Bolivia Claims There's More to Coca Leaf than Cocaine

Emerjildo Chavez effortlessly navigates his way down the steep, muddy slope of his small farm, pointing with pride to the crop that feeds his family of five. Around here Chavez is known as a "cocalero" -- a coca farmer.

"The coca leaf is very important to us," Chavez said in Spanish. "We get three crops a year, and from that we get enough to get by."

The family lives on the proceeds -- about $1,000 a year -- putting it well below the poverty line, by any standard.

Yet to survive, Chavez, his wife and their three young children walk more than an hour each day from their dirt-floored, two-room house in a nearby village to the tiny two-acre hillside plot where they work from sunrise to sunset. It is grueling work. The bending and digging are hard on the back. Picking the rough leaves tears the flesh of their hands.

Chavez said he has no choice, and that he is upholding a long and honored tradition of the indigenous people of this region. "We chew coca," Chavez said. "It comes to us from our ancestors, from our grandparents. It is ancient. This is a culture for us."

Indeed, everywhere you go in Bolivia you see indigenous people chewing coca much as Americans chew gum or drink coffee. The leaf is said to help combat hunger, fatigue and altitude in this mountainous country that has cities sitting 3 miles above sea level.

But for the United States and many other countries, coca is seen as a scourge. The leaves that Chavez and tens of thousands of other cocaleros here so revere are the basis of cocaine. In 1961, the United Nations Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs listed the coca leaf alongside cocaine, heroin and opium as a Schedule I narcotic. The U.N. wanted to abolish the coca plant by 1987. Which is why the United States has spent billions of dollars trying to wipe out the coca crop in Bolivia, Colombia and other countries in the Andean region.

Here in Bolivia, the United States was having remarkable success. By 2002, it was estimated that the crop was down to just 15,000 acres. But poor coca farmers who lost their livelihood through aggressive eradication efforts fought back in December 2005.

At the ballot box.

They helped elect Evo Morales as president of Bolivia. Morales is a former coca grower and former head of the coca growers' union.

He promised to promote the coca crop, and he's doing just that.

"To speak politically of zero coca," Morales told ABC News in an interview at the Presidential Palace in La Paz, "is as if to speak of the extermination of the natives."

Since he was elected, coca production has more than quadrupled in Bolivia to an estimated 70,000 acres. (Officially the Bolivian government sanctions 30,000 acres of coca farming in the country, although this week Morales announced he would raise that ceiling to 49,000 acres.)

But Morales insists his policy is "Coca Yes, Cocaine No!" He wants to "industrialize" the coca leaf, promoting its medicinal and culinary value. He wants the world to learn to love the coca leaf.

Nowhere is that more on display than at the annual Coca Fair in the city of Cochabamba, where a dazzling array of coca-based products are on display: breads, pastas, chocolates, tea, medicines, even a coca shampoo. In these forms, coca is little more than a stimulant, like caffeine. It takes a complicated chemical process to turn it into cocaine.

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