Latin America: Colombia Bans Coca Products -- Except Coca-Cola

While Bolivia's Evo Morales and Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, along with hundreds of thousands of Andean coca growers, are seeking to expand legal markets for the venerable leaf, the Colombian government is moving in the opposite direction. For years, Bogota has allowed indigenous coca farmers to sell coca products, promoting the enterprise as one of the few successful commercial opportunities available to recognized tribes like the Nasa, who have grown it for years and regard it as sacred. But in February, the Colombian government quietly imposed a ban on the sale of products outside indigenous reserves.
Coca Sek -- better than Coca Cola
The Nasa are pointing the finger at Coca-Cola, which last fall lost a lengthy legal effort against Coca Sek, the Nasa's energy drink popular among the Colombian young. Coca Sek infringed on its copyright, the American soft drink giant argued. With the Colombian food safety agency, Invima, decision restricting coca sales coming scant months after Coca-Cola lost its battle against Coca Sek, the suspicions are natural.

But Invima said it is merely heeding the wishes of the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB). While Colombia formally adheres to the 1961 United Nations Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, which considers coca a drug to be eradicated, Colombian indigenous communities grow coca legally under indigenous autonomy provisions of the 1991 constitution, and have been selling coca products throughout Colombia. But last year, the INCB sent the Colombian foreign ministry a letter asking whether the "refreshing drink made from coca and produced by an Indian community" didn't violate the 1961 treaty.

While the treaty considers the coca plant a drug to be suppressed and eradicated, it also contains a provision allowing coca products to be used if the cocaine alkaloid has been extracted. That is Coca-Cola's loophole, and the Nasa call it hypocrisy.

"They lose their fight in October and then in February the government decides to prohibit Coca Sek," said David Curtidor, a Nasa in charge of the company that produces the drink. He is leading a legal challenge to the ban. In the meantime, the community is losing $15,000 a month from lost sales of Coca Sek and other coca products. "Why don't they also ban Coca-Cola? It's also made of coca leaves," he complained to the Associated Press.

Coca-Cola wouldn't confirm or deny to the AP that it even uses a cocaine-free coca extract, as is widely believed. It did deny having anything to do with Invima's decision. Invima told the AP Coca-Cola had no role.

But the Nasa are suspicious, and they're not the only ones who think Coca-Cola gets special treatment. Last year, Bolivia's Morales, a former coca grower union leader himself, complained to the UN General Assembly that "the coca leaf is legal for Coca Cola and illegal for medicinal purposes in our country and in the whole world."

And now, whether at the bidding of the INCB or Coca-Cola, Colombia is moving to strangle the legal market for coca, even as it leads the world in coca production despite $4 billion in US aid this decade and the widespread aerial spraying of herbicides. In so doing, it places itself directly against the current in a region where coca is increasingly gaining the respect it deserves and the power of the coca growers is on the increase.

Permission to Reprint: This article is licensed under a modified Creative Commons Attribution license.
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