Bolivian President Evo Morales traveled to the town of Irupana in Bolivia's Yungas coca-growing region Saturday to preside over the opening of a factory where coca leaves will be made into legal products. Morales, who rose to power as the leader of a confederation of coca growers' unions has vowed to seek alternative legal uses for the plant as part of his anti-cocaine strategy.
"Manufacturing coca products doesn't do any harm because coca isn't a drug," Morales told hundreds of coca growing peasants in Irupana in an address that was televised around the country. "They're going to make flour, tea, soft drinks and other products in the first two plants," he said.
Earlier this year, Morales traveled the world, in part to seek markets for coca products, and that strategy may be paying off. The Associated Press reported Bolivian government officials saying that China, Cuba, India, and Venezuela have already expressed interest in buying coca products.
Morales has positioned himself alongside Venezuela's Hugo Chavez and Cuba's Fidel Castro as part of a leftist pole in hemispheric affairs. Bolivian Agriculture Minister Hugo Salvatierra told Bolivian state television that Chavez has pledged $1 million to fund two coca-processing factories.
Although current Bolivian law limits coca production to some 29,000 acres in the Yungas, unsanctioned production is occurring there, as well as in the Chapare region. According to US and UN figures, Bolivia is the world's third largest coca producer, after Colombia and Peru. US government policy is to eradicate unsanctioned coca, but Morales would rather find legitimate markets for it.