VILLA TUNARI, Bolivia (AP) — Since taking office seven years ago, President Evo Morales has tried to persuade the world that he has no tolerance for cocaine and that Bolivia's thousands of acres of coca plants can be dedicated to such traditional uses as fighting fatigue as well as whipping up wholesome treats like sweet breads and coca puffed snacks.
The longtime leader of Bolivia's biggest coca growers union, Morales has a personal stake in seeing the destigmatization of the crop. He and his fellow growers say they want to build a healthy market for coca-based products, despite the belief of U.S. officials that most of Bolivia's crop ends up as narcotics
Yet a stubborn problem keeps getting in the way of the president's grand plan: While coca tea is popular, most people seem to find other coca-based food unappetizing.
The processing plant he built in 2008 with a $900,000 donation from his late friend, Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, and other such endeavors have not prospered.
The now-idle factory in Villa Tunari, in the heart of Bolivia's coca-growing Chapare region, churned out a million bags of baked coca treats in 2011 and 2012 and also made candies and liquors using the tough, bitter-tasting plant. To enhance edibility, workers added sweeteners, corn and cheese flavoring.
But to the chagrin of the government and the union that runs the plant, the coca food market refused to grow. Just about the only people who would eat the treats were 30,000 schoolchildren in the Chapare valley whose school districts bought cheese-flavored coca puff snacks from the plant and gave them away for free.
"The truth is, first they were hard," said 12-year-old Mario Justiniano, who had tried a coca puff. "The coca tasted a little strong, but a little later they got better and became tastier."
Eliseo Zeballos, the coca union leader in charge of the Ebococa factory that made the treats, said he had learned a rule of thumb about making tasty coca-based food: "It doesn't help putting in much coca."
For the 53-year-old Morales, championing legal coca cultivation has been a decades-long mission, beginning in his days as a union leader battling U.S.-funded eradication efforts in the low-lying Chapare.
Now, as president, he controls coca cultivation with government restrictions on the size of growers' plots. U.S. drug agents, whom he expelled in 2008 for allegedly inciting his political opponents, say that has hardly stemmed a vibrant narcotics trade.
Coca growers such as Morales point out that indigenous communities have for centuries chewed coca to fight off the effects of altitude sickness and fatigue and use it in religious rituals.
A 1975 Harvard University study also found the leaves to have a surprisingly high nutritional value, rich in calcium, iron and vitamins A, B2 and E. However, it said the "toxic alkaloids" comprising 0.25 to 2.25 percent of the plant "could make the nutritious coca leaf undesirable as a source of nutrients."
U.S. counterdrug officials insist most of Bolivia's coca crop goes to cocaine production and say the country has also become a haven for Colombian drug traffickers who also use Bolivia to refine coca paste imported from Peru.
Bolivia has the world's third-largest coca crop after Peru and Colombia, with more than 67,000 acres (27,000 hectares) under cultivation, according to the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime. Unlike Colombia, however, most of its cocaine heads not to the United States but to Brazil, Argentina and Europe.
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