Story & photos by Peter Gorman

After more than two decades of steady opposition to US-backed coca eradication in Peru, the traditional coca growers in the Peruvian highlands (known as cocaleros) may finally see their efforts rewarded with an opportunity to industrialize their sacred leaf for nondrug purposes—the central goal of a struggle that has transformed these impoverished native farmers into a potent political force. Along the way, the cocaleros report that coca-eradication projects attempting to destroy their one sustainable crop condemn them to poverty, while crop-substitution programs—generally pineapples, coffee or bananas—have mostly failed because the mountainous soil is not right for those crops, or because the infrastructure doesn’t exist to get them to market in a timely fashion, or because there simply was no demand. A matter of life and death for the indigenous farmers involved, the conflict has often turned violent. As recently as June, at least 20 policemen and cocaleros died in a bloody confrontation over coca eradication in southern Peru.

Over the years, the dead have numbered in the thousands.

And while an official government okay to manufacture industrial products made from the coca leaf remains just out of reach, a recent written comment by the Peruvian drug czar has led three of the country’s coca-cultivating regions to legalize such production, while also apparently answering once and for all the oft-asked question of whether or not Coca-Cola uses coca leaves to make its soft drinks. In January 2005, Nils Ericsson, president of the National Commission for Life and Development Without Drugs (DEVIDA), issued a 10-point statement intended to clarify the country’s position on the commercialization and industrialization of the coca leaf—a contentious issue in a country where more than a million farmers make their living off the plant. In point No. 5, Ericsson wrote: “Coca-Cola, the globally recognized soft drink manufacturer, buys 115 tonnes of coca leaf from Peru and 105 tonnes from Bolivia per year, with which it produces, without alkaloids, 500 million bottles of soda per day.”

The comment—first picked up outside Peru by the Narco News Bulletin — has been roundly ignored by the American press, even after it prompted a string of significant victories for the cocaleros. Shortly after the tragic event in June, and in direct response to it, the governor of the state of Cuzco (Peru’s leading tourist destination, with both the city of Cuzco and the fabled lost Incan city of Machu Picchu within its boundaries) lifted the ban on new coca planting in the state, hinting that if the leaves were good enough for Coca-Cola, they should be good enough for other uses as well. The action immediately brought threats of federal intervention from the Peruvian capital of Lima, but the governor, not to be bluffed, responded that he would simply call for Cuzco’s independence from Peru if the intervention materialized.