Henry Ruiz rubs the small green leaves between the fingers of his right hand – and then looks out across the valley where one of the world’s most reviled crops is ruffled by a warm breeze.
“We have been caught up in the mistaken belief that we are part of the cocaine manufacture process when we are not,” he says. “We have our own natural plant, but man has found another use for it and we have lost out as a result.”
Mr Ruiz is a community leader in his hometown of Lerma, a small village in the arid Colombian Massif mountains, in the Cauca Department. The remote hamlet has seen its fair share of the war, thanks to its capability to grow coca plants. After the cartels and guerillas took over the area, it became normal for bodies to appear on the streets, without explanation.
He too grows coca leaf in a region which was the country’s top cocaine producer in 2016, and is part of a group of farmers fighting back against the government’s drive to eradicate one of the Andes’s most historical crops as well as one of its most infamous.
The Colombian government’s determination to obliterate coca is not in doubt, particularly in the wake of US pressure to address the recent boom in cocaine production. Despite efforts to tackle the problem, there was an increase of 52 per cent in coca growth from 2015 to 2016.
But Mr Ruiz and his fellow farmers feel they are unfairly punished as the middle men.
Seven years ago, Ruiz opened a small shop, where the shelves are stocked with bread, cookies, wine and ointments made from ground coca leaves. On a small plot on a steep slope, Mr Ruiz grows his coca – along with bananas, yuccas and pineapple. Although his store isn’t yet making a profit, his margins increasedfrom 500,000 Colombian peso (£130) in 2009 to six million peso (£1,550) in 2015.
“Coca is very rich in nutrients,” says Ruiz. “It’s important to see how we can use it for other uses than cocaine. We can prepare organic liquid fertilisers, insecticides, and we can use it to make flour. We know the magical and beneficial properties of coca, and it’s about applying this to your family and communities. We are guardians of the coca leaf.”
The plans of Mr Ruiz and others like him to turn a $20bn drug trade into a legal industry may seem far-fetched, but he and other growers from the region have been working with SENA, Colombia’s state-run university to research alternative uses for the leaf.
The plant was traditionally used in indigenous culture for energy boosts, as a painkiller, a remedy for upset stomachs, as well as providing a multitude of vitamins and minerals – calcium, magnesium and vitamins A, B1, C and E to name a few.
Diego García Devis, an expert on Latin American drug policy at the Open Society Foundation, has been working hard to promote the coca leaf industry as a legit alternative to the illicit cocaine trade.
“It’s an effort to dignify coca farmers, and protect indigenous rights in the region,” he explains.
The OSF has been working with SENA to produce up to date, reliable research on the coca leaf as a nutritional product with superfood characteristics.
“We’re helping promote farmers’ products. Coca flour, cookies, different edibles. But it’s in its experimental stage. There’s no robust industry in Colombia yet, although we have identified five or six small companies who are producing and selling coca edibles.”
One such company is the Embajada de la Coca in Colombia’s capital of Bogotá. It promotes the traditional use of the coca leaf through grinding it into harina flour and serving it up in cakes, juices and pastries, as well as selling it alongside other superfoods such as quinoa.
“Using coca leaves as flour means we can use it in a variety of foods,” says Ximena Robayo, who runs the restaurant. “In the future, I think the leaf will be used as it was meant to – for medicine and food – as it’s so nutritious.”
Research by Harvard University scientists into the coca leaf’s beneficial properties, suggests that compared to 50 other Latin American vegetables, coca leaves are higher in protein, fibre, calcium, iron, vitamin A and riboflavin.
In the summer of 2016, the Colombian government issued, for the first time ever, a permit in Cauca that allows the purchase, transport and stocking of coca leaves, with the objective of industrialising the product.
Mr Devis cautions against simplifying the solution, however. “We do need to take a reality check with the idea we can simply switch from cocaine to legal coca alternatives.
“It’s naive and unrealistic to think the coca leaf industry can compete with illicit consumption.”
Ana María Ruedo is an adviser for the government’s agency against drugs, agrees. Speaking after an Americas Quarterly panel on Colombia’s future, she says transitioning from the cocaine industry to a legal coca trade is a pipe dream.
“The government could support some of the families to look into using coca in other, legal, products,” she says. “But not with all of the families that produce coca. You would still have the issue of gangs using intimidation to get farmers to produce coca for cocaine.
“You need a different approach to every single farmer involved in coca production. You can’t just say – turn all the coca crops into legal production. It won’t work.”