Beverage Creates a Buzz

Times Staff Writer

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.”

A bonus is the spiritual power that the Nasa people believe resides in coca. In this valley that is also the site of the Tierradentro prehistoric burial caves, one of Colombia’s most important archeological zones, evidence of that belief is seen in many of the stone statues unearthed in recent years. Several of the carved human forms are holding cuetanderas, the woven bags that the Nasa even today use to carry their coca leaves for chewing.

“Coca permits man to communicate with nature, and nature with man,” said Fabiola Pinacue, a Nasa who helps run the coca-based businesses and is a former mayor of Paez, a village 15 miles north of Inza.

But the Nasa and other indigenous communities are up against hardened attitudes. Even European Union and Japanese charitable groups that have funded other economic initiatives in Inza, including the online sales of locally grown organic coffee, want no part of underwriting Coca-Sek or any other coca-based product, said Chate, the Nasa council president.

Maybe it’s because coca is such a freighted term -- and the target of the Plan Colombia crop eradication program that is funded by the United States and supported by the United Nations. (Indigenous reservations are exempt from spraying.)

Although the coca-based energizer drink and the aromatic teas contain relatively small amounts of the cocaine alkaloid, ingesting great amounts could produce the same effect as that from the refined powder, said Greg Thompson, an associate professor of clinical pharmacy at USC.

“There are cases of people dipping 80 coca teabags into a teapot and getting classic cocaine toxicity from drinking it,” Thompson said.


The Nasa say that normal use of their products is perfectly safe. “The world’s mind is closed to the good uses of the leaf,” Chate said. “We’re trying to show that we can make value-added products that aren’t a danger to anyone.”

But the Nasa may be on a collision course with the Colombian government, which has yet to sanction Coca-Sek. A top official with the Colombian equivalent of the Drug Enforcement Administration said the government’s concern was that coca leaves ostensibly destined for the soft drink operation would somehow be diverted to drug traffickers.

“The law perfectly recognizes that coca is important to their religious ceremonies,” said the official, who asked not to be identified, citing the political sensitivity of the issue. “But it doesn’t talk about commercial ends, and that’s a confusion that needs to be clarified.”

The government threatened to shut down the Popayan bottling plant in February and confiscate all the bottles. The Nasa asked the national council of indigenous tribes, which represents 1.2 million people, to issue a permit, insisting that was all the permission they needed.

This being an election year, the government quickly backed off.

Jorge Ronderos, a sociology professor at Caldas University in the Colombian city of Manizales and an expert on coca’s place in indigenous culture, thinks Western governments have needlessly demonized the coca leaf.

“All that is lacking is a declaration that it is a terrorist plant,” Ronderos said.

An official with the state Health Department where the Popayan bottling plant is located said the government’s only interest was ensuring that the soft drink was safe. He said the beverage had not undergone the proper testing and was not properly labeled.


“If people get sick, they are going to come after me,” the official said.

The Nasa are producing about 8,000 bottles of Coca-Sek a week, up from 3,000 initially. They think they can easily market double that number if they can penetrate Colombia’s urban markets.

Meanwhile, sales are brisk. The beverage isn’t yet turning a profit -- production is financed with proceeds from the coca-flavored aromatic teas, which have been sold since 1999. Coca-Sek’s survival as a product may hinge on finding a larger bottling plant closer to big cities such as Bogota or Medellin.

None of Colombia’s big bottlers is lining up so far to produce Coca-Sek, but Curtidor believes it’s not because of any stigma attached to coca leaves.

“They don’t want the competition,” he said.


Andres D’Alessandro of The Times’ Buenos Aires Bureau and special correspondent Adriana Leon in Lima, Peru, contributed to this report.