The world’s most dangerous road

In the US state of Georgia, the success of products like Vin Mariani inspired pharmacist and former Confederate soldier John Pemberton to create Pemberton’s French Wine Coca, which originally included a mix of cocaine and alcohol, as well as caffeine-rich kola nut extract. It later developed into Coca-Cola: while cocaine and alcohol have long since been removed, cocaine-free coca-leaf extract is still used as a flavouring.

Cocaine and cocaine-based products were legal across Europe and North America in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, championed by the likes of Sigmund Freud, who wrote several papers on the subject and experimented on himself: “[A] small dose lifted me to the heights in wonderful fashion.” But the drug fell out of favour, became associated with vice and criminality, and was eventually banned across much of the world, as was coca, though the latter remained legal in Bolivia.

As demand for cocaine soared again in the 1980s, the US-led “war on drugs” devastated Bolivia’s nearby Chapare region, which had become a major coca-producing area: anti-narcotics activities resulted in widespread human rights abuses, including killings, torture, arbitrary arrests and detentions, beatings and thefts. In response, popular protests by cocaleros – coca growers, most of whom had indigenous Quechua or Aymara heritage – aided the rise of Evo Morales, leader of the Six Federations of the Cochabamba Tropics, a trade union representing coca growers.

As sociologist and historian Silvia Rivera Cusicanqui wrote in ReVista magazine, cocalerosplayed an important role in the 1999-2000 “water war”, an uprising against the privatisation of the municipal water supply company in the city of Cochabamba, an event that also boosted Morales’ political ascent. Alongside other grassroots movements, this “eventually led to the election in 2005 of… Morales, an Aymara native, as the first indigenous president in the Americas”. Once in office, he swiftly moved away from the US-led eradication-and-prohibition approach to coca with a policy commonly referred to as “Coca yes, cocaine no”, which permitted growers to cultivate plots of coca within specified limits.

But these geopolitical machinations felt like a distant prospect as I walked through the tranquil coca fields carved into the hillside below Coroico, thick foliage lapping at their edges like an incoming tide, while birdsong filled the air.