Page last updated at 23:03 GMT, Wednesday, 21 April 2010 00:03 UK

Coca Colla hopes to create a buzz in Bolivia

By Andres Schipani
BBC News, La Paz, Bolivia

Coca Colla and Coca-Cola bottles

The beverage has a red-and-white label, tastes ultra-sweet, gives you a buzz and - says its producer - it keeps you awake.

But it is not the drink with similar effect and a similar name you might think it is.

An unlikely newcomer has made the world of soft drinks a little more crowded: Bolivia has started producing a new fizzy drink using the coca leaf.

It is called "Coca Colla" after the Colla people, the Andean tribes who cultivate coca in the areas bordering Bolivia, Chile and Argentina.

For some a matter of indigenous pride, for others another sign of Bolivia's growing anti-US feelings, this humble local initiative has set its sights on competing domestically with giants such as Coca-Cola and Red Bull.

Coca Colla creator Victor Ledezma
I started making the drink at home, based on my beloved but otherwise reviled coca leaf and outsourcing the bottling process
Coca Colla creator Victor Ledezma

The new "energy soft drink" is made by a private company, with a modest initial investment of a $1,000 (£650), but it is backed up by a government policy of industrialising the cultivation of the coca leaf.

The leaf is a key element in the Andean people's culture and economy. However, it is also cocaine's raw material.

That association with drugs is a motivating influence on the drink's creator Victor Ledezma.

"I want to get to the whole world with my coca-leaf-based drink," says Ledezma, a coca farmer from El Chapare region in central Bolivia.

"Coca has a lot of potential … this can change the image of Bolivia as being a drug-trafficking country," he believes.

According to Mr Ledezma, Bolivia's new ally, Iran, has already expressed an interest, having ordered two million bottles.

And some countries in the region, members of the left-wing Alba bloc - mainly Venezuela and Paraguay - are considering not only importing, but also financing Mr Ledezma's project.

"I've developed my own secret formula. I started making the drink at home, based on my beloved but otherwise reviled coca leaf and outsourcing the bottling process," Mr Ledezma says.

"Now we are building a plant in Santa Cruz and aiming to have investments for at least $1m. That's for a start. The whole world should know that coca, besides from its good taste, is good for body and the soul," Mr Ledezma adds.

Kicking ingredient

Coca leaves

This is great for Bolivia and will be great for the coca leaf, because then people won't only talk just about the negative side of coca-derived products

Bolivian government source

Beverages derived from coca leaves are not a new idea.

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, an entrepreneur from Corsica, Angelo Mariani, sparked a revolution with his coca-based wine, 'Vin Mariani'.

The drink offered "health, strength, energy and vitality" and was even awarded official recognition by one of its consumers and fans, the then Pope Leo XIII.

Most recently, coca leaves seem to be among the elements in the formula of the Red Bull Cola energy drink.

But most famously, coca leaves helped to give the kick in Coca-Cola's original formula. The company dropped cocaine from its recipe more than 100 years go, but the secret formula still calls for a cocaine-free coca extract.

The Coca-Cola Company is said to import eight tons of coca leaves from South America each year, mainly from Peru.

"The coca leaf has three alkaloids. Extracted from the leaf and concentrated into cocaine with chloride, the coca alkaloid is highly stimulating and, potentially, very addictive," explains Dr Jorge Hurtado, a local psychiatrist and coca expert who heads the International Coca Research Institute.

"However, the small dose present naturally, and unprocessed, in coca leaves provides only a slight energising sensation and it is not addictive; it carries less of a kick than a cup of coffee.

"The same applies to the Coca Colla or other coca-based products like toothpaste, flours or sweets," Dr Hurtado adds.

Trade ban

Even so, with the notable exception of Coca-Cola, most products using coca leaves are banned in most nations beyond the Andes by strict trade regulations.

Evo Morales holding a coca leaf
President Morales chewed coca leaves at the UN while campaigning against a ban

So for Coca Colla, exporting the beverage widely would require the International Narcotics Control Board of the United Nations to take the coca leaf off the list of dangerous drugs, where it has been since 1961.

And it would also require modifying the current local law, which prevents exports of any product derived from the coca plant.

Bolivian President Evo Morales has yet to indicate whether the law will change.

But Mr Morales, himself a coca grower, has fought for the rights of coca growers and called for the United Nations to lift the ban on coca, criticising the US for its opposition to any change.

Yet Bolivian law currently allows only 12,000 hectares of coca plants to be planted and its purposes must be traditional - for chewing, for tea and for use in indigenous rituals.

But with widespread plans of industrialisation of the shiny green leaf, Mr Morales is pushing to increase the area used to grow coca to 20,000 hectares.

In reality, coca cultivation is far greater than that. A recent report published by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime states that, in 2008, approximately 30,200 hectares of coca were under cultivation in two out of the country's nine departments.

The reality is that coca leaves fetch far higher prices than most food crops and cultivation is hard to resist for farmers in one of South America's poorest countries.

The government's hope is that, by supporting coca's other uses, it will help some farmers avoid the temptation of cocaine trade. It says legal coca production makes enough to support 300,000 people.

A government source told the BBC that they were in the final stages of analysing the product and would soon provide financial support to its producers.

"The aim is to provide greater social benefits to producers and suppliers of the raw material.

"This is great for Bolivia and will be great for the coca leaf, because then people won't only talk just about the negative side of coca-derived products", the source said.

"And there's more to it than that. This is a matter of national pride. Soon, people will stop talking about 'God, Country and Coca-Cola'; they'll be talking of '[Andean Goddess] Mother Earth, Bolivia and Coca Colla.'"

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