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Coca, a leaf of immense cultural significance in the Andes, brings profit to struggling farmers. But its connection to cocaine has soiled its reputation in the international arena. The Bolivian government is pushing to clear coca's name and educate outsiders of its value.

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   Early on a Saturday morning in La Paz, a few bundled-up children sleep atop a pile of coca-filled bags. The boulder-sized but lightweight sacks of coca leaves are stacked against the concrete walls of the La Paz coca market, Villa Fátima. Coca farmers and their families guard their crop. Men weave through the main room, hoisting enormous bags onto their backs. Farmers register their harvest at a table just inside the open door. The line to see the clerk stretches out onto the sidewalk, where traffic whizzes nearby and the sun shines brightly at this high altitude.
   Inside the bags are thousands of the light green, thumb-sized leaves brought in from the countryside that are at the center of international controversy. Coca is the essential ingredient of cocaine, but it's also a source of nutrition, a part of religion and a way to make a living.
   Today coca is banned worldwide under the United Nation's 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs. The convention included failed timelines to eliminate even traditional uses that began in prehistory, according to "Cocaine the Legend" by Jorge Hurtado.
   Coca tea is sipped daily in high-class restaurants and government offices in Bolivia. Leaves for chewing are sold cheaply in markets in green plastic bags. Coca is part of ceremonies celebrating Pachamama, Mother Earth; the leaves are cast to tell fortunes. Bolivia's government disagrees with the convention's ban on this traditional consumption and protects coca as its cultural heritage in the country's new constitution. In Bolivia, the plant is grown in government-regulated amounts for traditional consumption and processed foods. The leaves are monitored and directed to two commercial registration sites in the country.
   Ex-coca farmer President Evo Morales heads the current government. Morales famously snuck a coca leaf into the United Nations General Assembly, seeking to educate diplomats and change international opinion on coca. Success in this effort could mean economic development and a greater feeling of self-rule for Bolivia, a poor country trying to stand on its own on the global stage.

The Worth of a Leaf
   Dried llama fetuses, herbs and sugar offerings shaped like cars, houses and other desires cram the little stands at the famous Witches Market, or Mercado de las Brujas, in La Paz. A woman sitting on the ground where two buildings meet tells fortunes. She tosses coca leaves, sprinkles them with alcohol and invokes Pachamama. The way the leaf stems face this time imply envidia, she says, jealousy. Beware of that.

Dry coca leaves are sorted at the Villa Fåtima coca market in La Paz. The whole leaves are sold for chewing and the ones crushed in transit are set aside. [Rachel Albin]

   Branching off the market are more alleys catering to tourists with alpaca sweaters, cheaply made toy guitars and figurines said to bring good travels and love. Gringo Spanish and pointing abounds. Coca is a running theme in the merchandise: stands sell small bags of leaves for curious travelers and dangly earrings made to look like the leaves. Some coca-shaped lapel pins frame images of President Morales, the first Indigenous president in the history of this Indigenous-majority country. Apart from its place in Indigenous tradition and its potential as a commodity, the coca leaf has become a symbol of decolonization: the pursuit of true self-rule. So has Morales.
   Though Bolivia won its independence from Spain in 1825, many former colonies remain highly influenced by wealthier countries, which are accused of leveraging aid and political support for compliance with their interests. La Paz street graffiti about fighting imperialism refers to the United States.
   "(President) Morales has said many times that we are not mad at any country, but we are mad with the people or country that intervenes in the internal policy of the country," said Delfín Olivera, director of the UDESTRO, the Unit of Socioeconomic Development of the Tropic, a lush, steamy region far from La Paz, alpaca sweaters and the Witches Market.
   Coca in particular has long been a point of control: Elite classes and foreigners have regulated coca since Spanish colonization. In the past, it was Spaniards and the Catholic church. Today it is the United Nations and countries with massive international sway.
   "(Removing the coca leaf from the list of controlled substances) is under consideration in the United Nations as a topic," said Kathryn Ledebur, executive director of the Andean Information Network. "But it takes a lot of lobbying and a lot of negotiating and maneuvering … especially since the U.S. pays so much money or owes so much money and throws weight around in the U.N."
   The department of La Paz (equivalent to a state) and the tropical region El Chapare are essentially the only places in Bolivia where coca growth is allowed, and that's in limited amounts. Bolivian government agencies have handled uprooting coca bushes grown outside the legally permitted areas and confiscation of drug-processing chemicals and drugs on their own since the 2008 expulsion of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. Morales expelled the DEA from Bolivia in 2008 after political schism including the removal of the U.S. ambassador in Bolivia and the Bolivian ambassador in the U.S., and the United States' decertification of Bolivia's drug control
   Scandal erupted in March 2011 when Bolivian counter-narcotics official René Sanabria was detained in Panamá. According to the Associated Press, Sanabria pleaded not guilty to trafficking charges. The case shoots a hole through Bolivian drug enforcement credibility. But even without the DEA, Bolivian enforcement seized 28 tons of cocaine in 2010, according to the Associated Press, about double what was seized in Perú, where the coca crop is larger. The U.S. Department of State still assists Bolivia with administration and logistics for coca eradication. Bolivian government agencies also encourage alternative crops to dissuade farmers from making coca their only source of income.
   "(The) DEA does not have anything to do with us because, fundamentally DEA worked persecuting people … it was backed up by the right wing," Olivera said. "DEA leaving Bolivia has not affected us, on the contrary it seems to have strengthened in our fight against drug trafficking."
   To many Bolivians, the DEA represents violence: the agency's more than three decade-long presence in Bolivia was marked by turmoil and human rights violations.
   "Before we had dead people, fights, disappointed children; a lot dropped out of school. Schools closed due to lack of students. Things were different," said Reynaldo Molina Salvatierra, president of the traditional medicine committee in Bolivia and the coordinator for the study "National Production of Coca Leaf in Bolivia," which is subsidized by the European Union. "Now there is stability. One can plan one's economy, the education of one's children. Previously it was very unstable."
Bolivians want to be treated as equals among the world's largest players and run their own show at home.

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  • Story by Rachel Albin
  • Photos by Rachel Albin

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