In a nondescript factory in the center of this smoggy capital, a worker plunges her arm elbow-deep into a bag of coca leaves — the raw ingredient of cocaine. These leaves, with their yellowish-green color and woody aroma, aren’t part of the global drug problem. But they might be part of the solution.
The operation is part of Coca Nasa, one of the few indigenous companies that has the right to turn the leaves into teas, cookies, flour, soft drinks and other traditional products.
“We’re trying to show people that coca needs to be consumed in its natural state,” said Fabiola Piñacué, who helped found the company in 1999. “Let the government go after coke-heads and narco-traffickers, but there’s no reason to go after the leaf.”
The company is legal only because the Nasa people have ancestral claims to the use of the coca leaf. Now they may be getting competition.
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Lawmakers are working on a proposal that would allow anyone — not just indigenous groups — to harvest coca crops for traditional and medical uses. According to the project’s sponsor, Sen. Juan Manuel Galán, tens of thousands of coca farmers currently locked in the drug trade could be selling their crops to a thriving industry making products like the ones Coca Nasa has pioneered.
The proposal comes as Colombia is desperate for solutions. Decades of a no-holds-barred war on drugs have cost billions of dollars and thousands of lives but have left the country essentially where it started: as the world’s top producer of coca and cocaine.
In the last two years, Colombia has seen coca production double to 393,000 acres, according to the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. Most, if not all, of that production is destined for the cocaine trade. The spike comes after the country stopped the aerial dusting of crops last year amid worries that the chemicals used, primarily Monsanto’s glyphosate, might cause long-term health problems.
There are moves afoot to renew spraying with different herbicides, but the country can’t keep relying on failed strategies, said Galán.
“We can’t keep jailing farmers and fumigating their crops,” he said. “The only people who have gotten rich off that policy is Monsanto. But for farmers, the policy has only left them poorer and with fewer options.”
The coca leaf shouldn’t be touched by the white man, because all they do is turn it into poison.
Fabiola Piñacué, Coca Nasa founder
While the cocaine trade conjures images of thick gold chains and flashy cars, most of Colombia’s coca growers live in abject poverty. The government estimates that 60,000 families grow coca, and that 120,000-150,000 depend on the trade. For them, the hearty little leaf is seen as one of the few viable crops in areas without roads or markets. Unlike traditional products, buyers will come to them to buy coca leaves.
In its natural form, coca is a mild stimulant that provides less of a kick than a Starbucks espresso. Rich in calcium, it has been chewed for centuries to fight hunger, fatigue and headaches.
It’s only after the leaves have been chemically transformed that it becomes the addictive white powder that has spawned decades of violence and inspired TV hits like “Narcos.” Galán’s own father, Luís Carlos Galán, was gunned down in 1989 as he ran for the presidency as an anti-drug crusader.
“Coca that’s used to make cocaine is what worries us,” Galán said as he sat in his office under a portrait of his father. “Right now, it’s the criminal groups and the mafias that are regulating the industry. The state has to play a role and extend a hand to these families who don’t have any options.”
The idea of legal coca isn’t new. Both Bolivia and Peru allow a certain amount of production for traditional and medicinal use. But there are major differences between those two nations and Colombia.
It's an issue of scale, and we have an enormous amount of coca.
Alvaro Balcázar, drug analyst
Bolivia and Peru have large indigenous populations with long histories of traditional coca use. Any tourist who has gone to the highlands of either country has probably been offered coca tea to fight altitude sickness.
But Colombia’s indigenous communities are far smaller and there’s no mass market for coca-based goods, said Alvaro Balcázar, a drug policy analyst with Colombia Transforma, a consultancy that advises the government.
It would take just a few thousand acres of coca, at most, to satisfy traditional demand for the plant, he said. But Colombia has more coca than Bolivia and Peru combined, stretching over an area about half the size of Rhode Island.
“It’s an issue of scale, and we have an enormous amount of coca,” he said. “In the abstract, you can say ‘legalization’ but in reality it’s an illusion dreamed up by someone who has never really thought about the nature of the business.”
Balcázar said the only solution to Colombia’s cocaine problem is for the government to punch into long-neglected rural areas with roads, loans and infrastructure that will make traditional crops, like potatoes and corn, possible.
“Coca doesn’t need roads to be viable,” Balcázar explained. “All it needs is the lack of state presence. The lack of government institutions.”
Even some of those who believe in coca’s benefits are wary of Galán’s proposal.
Piñuacué, with Coca Nasa, said native groups like hers had to go to court to win the right to sell coca products. They had to fight to distribute their goods beyond their indigenous reserve and, a decade ago, fended off accusations of copyright infringement by Coca-Cola after their coca-infused carbonated beverage called Coca Sek (it tastes vaguely like apple cider) started to take off.
Piñacué said she fears Galán’s bill will turn her niche into another industrialized agribusiness. And history, she says, proves that outsiders can’t be trusted with the special leaf.
“The coca leaf shouldn’t be touched by the white man, because all they do is turn it into poison,” she said. “They grow crazy and are cursed with ambition. ... They forget that the coca leaf is sacred to indigenous people.”
The country’s recent experience with regulated marijuana is a warning to some. That law, also spearheaded by Galán, was passed in July with the intention of making medical cannabis available to patients in Colombia. But the first growing concessions have gone to Canadian companies that are exporting the resin.
“We’ve said repeatedly that we didn’t want Colombia to become a [producer] of medical marijuana for Canadians or other foreigners who are coming here seeking lower production costs and then sending the product abroad without leaving anything for Colombia, Colombian patients or small producers,” Galán said.
In the same vein, Galán said the important thing about his coca proposal is that it helps local farmers and Colombia in general — not that it attracts the attention of foreign conglomerates.
The debate is taking place at an inflection point. On Sept. 26, the country will sign a peace deal with its largest guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), effectively putting an end to a half-century conflict.
Under the deal, the FARC, who has long been a player in the cocaine trade, will become an ally in the government’s war on drugs. In June, both sides launched a pilot program to wean farmers off coca.
But there are also fears that other groups will rush in to control the lucrative trade as the FARC steps back. If the government doesn’t move into those areas with real solutions for the rural poor, then history is likely to repeat itself, Balcázar said.
“The existence of coca will drive violence with or without the FARC,” he said. Unless the government makes the most of the peace deal, “we’ll see new criminal organizations bloom where the FARC were and we’ll see a repetition of these cycles of violence. ... That’s why illicit crops are the principal threat to peace in Colombia.”
Far removed from the drug policy debate and Colombia’s Senate, Eugenio Guerrero has been a longtime coca grower in the isolated Catatumbo region, along the border with Venezuela. He said that about 90 percent of the members of his local farming association grow coca. He said his group welcomes Galán’s initiative, if it allows them to live in peace.
“Anything that would allow us to work legally and support our families, we would be in favor of,” he said by phone. “But it has to pay. Nobody is going to work at a loss.”