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.

Behind one of the booths sits anthropology professor Silvia Rivera Cusiqanqui, from the University of La Paz. She has written extensively on the role of coca in Bolivian culture. Her books are on display and for sale at the Coca Fair.

When she is asked about the worldwide perception that coca is the same as cocaine, she gets agitated. "You are wrong," she said. "This has such big medicinal value, and it's absolutely unfair and it's a campaign -- a dirty war -- against coca."

Bolivia's president agrees. "The is an unfair penalization of the coca leaf," Morales said. "We know scientifically that the coca leaf does not harm human beings."

This week in response to a U.N. report that criticized Bolivia's coca policy, Morales announced plans to spend $300,000 to develop legal markets for coca.

The United States has tried to entice coca farmers to abandon their crop and replace it with more conventional plants: coffee, bananas, for example. Representatives of U.S. AID took ABC News to a coffee farm that has imported high-quality coffee trees from Colombia -- with U.S. help -- and is now producing a profitable organic coffee bean that is sold in specialty stores in North America.

Coffee is far easier to grow but the family we met, with 50 acres, said it would be impossible to survive on coffee with the 2 acres that Emerjildo Chavez works with is family of five.

A single coffee crop brings in about as much as a single coca crop.

"There is a huge difference," Chavez said, "because coffee can only be harvested once a year, where coca may be harvested three or four times annually."

Chavez hopes the Bolivian president can convince the world that not all coca is bad. But that is a tall order.

"I don't believe the rest of the world will take a new look at coca as product," said Philip Goldberg, U.S. ambassador to Bolivia, "I think what we need to do is to control coca and try to reduce cocaine manufacture. Whether we like it or not, the majority of coca that is grown in Bolivia and in other countries goes to the illicit, illegal manufacture of drugs."

Emerjildo Chavez sees it very differently. "Coca is a gift for us," he said. "I'm proud of our president for standing up to the United States."