Franziska Berra has been plucking coca leaves for 65 years. In scorching heat, from 9 am until at least 5 pm, eight hours almost without a break: just coca. She never learned anything else. “Now the price has hit rock bottom,” says the 80-year-old, who bends down all day to pluck the green leaves and covers her head with a scarf to prevent sunstroke.
The leaves she is plucking are for legal products such as coca tea. It is harvest time, and Bolivia is producing too much coca. She currently gets only four bolivianos (0.58 dollars) for a “libra” (about a pound). “Coca leaves guarantee my survival,” Berra says.
Right now, however, she often earns only between 5.50 and 7.00 dollars per day. To push the market price higher would require stronger demand. Bolivia, more than any other country, is trying to fight the stigma associated with coca in order to export the leaves for legal use.
This product accounts for almost 150,000 jobs in rural areas. Arapata, in the mountain tropical rainforest known as the Yungas, is a hub for legal coca cultivation.
Along dusty gravel roads, there are terraced fields planted with these green, alkaloid-bearing crops everywhere. Even the local football pitch is bordered by blooming coca bushes.
“Bolivia’s best coca,” says taxi driver Julio Mamani. “But of course, the low price can be an incentive to sell to drug traffickers instead.” This is the coca economy’s dilemma.
Bolivian President Evo Morales would like to sell coca tea, coca toothpaste, and coca creams internationally. He wishes coca could become like quinoa, known as “the corn of the Incas,” which is popular in health-food stores around the world and is a favourite with
vegetarian hipsters because of its high protein content.
In 2009, at a UN conference in Vienna, Morales took out some coca leaves to show the audience and started chewing them. Coca-Cola has long used to use coca extracts and enjoys a special import licence in many nations to do so.
According to the United Nations, the whole industry has a volume of 277 million dollars per year (2014) in Bolivia, which amounts to 0.9 per cent of the Andean country’s GDP. It makes up 8.8 per cent of the turnover of its farming sector.
In his campaign to achieve legalization of coca products, he gave Pope Francis a bag of coca leaves as the pontiff arrived in Bolivia on a visit in July 2015. Indeed, on the flight there, Francis had prepared himself for the high altitude in Bolivia by drinking coca tea.
Coca leaves belong to long-standing tradition in the South American country. The local indigenous population use them in their ceremonies, and their consumption is legal and widespread. Coca helps to fight exhaustion, it is generally considered healthy and tourists take it to handle altitude sickness, notably the 3,600 metres above sea level in La Paz.
In Bolivia, according to UN data, 19,797 tons of coca leaves were produced in 2014 for the legal economy, with an average market price of 58 Bolivianos (8.42 dollars) per kilogram. Bolivian legislation allows 12,000 hectares to be devoted to growing coca. However, according to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), total coca crops in the country went down from 23,000 hectares to 20,400 hectares in 2014.
The main problem for Bolivia’s coca expansion is the UN Convention on Narcotic Drugs. Four years ago, Bolivia withdrew its support for the convention, because it bans coca plants. That is why coca tea and coca candy cannot be exported to Europe, for example.
Morales only returned to the convention when Bolivia was granted a special dispensation to consume coca leaves. For now, however, a broader legalization of “Made in Bolivia” coca products seems unlikely to happen any time soon.