Trouble brews over Bolivia's cuppa coca

EVERY DAY millions in Latin America brew up a herbal tea called mate de coca, a pleasant infusion that has much the same beneficial effect as the British cuppa.

The Bolivian government has embarked upon a campaign to popularise the beverage on supermarket shelves worldwide. If it captured only 5 per cent of the global market for hot drinks, the impoverished Andean country would have a bigger foreign earner than its present main export: natural gas.

Unfortunately the tea, though harmless, is banned under the 1961 Vienna Convention on Narcotic Drugs. It is brewed from the leaves of the coca bush and therefore stands in the front line of the international war on drugs.

At the insistence of the US government, millions of dollars are spent annually on the eradication of fields of coca, the principal raw material for the chemical process that produces cocaine.

But the area of coca under cultivation continues to spread. Despite decades of crop burnings and dollars 52m ( pounds 32m) spent by the US in Bolivia alone last year, there are now an estimated 300,000 hectares under cultivation in the Andean-Amazonian region. Coca represents about 20 per cent of Bolivia's agricultural output.

The government has embarked on a high-profile diplomatic campaign, in the UN and elsewhere, to have coca legalised. Many development agencies, such as Britain's Catholic Institute for International Relations, are convinced that the legal marketing of the coca leaf could generate desperately needed foreign currency for Andean and Amazonian communities, and might even divert some of the coca destined for the illegal cocaine trade.

But La Paz has found itself blocked at every turn. It was prevented from displaying coca at the Expo '92 world trade fair in Seville. And Bolivian diplomats saw Washington's hand behind a refusal by the World Health Organisation to reconsider the coca ban. The US ambassador to the WHO dismissed claims that coca was a symbol of traditional Andean culture, and branded it 'the leaf of slavery, rather than something sacred'.

Studies suggest a cup of steaming mate de coca contains a microscopic 4.42mg of cocaine. And there no narcotic effect. The tea is a stimulant and a mild anaesthetic which dulls hunger pangs.

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