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March|April 2006
Finders Keepers? Christopher Heaney
Shanghaied Sasha Issenberg
Bigger Is Better Paul Wachter
Jack of All Plants Daniel Kurtz-Phelan
The Vigilante in the Kitchen Josh Rosenblum
Cases & Controversies
The Prudent Jurist William H. Simon
Roma v. Romania Doug Merlino
Off the Res Ellen Thompson

Jack of All Plants

Bolivians use coca to make shampoo, toothpaste—and a political career.

Daniel Kurtz-Phelan

MELBY PAZ WAS SIPPING FROM A GLASS OF COCA WINE and gesturing toward a large pile of 50-pound grain bags stuffed with coca leaf and explaining why coca is "the world's most complete plant." Famous for supplying the main ingredient in cocaine, the small, dark green, weed-like bush contains vitamins and minerals, she said—calcium, vitamin A, and vitamin C among them—and several pharmacologically useful chemicals other than cocaine. "If you can't sleep because of indigestion or bad circulation or anxiety, drink a cup of coca tea and you will sleep," she advised. "But if you have to do hard work or study, chew 20 or 25 coca leaves and you will work all night."

Paz is a loquacious, round-faced Guarani Indian, a "doctor of alternative medicine," by her own description, who recently wore a sheer silver-colored dress on a workday and occasionally excused herself to reapply pink lipstick. Her home, a cluster of concrete buildings on the hilly outskirts of Cochabamba—Bolivia's third largest city, located on the eastern edge of the Andes and known lately for its tumultuous grassroots politics—doubles as the headquarters of the Coca Industrialization Company.

Coincoca, as it is known, makes and sells an array of legal coca products, which are described as "licit" (to contrast with illicit cocaine). They are stored in clear plastic bags and small brown bottles for shipment to storefront coca boutiques in Bolivia's main cities. "Supertonic" helps alleviate "stress, psychosomatic disorders, and depression." "Cocaestet" diet formula is said to help a person "stay below weight, especially when combined with at least 10 minutes of stomach exercises a day." There is coca-based shampoo and moisturizing cream, honey and cooking oil, and toothpaste and chewing gum. There are also coca-based treatments for dozens of medical problems, including cancer, tuberculosis, and cocaine addiction.

Paz founded Coincoca with her now ex-husband almost 20 years ago, but it has only recently started to get much attention in Bolivia. The country's new president, Evo Morales, began his political career as the leader of the "cocalero" movement, the union of coca farmers that has been at the forefront of the fight against United States-funded efforts to eradicate coca in Bolivia—which is the world's third largest producer of cocaine and has been since cocaine became an international concern a generation ago. Morales spent his campaign inveighing against American imperialism and promising to "legalize coca cultivation in all of Bolivia" where, by the United Nations' count, over three-fourths of the coca goes into cocaine. On the campaign trail, he reportedly took Paz's cough medicine and sampled her wine. Since his victory in December, Morales has said that he will stop accepting U.S. support for the range of counternarcotics activities that currently depend on funding from Washington.

U.S. officials have responded by denouncing Morales as an "illegal-coca agitator" and accusing him of shilling for drug traffickers. Traffickers wield a tremendous amount of economic influence in Bolivia, and American drug warriors often claim (despite never having produced evidence in support) that traffickers have funded Morales's rise in order to further their own business interests. But Morales is careful to distinguish support for coca farmers from support for traffickers. He calls his approach "zero cocaine, but not zero coca." Developing a "light industry" in coca products is his way of squaring the circle—legitimizing coca farmers without legitimizing the illicit industry of which they have long been a part.

Paz, now 45, was born and raised in a small town accessible only by river. It's in the heart of Bolivian cocaine country—a narrow swath of jungle 7,000 feet below Cochabamba, populated mostly by bitterly anti-American coca farmers and U.S.-funded antidrug forces. She learned the merits of coca from her father, an officer in the Bolivian army. "At first, he banned all of his soldiers from chewing coca," she said. "And they all got sick! Stomachaches, weakness, fatigue. So he did an experiment, like a doctor: Half of his men chewed coca, half didn't. The men who chewed coca were healthier, stronger. So he made a rule that all of his men had to chew coca."

She is a devout evangelical Christian (as are all 14 members of Coincoca's staff), and her sermons on the virtues of what she calls "the sacred leaf" are as fervent as her homilies on God's love. Paz said, "Right now we are small, but we know that industrialization is the way to prove that coca is what God has given us as a blessing."

A LOT HAS TO CHANGE BEFORE THAT CAN HAPPEN. Bolivian law currently restricts coca cultivation to a total of 30,000 acres, where it is grown for the traditional uses of chewing in raw leaf form and brewing into tea, and international conventions prohibit trafficking in most coca-based products. (Pharmaceutical companies, which use cocaine as an anesthetic, and the Coca-Cola Company, which uses coca for flavor, get special exemptions.)

Silvia Rivera, a sociologist who advises Morales on coca policy, described the government's plan to transform the international attitude toward coca as "a strategy of concentric circles." Morales will start by striking deals with Bolivia's South American neighbors like Argentina and Brazil, some of which are developing markets for products like those Paz makes. Once that trade proves that coca industrialization is not just a front for trafficking, the thinking goes, Morales's government can work to change laws in Europe and Asia—both the European Parliament and, according to Rivera, the Chinese government have suggested that they would be open to making such changes. Then, in open defiance of Washington, they will work to revise the international treaties that restrict the coca trade.

Paz called this task "making people see the true face of coca, the face that the drug traffickers have done so much harm to." She expressed as much scorn for the cocaine trade as she did for the officials and laws that classify coca leaf as a dangerous substance. "At the time of the Inca, coca was on the highest altars," she explained. "Now, the drug traffickers take it and stomp it on the ground and destroy it with chemicals. That is why such a beautiful leaf has such a bad image." This disdain contrasts with how most cocaleros dodge the drug trafficking issue. Some deny that any Bolivian coca is used to produce cocaine; others condemn the war on drugs as a senseless attack on traditional indigenous culture by the evil American empire. Paz scoffed at that way of thinking. "We can't keep lying to the world by ignoring that 75 percent of our coca is going to drug trafficking."

Morales and his advisers have taken up a version of this line of reasoning, making a case for the legalization of coca based more on the failures of the current war on drugs than on indigenous rights or Bolivian sovereignty. According to U.N. figures, illegal coca cultivation in Bolivia rose by 35 percent in 2004, despite the hundreds of millions of dollars Washington has spent on Bolivian antidrug forces since the 1980s in pursuit of its goal of "zero coca"—a fact that Morales often points out. Silvia Rivera argued that coca industrialization "is the way out of drug trafficking." By bringing coca cultivation into the legal economy, her case goes, industrialization will allow the government to control and tax the supply of coca leaf. It will also raise the price of Bolivian leaf, which will encourage traffickers to go elsewhere.

Paz faces as much skepticism from the coca farmers as she does from her putative enemies in the U.S. Embassy's Narcotics Affairs Section. As a cocalero leader, Morales didn't embrace Coincoca either. "The campesinos," Paz recounted, "tell me that a little bottle of cream will never pay as much as cocaine pays." But to her, such pessimism is shortsighted. The growth in Coincoca's customer base is not coming from Indians or laborers, the traditional consumers of coca; it is coming from upper-middle- and upper-class city dwellers. "They want 'all natural,'" Paz said cheerfully, "and they'll pay for it."

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