Nothing is more emblematic of Bolivia than coca, the controversial leaf that has been cultivated for thousands of years in the Andean foothills. To ordinary Bolivians, coca is at once a useful stimulant to combat hunger and tiredness, a medicine for altitude sickness and a key religious and cultural sacrament with magical powers used in rituals and offerings. To the outside world, however, it is infamous as the raw material for the manufacture of cocaine (as well as, reputedly, still a key ingredient of Coca-Cola).
Thousands of farmers depend on coca for their livelihoods, and President Evo Morales – who remains head of the biggest coca-growing union – has repeatedly stressed that the leaf is an intrinsic part of indigenous Andean culture. Although Morales has promised a policy of “zero cocaine but not zero coca”, Bolivia remains the world’s third-largest producer of the drug, and cocaine use within the country has risen dramatically in recent years. In 2011 the country renounced a UN anti-drug convention because it classified the coca leaf as an illegal drug.