Colombia sells coca-leaf soda

Forget Coca-Cola, a group of Colombian Indians is telling its community. Drink the real thing: coca.

Nasa Indians in southwestern Colombian have launched a soft drink made from coca leaves, a staple among indigenous Colombians for centuries and the main ingredient in cocaine. The amber-colored soda, its promoters say, offers a home-grown alternative to Coca-Cola.

"People associate coca with cocaine. We wanted to convince people that coca is not the same as the drug and to allow indigenous people to be proud of the leaf," says David Curtidor, who leads the project.

Nasa Indians grow coca legally for traditional uses, but illegal coca plantations in Colombia - the world's largest exporter of cocaine - have been the target of an aerial fumigation program bankrolled by the United States.

The drink was officially launched last week in the town of Inzá which banned Coca-Cola from its store shelves last year in protest against Coke's Colombian bottlers who allegedly hired right-wing paramilitary forces in 1996 to intimidate and kill union leaders. The bottlers deny the charges. A US lawsuit is still pending.

The new soft drink, Coca-Sek, means "Coca of the Sun" in the Nasa language. "It's a comforting drink for us, and it would be good if we sold less Coca-Cola and more of our own coca drink," says María Inés Iquinas, a Nasa Indian, reached by telephone in the Calderas reserve. The makers say that the cocaine alkaloid level inthe carbonated drinks is less than half of one percent. They say the drink is a stimulant, with the same strength as a cup of coffee.

Initially, Coca-Sek distribution will be limited to Indian communities. Eventually, Mr. Curtidor wants to distribute it to Colombia's larger cities. But selling Coca-Sek abroad will be difficult. Coca is on a UN list of dangerous substances - international commerce in the leaf and its products is strictly limited. The Coca-Cola Company is one exception. Although Coke no longer contains the cocaine alkaloid, the Houston Chronicle reported that the company gets State Department approval to buy about 200 metric tons of coca leaves annually. The leaves are processed to remove the cocaine alkaloid, and the leaf mulch is reportedly used as flavoring in the secret recipe.

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