Leading article: Coffee, coca and a clash of cultures

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The Independent Online

The newly elected President of Bolivia, Evo Morales, is trying to persuade the United Nations to reverse the ruling that it made in 1961 defining coca as a poisonous species because it contains the alkaloid needed to make cocaine. President Morales, a former coca farmer, who came to office on a campaign to allow peasants the right to tend the crop, has vowed to crack down on cocaine production in Bolivia, the third largest producer after Colombia and Peru. But Mr Morales - who styles himself as anti-cocaine but pro-coca - served coca wine, coca cake and coca cookies at his inaugural dinner and has announced that he wants to make legal crops for export. Bolivia has this week been arguing the case for legalising coca to the UN narcotics and crime agency in Vienna and hopes to change its status by 2008.

The United States is unimpressed. The war against coca is the defining issue of US policy in Latin America. It spends up to $1bn a year trying to combat drugs production in Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Bolivia, Venezuela, Brazil, and Panama. It regards Mr Morales's idea that more coca can be grown in Bolivia without boosting cocaine production as "pie in the sky".

There is more at work here than a clash of cultures, though clash there undoubtedly is. In neighbouring Peru, one presidential candidate this week announced a plan to feed poor children bread made from flour containing 5 per cent coca to improve their diet. Since long before the time of the Incas indigenous communities have chewed the coca leaf, not just to boost strength and stave off hunger. The leaves are full of calcium, iron, and vitamin A, and have been a rich source of nutrients for poor South Americans.

More significantly they are a profitable crop - producing seven times as much cash per kilo as coffee, the plant which vies for space in the same fields. For the United States to spend the bulk of its aid to the region to destroy drug trafficking is not enough.(Nor does it work: a US State Department report this month found that despite billions of dollars spent on combating coca in Colombia, 90 per cent of cocaine imported into the US still comes from that country.) It needs to provide alternatives for poor farmers. If it cannot find ways to incentivise multinationals like Nestlé and Kraft to pay better prices for Latin America's coffee, which is superior to much of that grown elsewhere, then perhaps it needs to examine how it can help with Mr Morales's plans for the mass production of coca-based tea, yoghurt, bread, toothpaste, shampoo, soap and chewing gum. Otherwise the police carrying out US-funded coca eradication schemes will continue to do it with wads of coca in their mouths and a lack of enthusiasm in their hearts.

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