Handfuls of Trouble as Cocaine War, Colombian Peasants and Coke Collide
The Scotsman
May 12, 2007

COLOMBIA'S president Alvaro Uribe is taking the war on drugs to the supermarket, prohibiting the sale of products made from the coca plant - but native Indian tribes are suffering financially as a result.

With the help of more than $600 million (302 million) a year in American aid, Uribe has strengthened Colombia's anti-narcotics police, seized record quantities of cocaine and extradited 520 drug-trafficking suspects to US jails.

But until recently, his hardline government had not gone after natural coca products made by native Indians, acknowledging that millions of peasants venerate coca and have chewed the calcium-rich narcotic plant for thousands of years to stave off hunger and as a remedy for ailments from altitude sickness to stomach aches.

Uribe's presidential website even promoted natural coca products as a rare commercial enterprise for poor Indian communities, and the federal food-safety agency provided quality-control advice to manufacturers of coca tea, cookies, shampoo and other consumer goods.

That suddenly changed in February, when Uribe's administration started banning the sale of coca products outside the reservations where Indians have a constitutional right to grow the plant.

Though it is still possible to find coca products at boutique markets and health-food stores, inspectors have begun to forcibly remove them from supermarket shelves.

What prompted the switch?

For one thing, the success of Coca Sek, an energy drink made by the Nasa Indian tribe.

The carbonated drink made with coca, which looks like apple juice and tastes vaguely like ginger ale, was becoming a trendy alternative to Coca-Cola among Colombia's urban youth.

The logo on the can even mimicked the popular US soft-drink's curvy script.

The Coca-Cola Company, based in Atlanta, Georgia, responded with a trademark infringement suit that the Colombian authorities quickly dismissed.

Word also reached Austria, where the obscure International Narcotics Control Board enforces a 1961 treaty that requires the "uprooting of all coca bushes which grow wild" and bans the distribution of products with even trace amounts of coca, the main ingredient in cocaine.

The board sent Colombia's foreign minister a letter asking how the "refreshing drink made from coca and produced by an Indian community" violated the treaty - and months later, the Colombian federal food- safety agency quietly imposed the ban.

The Nasas cried foul, suspecting behind-the-scenes pressure from Coca-Cola.

Colombia's food-safety agency, the narcotics control board, and Coca-Cola all denied that.

Agency lawyer Carolina Contreras said it was the control board's letter that prompted the ban, and the control board says it had no communication from Coca-Cola before sending it to the Colombian government.

But the Indians remain suspicious. While they have appealed against the ban, their $15,000-a-month income from the sale of Coca Sek and other coca products is suffering, says David Curtidor, a Nasa in charge of the company that produces the drink.

"Why don't they also ban Coca-Cola?" he said, claiming: "It's also made of coca leaves."

Dana Bolden, a spokesman at Coca-Cola's headquarters, would neither confirm nor deny that a coca extract is part of the secret recipe. He repeated the company's longstanding refusal to reveal any elements of the Coca-Cola formula.

The 1961 treaty allows coca leaves to be sold internationally if they are later distilled to get rid of their cocaine alkaloid, to produce a "flavouring agent." That is what the Illinois-based Stepan Company does under a US Drug Enforcement Administration licence.

According to its website, Stepan is "a global manufacturer of speciality and intermediate chemicals used in consumer products and industrial application."

The company did not respond to repeated requests to confirm that Coca-Cola is a client. Stepan is the only US firm currently importing coca, a DEA spokeswoman said.

It buys about 55 tons of Peruvian coca leaves each year, said Jimmy Salcedo, commercial manager for Peru's state-owned national coca company, Enaco.

Many Indians in the Andes - where coca is revered as a sacred plant and a matter of national pride in several countries - are angry that the United States is importing coca leaves legally while their own coca products are banned.

"The coca leaf is legal for Coca-Cola and illegal for medicinal purposes in our country and in the whole world," Bolivian President Evo Morales told the UN General Assembly last year.


THE amount of Colombian land devoted to growing coca, the raw material in cocaine, fell by nearly 10 per cent last year following record eradication efforts.

The UN Office on Drugs and Crime calculated Colombia had 190,300 acres of coca plantations in 2006, down from 212,500 acres. Last year, Colombia's drug police, with US backing, used planes to fumigate 424,000 acres of coca and opium poppies, and manually eradicated an additional 17,000 acres of coca. In 2005, authorities fumigated almost 345,900 acres.

The US has spent more than $4 billion in Colombia over the past six years to combat both a long-running insurgency and the world's largest cocaine industry, a business that has helped to fund a five-decade-long armed conflict between leftist rebels and far-right death squads.

Working in conjunction with Colombian authorities, the UN collects its coca estimates using satellite imagery, with spot verification by overhead flights.

The US government, which does its own estimates of coca plantations, will release its figures later this year.

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