By Knut Henkel in Bogotá
An ad featuring the slogan "Coca Tea -- the Holy Leaf of the Sun Children" hangs above a colorful, cloth-draped sales booth in the Santa Barbara shopping mall in Bogotá. As recently as 10 years ago, any mother would have yanked her child hastily to the side if they had passed such a stall. But things have changed: Coca tea, coca wine, coca cookies and a variety of similar products have become an integral part of every street festival and flea market in the Colombian capital.
Such products are also beginning to become standard on store shelves. David Curtidor and his wife Fabiola Acchicvé started selling coca tea to students at Javariana University seven years ago. Their product was such a hit that marketing and packaging it more professionally seemed the logical next step. Now, Curtidor can point to the boxes of teabags stacked in the corridors of the Nasa Esh building -- the headquarters of the company Curtidor and his wife founded on behalf of the Nasa, one of more than 60 indigenous tribes in Colombia.
But Curtidor's spacious store room features more than just teabags and crates full of Mate de Coca: Other boxes contain coca wine and the small company's latest product, Coca-Sek -- a yellowish cocaine-based soft drink. The invigorating drink hit the market at the end of last year and has made headlines far beyond Colombia's borders.
The soft drink has a fresh, slightly sour taste, like lemonade. Curtidor says he and his wife spent six years developing the flavor. The drink is natural, he says, just like tea -- and, unlike cocaine, it's completely harmless.
When the product was introduced, Curtidor and his handful of colleagues were barely able to produce enough to keep up with demand. The first batch of 3,000 bottles of Coca-Sek -- literally "Coca of the Sun" -- was sold out in a rush. Another 40,000 bottles were sold in the next two months -- mainly in the southern part of the country.
A US lawsuit
But the glorious start was quickly followed by trouble. First there were difficulties with the bottling plant in Popayán. Then the supply of large bottles ran out and couldn't be replaced. "In Colombia one company has a monopoly on bottle production, and that company stopped supplying us with bottles," the small man with the square black glasses explains.
For several weeks, the soft drink couldn't be produces as the search was on for a new company to take care of bottling it. But now Curtidor has a new company in Bogotá -- and has switched to aluminium cans. "The cans are lighter than bottles, which lowers our transportation costs," he says. Curtidor hopes soon to be able to sell the drink nationwide.
Several thousand cans are stacked in the store room of his small office in northern Bogotá. The bottling plant will deliver another 25,000 cans by the end of November. Then the distribution of the carbonated energy drink can start again. The stores that sell the drink -- health shops and some supermarkets -- still receive it by personal delivery. "We're only opening up the market in Bogotá one step at a time, and we have neither the capacity nor the money to produce large quantities," Curtidor says.
There are other difficulties as well. Almost the moment his product was on the market, the lawyers of soft drink giant Coca Cola started making life difficult for him. "We've been charged with violating Coca Cola's rights to the name of its product. We're not allowed to use the word 'Coca' in the name of our soft drink -- a word that is more than 5,000 years old and of indigenous origin, and which refers to a sacred plant. We're going to defend ourselves," Curtidor says.
But it's not just about economic success for Nasa Esh. It's also a question of improving the coca plant's image. "We want our products to show that coca has as little to do with cocaine as grapes have with wine."
A diet of coca
"The coca plant has long been systematically demonized in Colombia, and even its traditional and religious use was hardly accepted any more," Fredy R.C. Chikangana, a member of the indigenous Yanakona people who belongs to a group wanting to promote the benefits of coca, explains.
That's not exactly surprising. After all, the devastating cocaine trade -- based on a drug produced largely on the basis of coca leaves -- has shaped, or rather destroyed, the entire country. Some 8,000 tons of cocaine are still produced every year, drug expert Ricardo Vargas estimates. The left-wing guerrilla groups FARC and ELN finance themselves mainly by selling the white powder, as do right-wing militias.
But Chikangana's people, the Yanakona, are trying to use their products to draw attention to the positive effects of the plant. Coca is simply part of his diet -- and, just like his ancestors, he chews a few coca leaves every day.
The high nutritional value of the demonized shrub, whose leaves curb the appetite, is widely recognized, Chikangana points out. The green leaves contain not just calcium, iron and phosphate, but also magnesium and vitamins. Coca-based shampoo, toothpaste and soap are already on the market in Bolivia and Peru. The range of products is expanding every year.
Besides coca tea and cookies, Chikangana also sells a coca-based ointment -- called "Kokasana" -- that can be used to treat arthritis, muscle injuries and rheumatism. The product range will soon be expanded by a juice produced from the leaves of the coca shrub. The Sol y Serpiente Foundation, which is supported by the children's rights organization Terres des Hommes, wants to start an education campaign on coca.
The champions of coca are also concerned with maintaining the traditional customs in the villages of Colombia. One such custom is mambeo, the chewing of coca leaves -- a widespread practice in Peru and Bolivia, but limited in Colombia where indigenous tribes make up the country's smallest minority with barely 700,000 people.
Not a legal market
Unlike its neighbors Peru and Bolivia, though, Colombia has no legal market for coca leaves. Cultivation for personal consumption is only allowed in the resguardos or indigenous reservations, according to the country's 1991 constitution. Nevertheless, says Chikangana, police often raid reservations looking for the plant.
Transporting the leaves to Bogotá for further processing is also a challenge. Sometimes the police confiscate the leaves, even though there is no legal basis for doing so. "Coca cultivation is not punishable under Colombian law," Curtidor explains. "Only the chemical processing of the leaves to make cocaine is illegal. But such processing is completely alien to the indigenous culture."
Still the Colombian state refuses to allow the production of coca products -- unlike the governing bodies of the Nasa community, who are constitutionally entitled to make binding political decisions within the reservations. These governing bodies have given the Nasa Esh company a license to develop and distribute coca products.
Until now, the indigenous rights haven't been seriously challenged by the Colombian government, despite President Alvaro Uribe personally stating that all coca shrubs in the country will be eliminated. But the authorities are a long way from realizing that goal. For their part, the indigenous coca producers consider every coca leaf they process a leaf lost to the drug producers.
Plus, the plant could provide the indigenous community with new prospects, since the economic outlook for Coca-Sek and related products seems promising. The energy drink could even become a serious rival other drinks such as Gatorade. One of the slim 200 milliliter (6.8 ounce) cans contains more calcium than one liter (0.26 gallons) of milk and more phosphorus than a serving of fish -- and the iron content tops that of a plate of spinach.
Curtidor has another set of potential customers amongst those who refuse to drink Coca Cola because the company has been accused of persecuting trade unionists in Colombia.
He hasn't considered exporting his unusual soft drink yet. The two coca entrepreneurs lack the raw materials necessary for large-scale production. Coca is only cultivated in small quantities in the Colombian reservations -- quantities sufficient to keep production going, but too small to allow for big profits. But the two have gone a long way towards realizing their goal of giving the plant a new image: Little tea bags filled with ground coca leaves are already making an appearance in the country's parliament.
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