BOGOTA, 27 Jan 2023:
A member of the Nasa indigenous community in the southwestern Colombian department of Cauca, where coca fields spread over thousands of hectares, is fighting back against the “demonisation” of that ancient crop – by selling a range of products, including a coca-derived beer.
Although associated primarily with cocaine in the eyes of the US and its allied governments in the region, coca also has potential as a gourmet ingredient and as a plant with medicinal and other properties.
“For us, the coca leaf is a blessing because it’s taken away our hunger, thirst, fatigue, our heartache and our physical pain,” Fabiola Piñacue said in an interview.
In the 1990s, Piñacue started selling “little packets” of coca for 1,000 pesos (20 US cents at the current exchange rate) at the Pontifical Javierian University, where she was studying, marketing the plant as a remedy for “girls’ heartache and a stimulant that would allows students to stay up late to study,” she said.
By 1998, she had already founded a company – Coca Nasa – that she saw as a vehicle for promoting coca beyond her native Tierradentro indigenous reserve in Cauca.
The company’s product catalogue initially consisted of beer and a soft drink containing coca leaf but has since expanded to include baked goods, ointments, infusions and liquor.
Coca Nasa employs 20 people and has a factory in Bogota where the coca leaf is processed and a collection centre in Cauca where the company purchases the harvested plant from local farmers.
Its flagship product, however, is Coca Pola. An alcoholic beverage whose name rhymes with Coca-Cola but incorporates a Colombian slang term for beer (pola), it stands as proof that coca can serve as raw material for products other than basic paste for cocaine.
Piñacue, however, said that when she relocated from her indigenous reserve to Bogota, she encountered a desire among people in the capital to eradicate coca culture – which in Colombia is associated with endemic political violence and the presence of illicit armed groups and other scourges such as deforestation.
But she said she refused to back down and instead sought to convince everyone she could that “coca leaf is a food and that peace (in Colombia) can be constructed around (it).”
The businesswoman said the idea was to share her knowledge with that “other, non-indigenous society” and offer them a “very healthy, very reasonable proposal that very much stems from our ancestral roots” and traditions.
Indeed, combating “the persecution and questioning” of coca is Coca Nasa’s main mission, said Piñacue, who was arrested in 2020 in Neiva, capital of the southwestern department of Huila, for transporting packages of toasted coca leaf.
“Prohibition has been a mistake because the more you prohibit the more it takes root,” she said, adding that “total neglect by the government” has led peasant communities to turn to illegal uses of coca, the raw material of cocaine, to earn a living.
Colombia, a country racked by decades of armed conflict that now is trying to forge a path to lasting peace, is looking to transform the Andean nation’s coca crop into something positive and beneficial for farmers and indigenous people who had found themselves ensnared in an illegal enterprise.
Piñacue, for her part, is proof that other uses of coca are viable and that the plant can be part of a new future for a country with a painful history of drug-fuelled violence.