Henry Ruiz rubs the small green leaves between the fingers of his right hand – and then looks out across the valley where one of the world’s most reviled crops is ruffled by a warm breeze.
“We have been caught up in the mistaken belief that we are part of the cocaine manufacture process when we are not,” he says. “We have our own natural plant, but the man has found another use for it and we have lost out as a result.”
The Colombian government’s determination to obliterate coca is not in doubt, particularly in the wake of US pressure to address the recent boom in cocaine production. Despite efforts to tackle the problem, there was an increase of 52 percent in coca growth from 2015 to 2016.
“Coca is very rich in nutrients,” says Ruiz. “It’s important to see how we can use it for other uses than cocaine. We can prepare organic liquid fertilizers, insecticides, and we can use it to make flour. We know the magical and beneficial properties of coca, and it’s about applying this to your family and communities. We are guardians of the coca leaf.”
Research by Harvard University scientists into the coca leaf’s beneficial properties, suggests that compared to 50 other Latin American vegetables, coca leaves are higher in protein, fiber, calcium, iron, vitamin A, and riboflavin. In the summer of 2016, the Colombian government issued, for the first time ever, a permit in Cauca that allows the purchase, transport, and stocking of coca leaves, with the objective of industrializing the product.
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Since 2004, the Bolivian government has allowed coca cultivation to take place on up to 12,000 hectares of land. The government has now proposed that a further 8,000 hectares of land be designated for coca leaf production.
Bolivia, the third largest producer of cocaine in the world, originally introduced legal coca cultivation for domestic consumption due to the violence and corruption being caused by the illegal cocaine trade.
Domestic demand is due to the cultural and religious importance of coca leaf chewing, which causes mildly stimulating effects, among many of Bolivia’s indigenous communities. The effects of chewing coca leaves are markedly different to those of cocaine – the production of which the Bolivian government continues to oppose.
Tom Wainwright, author of Narconomics: How to Run a Drug Cartel, describes Bolivia’s approach to coca production as relying on a fine balance: it involves “[licensing] enough cultivation to feed the market for tea, toothpaste, and all the rest of it, without growing enough to leak into the cocaine trade”.
Indeed, there is currently insufficient legally-produced coca to meet domestic demand, so the proposed expansion appears necessary to undermine illegal traders who seek to fill the market gap.
The proposed expansion has, however, been met with controversy by farmers in certain regions where coca cultivation will continue to be prohibited.
Despite the controversy, this proposed expansion marks a renewed government commitment to regulating coca cultivation and thereby reducing the power of drug cartels.