas, in turn, finance themselves through narcotrafficking and extortion.

Nasa leaders hope that, by offering a safe and legal alternative market, they can divert coca leaf from becoming cocaine.

Despite about $4bn in anti-drug money spent here by Washington since 2000, Colombia remains the world's leading producer of coca leaf and of cocaine.

Legal use

The Nasa company pays 30,000 to 35,000 pesos, or about US$15, for 25 pounds of leaves, called an "arroba".

Street market selling coca products in the Colombian capital, Bogota
Coca-based products sell well in Colombian street markets

That is less than narcotraffickers offer, but saves farmers potential tangles with the law.

Already, say project leaders, they have heard that narcotraffickers are upset over losing their coca leaf suppliers to the legal trade.

"The people sell to the narcotraffickers out of necessity," explains Marco Tulio Mosquera, who is in charge of the coca products' commercialisation.

"But when a legal use appears, the people prefer it, because the illegal [use] brings lots of problems."

Registered drink

In overwhelmingly indigenous Bolivia, newly-elected President Evo Morales, an Aymara Indian and coca farmer, says he will work to make alternative coca products out of what Bolivians call "the sacred leaf".

Coca is both a food and a medicine
Omar Bernal, natural foods specialist

But the Colombian government of President Alvaro Uribe, a conservative who has made coca eradication a centrepiece of his policies, has been less enthusiastic.

Colombia's indigenous people have the right to grow small numbers of coca plants for traditional uses.

And Colombian law even permits the possession of otherwise illegal drugs such as cocaine, heroin and marijuana for personal consumption.

Nevertheless, when the Nasa Indians approached officials in Bogota to license their new cola, named Coca Sek, for consumer sales, ministry officials balked at registering the coca leaf-based product.

So the Nasas, who enjoy a partial autonomy, registered the drink themselves.

They are now manufacturing and distributing the cola, to join tea, cookies and wine they already sell.

Not addictive

Producing varied products from coca leaves is not a new idea. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, American and European companies marketed toothache treatments, patent medicines and tonics with cocaine as their active ingredient.

An Italian entrepreneur became rich selling a cocaine-based wine, Vin Mariani, which offered "health, strength, energy and vitality" and boasted of an endorsement by Pope Leo XIII.

Most famously, coca leaves contributed to the kick in Coca-Cola's original formula.

Colombian shop selling coca drinks
Coca-flavoured drinks have already reached Colombian shops

Reportedly, the company began extracting the leaves' cocaine in the early 1900s, but still uses coca leaves for flavouring.

Jorge Casimiro, a Coca-Cola Company spokesman, called Coca-Cola's formula "the world's best kept secret" and wouldn't comment on reports that it still includes decocainised coca leaves.

Extracted from coca leaves and concentrated into cocaine or crack, the coca alkaloid is highly stimulating and very addictive.

However, the tiny quantities of alkaloid present naturally in coca leaves provide only a slight energising sensation and are not addicting.

In Bolivia, indigenous people chew coca leaves for energy to work all day long without eating, and travellers drink coca tea to counter altitude sickness.

Medical use

On a recent Sunday in a Bogota street market, natural foods specialist Omar Bernal extolled the benefits of the coca tea, cookies and ointments stacked on the table before him.

He had not yet received the coca wine and cola, but he did also offer a marijuana-based ointment.

The signs on the table advertised that the products could treat digestive problems, migraines, skin blemishes, high cholesterol and arthritis and fatigue.

"They're selling extraordinarily, because coca is both a food and a medicine," he said.

We're not worried about the competition
Jorge Casimiro, Coca-Cola

The coca leaf treatments are affordable, too. A box of 20 tea bags costs 4,000 pesos, or less than US$2, while a bag of coca cookies costs about 2,500 pesos.

A steady stream of customers stopped by the stand.

While some said they simply liked the coca flavour, others credited coca products with impressive cures.

Retired military officer Gonzalo Mesa said that for the last six months his son, an epileptic, had drunk a cup of coca tea with honey every night before bed.

"It's produced excellent results" in preventing seizures, Mesa said.

For others, such as government employee Jose Valerio Lopez, the coca leaf products represent pride of tradition.

"Coca has been turned into something criminal," he said. "But our ancestors used it to treat many ailments."

No high

Mr Bernal said that on a good Sunday, he sold about $200 worth of the products, which are also being sold through natural food stores and supermarkets in Colombia's big cities.

The Nasa sell about US$1,300 worth of coca products per month.

Mr Casimiro said Coca-Cola, which sells billions of dollars in soft drinks in Latin America, did not feel threatened by the new cola.

"We're not worried about the competition," he said.

The US Drug Enforcement Administration is not particularly concerned either.

DEA spokesman Garrison Courtney said the agency looked at how substances affect consumers.

"It's one of those things that you have to look at the properties: does it make people high?" he said.

"It would definitely be of concern if it makes people high."

But a reporter who consumed some four cups of coca tea and half a dozen coca biscuits felt no high at all.

The Nasa have sent samples of their products to Europe and have plans for more exportation. Courtney could not say whether US drug laws prohibit the coca leaf products' importation.

For Mr Bernal, however, there is a fundamental difference: "Coca isn't cocaine, just like grapes aren't wine and hops aren't beer."

Colombia vows crackdown on coca
29 Dec 05 |  Americas
Coke bottler faces death suit
02 Apr 03 |  Business
Country profile: Colombia
12 Nov 05 |  Country profiles

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