Bolivians Prospect New Niche for Coca

Family in coca country sells soft drinks, gum, tea, all made with the `real thing' - a letter from La Paz. ANTIDRUG EFFORTS

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

COCA-COLA has a rival - and it's not Pepsi. A small family firm called Coincoca of Cochabamba, Bolivia, has just started marketing a new ``coca soft drink.'' It's based on a syrup mixture of honey, natural fruits, and coca - the small green leaf better known for providing the raw material for cocaine.

``We could make Coca-Cola,'' boasts Reynaldo Molina, Coincoca's managing director, a passionate advocate of coca in its natural form. ``The only difference is that our drink does not have caffeine or cola nuts in it.''

A bold claim, when only a few people know Coca-Cola's secret recipe. But it is true that elements of the coca leaf are used to flavor Coca-Cola, and that every year the company buys (``de-cocainized'') coca extract originating in Bolivia's Chapare region, the world's second-largest coca-growing area.

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But here, any comparisons stop. The problem for Coincoca isn't just that Coca-Cola already has the Bolivian drink's most obvious slogan: ``It's the real thing.'' Mr. Molina's difficulties also include the fact that, with an advertising budget of $2,000 last year, his soft drink is unlikely to trouble Coca-Cola marketing executives or sway their multimillion dollar ad campaigns.

Then there is the matter of Coincoca's taste, which is not much different to a neophyte taste-tester than, say, a mixture of grass and butterscotch.

Still, you can't fault Coincoca for its effort. From three back rooms in their family home, Molina and his colleagues manufacture and market a range of products based on the natural properties of coca. These include a coca chewing gum, coca tea, and coca wine, a yellowy sweet mixture.

Another major problem, of course, is that some people think Coincoca's products are just another package for an addictive drug. But Coincoca's chief insists that coca is to be sharply distinguished from cocaine, and is ``as different as the grape is from wine, maize from vodka, or sugar cane from alcohol.'' Cocaine, he explains, is just one of a number of coca-leaf alkaloids that can be extracted after a complicated chemical process. The rest can be useful in a variety of products, he says.

But lest enthusiasm overcome caution, one should note that anyone chewing coca gum while trying to pass through United States Customs is liable to be arrested. Most Western countries have banned the importation of coca products and the coca plant has been defined as a narcotic since the beginning of the century.

Coincoca's directors, who at one time had difficulty gaining US visas, suspect the US does not want to see their products enter the country for fear they may act as propaganda for cocaine. Even Bolivian President Jaime Paz Zamora had previously advocated the industrialization of coca as a way of using up some of Bolivia's excess coca production.

But if the idea is to ever have any success, Coincoca will have to boost its profile and advertising budget. Finding the funds to do so would probably not be too hard in Cochabamba.

Until recently, one local finance company, called Finsa, was offering clients a return on their investments of 6 percent to 7 percent a month on dollar deposits - with the first installment paid in advance.

``No legal activity could pay those types of interest rates,'' says Julia Alem, head of Cidre, a local economic research center.

Finsa had built up an impressive financial empire - a TV channel, hotel, taxi service, discotheque, construction company, and an interest in the local Cochabamba football team. Naturally, this was of some interest to the anti-drug police, who found traces of cocaine on two planes belonging to company owners. The owners fled leaving 30,000 angry depositors banging on the door.

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