Forget Coca-Cola, a group of Colombian Indians is telling its community, and drink coca instead.
Colombia's Indians bank on coca drinkSibylla Brodzinsky in Bogotá
becoming the real thing
The Paez Indians in south-western Colombia will launch Coca Sek this week, a fizzy drink based on coca leaves consumed for centuries by native Colombian peoples. The Paez, who live in the Calderas reserve, began their efforts to sanitise the use of the coca leaf, the main ingredient in cocaine, by selling crushed dried coca leaves for use as tea.
"People associate coca with cocaine. We wanted to convince people that coca is not the same as the drug and allow indigenous people to be proud of the leaf," said David Curtido, who leads the tea and soft drink projects.
The Paez grow coca legally for traditional uses and Mr Curtido said that with the soft drink and the tea they were seeking to make coca consumption an everyday thing.
"When we made the first taste tests [of the soft drink] among the community we didn't tell people what was in the bottle. People tasted it and they were fascinated. They immediately recognised it as coca and appreciated that we are giving added value to their much-reviled plant," Mr Curtido said.
The drink is the colour of cider, has a tea-like aroma and is described as tasting like a cross between lemonade and ginger ale. Mr Curtido said it already has been sampled by many Colombians and has won wide approval.
He said Coca Sek offered a homegrown answer to Coca-Cola. Kirsten Watt, a Coca-Cola spokeswoman in Atlanta, said such competitors were welcome. "They're entitled to create beverages as they see fit," she told the Associated Press news agency.
As for its own ingredients, Coca-Cola was tight-lipped. "Cocaine has never been an ingredient," Ms Watt said, though she declined to say whether cocaine-free coca extract is part of the drink's secret recipe, as has been widely reported.
"We just can't talk about the ingredients, the specific flavour composition," she said.
Coca Sek will be bottled in the city of Popayán near the Paez reserve and distribution will be limited, initially, to the surrounding area.
Mr Curtido said that, eventually, he wanted to see the drink distributed in Colombia's bigger cities.
But getting Coca Sek on to the international market will be difficult. Coca is on the UN list of dangerous substances and international trade in the leaf and its products is strictly limited.
Illegal coca plantations in Colombia have been the target of a multi-million dollar aerial fumigation programme bankrolled by the US. Colombia is the world's biggest exporter of cocaine.
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