The case of the coca leaf

Anais Hall's picture
Insight by 
Anais Hall
01 April 2010

The war on drugs in Mexico has intensified. A recent article in the Economist reports that drug-related killings have increased by almost 1000 since last year. Moreover, innocent people in Mexico are becoming victims, as drug gang shootings are no longer just targeting police and rival gangs.

Mexico and the US are working to eradicate the problem by investing US$1.3 billion in anti-drug aid, though only US$331 million is to be invested in social intervention. Yet the lack of intervention through social welfare programmes may be the underlying cause of the rapid growth of drug gangs and related violence.


Most of the cocaine entering the US come from South America - mainly Colombia, Peru, and Bolivia - through Mexico. The coca leaf cultivated in the Andean region is a major source of income for the impoverished rural populations as well as the primary ingredient in cocaine. As of 2004, Peru and Bolivia received $304 million and $240 million respectively in profits from coca leaf cultivation. This represents 3 per cent of Bolivia’s Gross Domestic Product. Additionally, 40 per cent of Bolivia’s population is employed in agriculture, which includes employment in the large-scale coca leaf production centre, El Chapare.

Traditional uses of the Coca Leaf

Although nowadays coca leaves are used in combination with other substances to create cocaine for the illegal drug trade, in Bolivia the coca leaf still maintains its traditional ties.

The coca leaf has grown naturally in Bolivia for thousands of years and is central to Bolivian culture. Traditionally the leaf is chewed or boiled in teas (mate de coca). The Incas revered the coca leaf as a sacred plant due to its medicinal properties. It is said to prevent and treat stomach pains, stimulate respiratory functions, replenish energy, and help treat a variety of medical ailments.

For the Quechua Indians, as well as other indigenous groups who comprise over 50 percent of the Bolivian population, the coca leaf maintains its religious importance and is chewed to create a personal connection with ‘Mother Earth’. According to President Evo Morales, about 10 million people in the Andes, himself included, chew this sacred leaf.

Yet despite its natural benefits and cultural importance, international trade in coca is illegal.

Illegal trade

Under the 1961 Convention on Narcotic Drugs, the UN’s International Narcotics Control Board placed the coca leaf on its list of narcotic drugs and banned substances, along with cocaine and opium. This list, assembled through a convention signed by several nations, was created to control the proliferation of narcotic drugs. Any item on the list must be controlled or destroyed. Thus Bolivia is unable to legally export the coca leaf.

However, an international ban on the coca trade is not necessarily the answer. Eradicating the illegal drug trade requires a holistic approach involving all major stakeholders – the growers, drug dealers, and drug users. Past approaches concentrating on the detention of drug dealers have failed. So now all aspects of the drug supply chain need to be addressed. Concessions for traditional use with production monitoring may be more effective than an international ban. Additional efforts and aid must be spent on providing alternative use for the coca leaf. There needs to be a focus on every aspect of the drug trade supply chain, as past approaches concentrating on the detention of drug dealers have not proven successful.

One strategy to eradicate the illegal drug trade in the production stage is the remarketing of the coca leaf. Remarketing the coca leaf as a natural medicinal tea could provide alternative livelihoods for those involved in the drug trade, in the same way that Guayakí has enabled alternative livelihoods through the production of the popular yerba mate tea.

The Guayakí Model

Yerba mate, or Ilex paraguarensi to use its scientific name, has similar health benefits to the coca leaf. It is grown in Brazil, Paraguay, and Argentina, the largest production area being the Guaraní forest of Paraguay, which has high rates of deforestation.

Guayakí is a tea company whose mission is “to restore 200,000 acres of South American rainforest and create 100,000 living wage jobs by 2020 by leveraging our Market-Driven-Restoration business model.”

Guayakí’s business model helps the local people by providing a higher wage than other destructive alternatives such as deforestation for lumber, cattle grazing, and monocrop agriculture. By promoting organic practices and good management, the alternative livelihoods created through yerba mate production reduces deforestation by local people.

By purchasing Guayakí Yerba Mate, consumers are contributing to the sustainable product practices and reforestation of the Guayakí Rainforest preserves. Guayakí calls this principle of renewable resource management, supported by consumers of sustainable products, Market-Driven Restoration™.

Guayakí Yerba Mate is sold to consumers in the developed world as well as those in South America who are accustomed to the tea and prefer it to coffee.

Remarketing the coca leaf as a medicinal tea that provides alternative livelihoods to the drug trade could be another form of ‘market-driven restoration’.

With coffee markets back on the rise, there could be room for other naturally caffeinated drinks such as ‘mate de coca’. Increased value and acceptance of the coca leaf as a tea could reduce producers’ involvement with the drug trade and help bring producing countries such as 'mate de coca'. Increased value and acceptance of the coca leaf as a tea could reduce producers' involvement with the drug trade and help bring producing countries such as Bolivia out of the Slump.