March 2014

Abandoned Coca Factories and Worried Englishmen

After the UN’s recent decision to legalize both the coca leaf and the traditional practice of ‘akulliku,’ Evo Morales and his supporters are confident that the industrialization of this leaf will bring substantial growth to the Bolivian economy.

By: Soren Clarkwest
Projects Abroad Volunteer
Baltimore - United States

Research: Charles Goddard
Projects Abroad Volunteer
London - United Kingdom


Photo: Ximena Noya

Article 384 of the Bolivian Constitution rejects the notion that coca is a narcotic; instead, it proudly establishes and recognizes the leaf as an integral cornerstone of Bolivia culture and historical heritage. Chewing the leaf, a practice commonly known as akulliku, is generally done to suppress hunger, to combat the effects of altitude sickness, and is also a vital ingredient in various medical remedies and infusions such as “mate de coca.”

In accordance with the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs presented by the United Nations to the International Community in 1961, raw unprocessed coca cannot be legally exported from Bolivia in any form. Article 49 of the treaty did not only forbid commercialization of coca and coca-based products, but also criminalized akulliku as the leaves contain alkaloids which are crucial for the production of cocaine.

The coca leaf will never more been seen as a narcotic and the coca producers and users will never again been seen as drug traffickers or addicts.

In 2011, Evo Morales began his campaign to revoke and amend Article 49’s criminalization of akulliku. Chancellor David Choquehuanca emphasized that “the convention of 1988 says that fundamental human rights must be respected, and therefore the traditional uses [of akulliku] must be considered.” According to the United Nations’ procedure, 62 out of the 184 member states would have needed to reject Bolivia’s amendment to stop it from 5 becoming legitimate. By January 31, 2011 only 18 countries, including the United Kingdom, the United States, and Sweden, had rejected Bolivia’s petition.

Thus, on the January 13, 2013, Evo Morales celebrated the legalization of the coca leaf alongside thousands of his supporters in Cochabamba by stating “I want you to know… the coca leaf will never more be seen as a narcotic, and coca producers and users will never again be seen as drug traffickers or addicts.” A statement made by Rolando Vilena Villegas, the ombudsman, described the feeling of the people: “We consider this a very important result in terms of enhancing our sovereignty and consolidating our dignity as a State and society.” Evo Morales has made it apparent that he believes that the Bolivian economy will greatly benefit from industrializing the coca plant and that legalization will also aid the country in its struggle against drug traffickers. However, not everyone is enamored by the prospect of legalizing the coca leaf and industrializing the cultivation process. The British ambassador Ross Denny warned of potential risks, primarily concerning an excessive production of coca which would probably enter unlawful markets: “Some of the countries (of the Convention) are worried… This could be a stimulus to increase the production (of coca), which would be contrary to all of the efforts being made here.”

Denny proceeded to state that “we all respect the traditional practice of akulliku” and that “we respect the Bolivian government’s efforts against the excessive production of coca.”


What if certain powerful countries such as China, the United States, or Russia were interested in purchasing Bolivia’s world– renowned coca leaves?
Photo: Soren Clarkwest

However, it seems that excessive production should not be an issue. Despite the large popularity of Morales’ amendment, there does not seem to be a high demand for coca products. Mr. Núñez (former head of the vice ministry of Coca and Integral Development) admitted that “unfortunately, the public is not accustomed to products made from coca.” Furthermore, Javier Valda Padilla, the director of CIOEC–Bolivia (a government organization focused on economic policies in the countryside and amongst indigenous people) declared that “There are problems. Coca products remain in the market and there is not a lot of promotion. People prefer hamburgers and coffee…”

Another concerning factor is Evo Morales’ investment of $489,813 into a factory in La Paz which is still not working. Additionally, the Ebococa factory located in the Chapare region, which was viewed as the iconic flag–bearer for this industrialization process, now appears abandoned and has not produced anything for months. Morales’ coca initiative has been plagued by financial problems and poor administration.

Even with all of these problems, hope remains that coca products will gain popularity in the international community. If Bolivia were one of the few suppliers, it would prove to be a strong boost to the Bolivian economy. What if certain powerful countries such as China, the United States, or Russia were interested in purchasing Bolivia’s world–renowned coca leaves? Right now, however, all of the current facts show a lack of market research, of administrative capability, and productivity on the part of the Bolivian government. More time will be needed to see whether Morales’s decision to industrialize the cultivation process will succeed or fail in cementing his legacy into the fabric of Bolivian history and culture. This amendment to Article 49 at least shows that prohibition and international laws can be overturned in the face of popular support.

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