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COLUMN ONE

Beverage Creates a Buzz

Coca-Sek, bottled by a Colombian tribe, gets its kick from coca leaves. The not-so-soft drink has stirred debate about drugs and sovereignty.

April 12, 2006|Chris Kraul | Times Staff Writer

INZA, Colombia — Call it the "Real Thing."

Indians in this remote mountain village in southern Colombia are marketing a particularly refreshing soft drink that harks back to Coca-Cola's original formula, when "coca" was in the name for a reason.

Advertising posters here describe the carbonated, citrus-flavored Coca-Sek as "more than an energizer" -- a buzz that just might be provided by a key ingredient, a syrup produced by boiling coca leaves.

Since January, the Nasa indigenous community has been offering the soft drink locally and in neighboring Popayan, where it is bottled. By the end of the year, the Nasa hope to sell Coca-Sek nationwide, targeting the same consumers who drink Gatorade or Red Bull, both highly popular with Colombians.

For six years, the Nasa have been quietly selling coca-flavored cookies, aromatic teas, wines and ointments at informal sidewalk stalls and in health food stores. They say they're trying to capitalize on a plentiful resource -- and remove the stigma from a leaf that for them is sacred.

Cocaine, the highly concentrated form of the leaf's alkaloid extracted using solvents and other chemicals, is "foreign to our culture and is an invention of Western man," said Gelmis Chate, president of the Nasa council here.

But consumption of coca leaves by chewing them or by using them in food or tea is an ancient custom. The 4,000 indigenous families in this region typically grow several coca plants on their farms for personal use, a right guaranteed by Colombian law.

For Abraham Cuello, 50, the half-dozen coca plants sprouting among his banana, coffee, mango and papaya trees have as much mystic as alimentary value. "They protect my farm and all that I grow," he said as he pulled the bright green leaves from an 8-foot coca plant.

The Nasa's coca cookies and teas attracted little attention, but the launch of Coca-Sek has ignited controversy in a country where Washington has spent $4 billion since 1999 combating the drug trade and terrorism.

The reasons are myriad: the tribe's market ambitions for the beverage; the inevitable comparisons with the original Coke, which dropped cocaine from its formula in 1905; and the recent election of Bolivian President Evo Morales, an indigenous coca grower who supports the production of legitimate coca products.

Coca-Sek has also reopened a debate over the limits of the sovereignty that indigenous groups in Colombia and other nations are afforded. The Nasa claim a sovereign right to commercialize the soft drink and other coca products, even though the law permitting its use clearly limits it to traditional, not commercial, ends.

Indigenous tribes elsewhere in the Andean region also are trying to mainstream the leaf, trumpeting its nutritive and painkilling value. Morales, who says he will end coca eradication efforts in Bolivia, promotes coca-based yogurt, soap, bread and tea. He is appealing to the United Nations to drop the coca plant's designation as a poisonous substance, which would open the way to exports.

In Peru, a state-owned monopoly called Enaco was formed to create a legitimate market for coca leaves and channel them into the production of toothpaste, topical ointments to treat arthritis, tea and energizer drinks such as Coca-Sek. Nationalist candidate Ollanta Humala, who led Peru's presidential vote Sunday, promised to push for legalization of coca if elected.

In Colombia, the drive to make legitimate products from the coca leaf is being led by the Calderas reservation, one of half a dozen Nasa communities clustered around Inza. The community pays $15 for each 30-pound bag of coca leaves. Each bag makes enough syrup to produce 300 bottles of Coca-Sek.

That price tops the $12 a bag paid by local drug traffickers, who are always willing to buy leaves, said David Curtidor, who helps manage the soft drink business and touts the beverage as a weapon in the war on drugs. "Each leaf that goes to making the drink is one leaf less for the narcos," Curtidor said.

Chewing coca leaves, which depresses the central nervous system, has enabled Indians to soften the effects of hunger, hard work and high altitude for centuries. Franky Rios, the engineer at Popayan's La Reina bottling plant who oversees the production of the beverage, said Coca-Sek delivers the various vitamins and minerals, including calcium, potassium and magnesium, found in the coca leaf.

"It's better than Gatorade," he said.

Jim Bauml, senior biologist at the Los Angeles County Arboretum, said coca leaf boosters might be on to something. "There is literature out there that shows there is a tremendous nutritive value in the leaf itself," he said. "How much of that is released by chewing or other extraction methods isn't clear, but it's there potentially."

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