January 3, 2006

Colombia Indians Aim to Take on Coke with Coca Drink

By Jason Webb

INZA, Colombia -- Colombian Indians are using the raw material of cocaine to make a soft drink they hope will displace in their area another, better known beverage with the same ingredient: Coca-Cola.

Coca Sek -- a fizzy, sweet yellow drink with a fruity, slightly herbal taste -- is being made using coca leaf by Nasa Indians living in the village of Calderas high in the green mountains of Cauca Province in southern Colombia.

While it will only become commercially available for the first time in the next few months in the southern Colombian city of Popayan, there has been plenty of initial buyer interest and the cooperative which makes the drink hopes eventually to export it.

The Indians, who have invested $13,000 and aim to start producing a modest 20,000 bottles per month, hope that by selling a soft drink based on coca they will revive a key part of their culture by bringing it into the modern economy.

Coca has long been sacred to the Nasa, who chewed the bitter leaf for its properties as a mild stimulant and appetite suppressant and used it in their rituals. But coca is also used to make cocaine, and its traditional consumption, even though legal for Colombia's Indians, is declining under the impact of the government's U.S.-funded war on the narcotics industry.

"I always say a town without coca is a town which has died," Nasa woman Fabiola Pinacue told Reuters in the remote town of Inza. She helped launch Coca Sek in December at a stall in the town's market as Indians nearby bartered produce including coca leaf for vegetables and live ducks.

"Coca leaf has been under attack, from the state, from the Church, from education," she said, speaking with her 5-month-old daughter strapped to her back in traditional fashion.


In addition to preserving their customs, the Indians also hope Coca Sek will, at least within their own territories, take some sales from Coca-Cola, a product for which they have a special animosity.

This is partly because of accusations by a union, which Coca-Cola denies, of human rights abuses at bottling plants in Colombia.

But Coca-Cola is also a worldwide symbol of the United States, which the Indians blame for the government's drive against coca. And, to top it off, this emblem of anti-coca America actually uses the leaf but won't admit to it.

"The people behind Coca-Cola are hypocrites," Pinacue said. "Coca-Cola doesn't dare speak about coca."

"But we are saying straight out to the country and the world that we're not ashamed and we're not doing anything harmful. We are the people who know about coca."

Coca-Cola is extremely coy on the subject of coca, even though the leaf gave the drink the first part of its name and its qualities as a stimulant were included in early promotion in the late 19th century, when it was marketed as an "Intellectual Beverage and Temperance drink."


At the time, cocaine was available over the counter in the United States and was recommended as a cure for many ills ranging from fatigue to hay fever.

But Coca-Cola began to clam up over its use of coca leaves when a scare about the negative side effects of cocaine swept America in the early 20th century, leading to the drug being progressively restricted.

These days, the company clearly worries that it could be damaged by publicity about coca and that consumers might confuse the leaf with refined cocaine.

When asked about coca leaves, a spokeswoman at Coca-Cola headquarters in Atlanta said the drink's ingredients are secret, although she was careful to add that it does not contain cocaine.

However, it is pretty easy to follow the trail of legal coca exports from South America to the United States. And Coca-Cola itself has occasionally owned up to using coca -- as it did in an interview with the New York Times back in 1988.

Pressed by Reuters about the evidence regarding the company's use of coca leaf, the spokeswoman, Kirsten Witt, suffered from a slip of the tongue.

"It's just part of I guess you would say our marketing, in that it's the secret ingredient," she said.

Of course anyone hoping to get a cocaine hit from Coca-Cola will be disappointed -- the only "buzz" the drink gives comes from sugar and caffeine. For 100 years, the company has used a flavor extract derived from the leaf in a process that removes traces of stimulant.

In contrast to Coke's reticence, the Nasa proudly admit that they do nothing to eliminate the active component of coca from Coca Sek, although it is present in such tiny amounts that it is impossible to notice any effect.

And, far from coca cultivation encouraging production of narcotics, the Nasa hope that by providing a legal outlet for coca leaf and purchasing it to make the drink as well as other products including coca tea, wine and biscuits, they will push drug traffickers from their territories.

The cooperative making the drink pays growers about the same as traffickers -- about $3 for 2.2 pounds (1 kg) of leaf -- but is much more reliable and does not bring violence or unwelcome police attention, Pinacue said.

The idea to make Coca Sek comes as Colombia's Indian minority, particularly in Cauca, is becoming more assertive. The Nasa have even tried to ban the different factions in the country's decades-old guerrilla war from entering their territories.

But, while the Indians would like to eventually export Coca Sek, it is early days yet and the launch of the drink in Inza was almost ruined when a car bringing the first few cases of the drink from a bottling plant in the city of Pasto broke down on a cold stretch of high altitude dirt road.