Bolivian President Evo Morales Is Banking on the Country’s Untapped Resource: Coca Leaf

AP Photo/Dado Galdieri

Touted as a cure-all, no more dangerous than a cup of coffee but far more invigorating, the coca leaf doesn’t get you high. It simply wakes you up. Many South Americans in Andean countries use it for energy, to treat altitude sickness, to stay sharp. They see it as as sacred, and a symbol of colonial interference in Indigenous affairs. After cooperating for decades with the U.S.’s War on Drugs, Bolivian president Evo Morales decided to expel the DEA and design its own drug policy: it would encourage farmers to grow and sell coca products inside the country and try to build an export business. Cooperating with the U.S.’s eradication policies had only led to violence; industrialization would offer Bolivians financial promise, and coca was a proud part of the national identity.

For Guernica, Jessica Camille Aguirre reports from Bolivia on its nascent coca industry and the companies trying to use the leaf as an ingredient for potential export. Energized by the leaf and the president, some Bolivians belief the coca industry is going to blow up. Not blow blow, though. As Morales says, “Coca is not cocaine.”

Coca, especially in the highlands, enjoys near panacea status. It had deep ties to indigenous culture, and the 30 percent of Bolivians who chew it regularly believe that it can alleviate most ills. In the new and growing coca product market, this tonic-like reputation is its most marketable aspect. “With Coca Real, it’s just the same,” one of Bolivia’s rising coca entrepreneurs, Juan Manuel Rivero, told me, referring to his flagship product, a carbonated energy drink containing coca extract. “A healthy beverage that will effectively combat sorojchi, alleviate exhaustion, and eliminate physical or mental fatigue.” Rivero is one of a dozen or so entrepreneurs who have obtained permission from the government to purchase coca for industrial development. While it’s not illegal to have coca in Bolivia, there is a limit on the amount that can be transported without a permit, and the movement of leaves is closely monitored. His Coca Real drink is one of the products that have entered the market seeking to capitalize on a sympathetic regime and shifting global attitudes about regulating certain kinds of substances.

At Rivero’s factory, where he produces soda concentrate, he offered me some of the finished, neon-green liquid product in a glass to try. It tasted like coca’s distant cousin, just arrived from Miami smacking bubble gum and raving about party yachts. Sweet, bubbly; the unmistakable descendant of Red Bull. I drank it quickly, and recognized an afternote redolent of coca’s tang. “Coca has one bad alkaloid, which is cocaine, and the rest of its alkaloids are good,” Rivero said. (The white powder cocaine is usually the cocaine alkaloid isolated in hydrochloride salt form, occasionally cut with other substances.) “We are sure that our product does not contain a single bad alkaloid. We want to show Bolivia and the world that it’s possible to make appealing derivatives that can be consumed and don’t cause addiction.”

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