Handfuls of Trouble as Cocaine War, Colombian Peasants and Coke Collide
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
The Coca-Cola Company, based in Atlanta, Georgia, responded with a
trademark infringement suit that the Colombian authorities quickly
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
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,
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.
LAND CUT BY A TENTH
THE amount of Colombian land devoted to growing coca, the raw material
in cocaine, fell by nearly 10 per cent last year following record
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.
FAIR USE NOTICE. This document contains copyrighted material whose use has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. India Resource Center is making this article available in our efforts to advance the understanding of corporate accountability, human rights, labor rights, social and environmental justice issues. We believe that this constitutes a 'fair use' of the copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the U.S. Copyright Law. If you wish to use this copyrighted material for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use,' you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.