Why you should care

Fabiola Piñacué has made coca into a consumer good, and she’s pioneering the way for its legal future.

Drugs Go Sober: This Series Examines the Non-High Side of LegalizationDrugs Go Sober: This Series Examines the Non-High Side of Legalization

When Fabiola Piñacué first sold coca-infused teas in the late 1990s, Colombia was in turmoil. The drug trafficking boom had empowered illegal armed groups, provoking a surge in violence. And as a countermeasure, the government, with the support of the United States, proposed an aerial fumigation program that promised to eliminate Colombia’s vast coca fields.

Piñacué, a political science student at the time, insisted that coca wasn’t the problem. Having grown up in an indigenous Nasa reservation, nestled in the sunny foothills of southwestern Colombia, Piñacué knew coca was not just the base ingredient in cocaine, but also a powerful plant respected for its spiritual and medicinal qualities.

With the government vilifying a sacred plant rich with culture and history, Piñacué felt helpless. Yet her persistent nature told her she had to take action. “When you see that you live in an insensitive world, what do you have to do? Form a proposal and promote it,” Piñacué says.

Piñacué has confronted a multinational, the government and even drug traffickers.

On a recent sunny day, Piñacué sits on a bench outside her flagship store in Bogotá’s busy city center. At the age of 50, she’s the proud owner of Coca Nasa, the first company in Colombia to commercialize coca-based goods. By bringing consumer-friendly products to Colombia’s masses, Coca Nasa has led a movement to change Colombians’ perceptions of coca.

Piñacué recalls the terror on her classmates’ faces more than 20 years ago when she would offer them a cup of hot coca tea. Many shamed her for selling coca, telling her that the plant was the root of Colombia’s problems.

Those who were brave enough to try it did so discreetly. They’d often say: “My dad can’t know I’m drinking coca tea,” Piñacué recalls, laughingly.

But soon, they started openly requesting the tea. Students who were sleep-deprived used it for a kick of energy. Those who were depressed, a boost in mood. And for those who suffered from menstrual pain, relief. “Once they saw the benefits of the coca leaf, no one doubted anymore,” Piñacué says.

Two decades later, Colombia still takes a prohibitionist approach to the crop. The country is slowly instituting a substitution program as part of its landmark peace deal and could return to the controversial aerial fumigation program with glyphosate that in 2015 was suspended when the World Health Organization linked the herbicide to cancer.

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An employee packages coca tea bags at Coca Nasa’s small factory in Bogotá.

But coca is also becoming a fixture in everyday lives. More people are replacing coffee with coca while these products are increasingly easy to find in outdoor markets, alternative medicine shops and even airports.

Meanwhile, Coca Nasa boasts storefronts in the cities of Bogotá and Guatapé. It employs 12 workers in its offices, works with 300 families who cultivate coca in the Calderas indigenous reservation and also runs a bodega that mass produces up to 8,000 boxes of coca tea per month — a step up from the plastic cups of coca tea Piñacué sold on her college campus.

Piñacué also sells flour, cooking oil, rum, wine, cookies, pain relief creams and a soft drink called Coca Sek, “Coca of the Sun” in the Nasa Yuwe language. Each month, Coca Nasa sells up to 40 million pesos ($11,500) worth of products — a number that could soar if Colombia allowed these goods to be exported.

According to Luis Felipe Cruz, a drug policy analyst and researcher at the think tank Dejusticia, Coca Nasa is turning the logic of the war on drugs on its head, proving that coca serves uses other than just cocaine production and these alternative products are also profitable — despite the challenges. While indigenous people are legally permitted to cultivate up to 40 coca plants, these communities still face difficulties in getting the necessary paperwork to commercialize their products outside their territories. So the legal coca market remains largely informal.

But if anything defines Piñacué, it’s her tenacity to withstand and overcome strife, says David Curtido, her husband and business partner, who adds that as the owner of Coca Nasa, Piñacué has confronted a multinational, the government and even drug traffickers — who didn’t like that she convinced coca growers to cultivate for her company instead.

Growing up in the Calderas indigenous reservation, she learned from her father, a well-known land rights activist, to stand up for her beliefs despite the challenges — which in the Cauca province meant violence and death threats. Piñacué recalls fleeing her home in the dead of night to escape assailants looking for her father. “Violence has always followed us, and that’s why I like to work to bring peace,” Piñacué says.

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Fabiola Piñacué has made coca into a consumer good, and she’s pioneering the way for its legal future.

Tragedy has marked Piñacué’s life but never defined it. In 1994, when she worked at the mayor’s office of her hometown, a landslide killed more than 1,000 people. After the disaster, many left, but Piñacué stayed to help with the recovery.

Then in 2012, her 8-year-old daughter Amaranta suffered a fatal stroke. Her death was preventable, her mother says, but the hospital refused to provide her the necessary medical care. (Two years later, Bogotá health officials sanctioned the hospital for the irregularities found in this case.) To this day, Piñacué says that her daughter speaks to her, always encouraging her to work hard and never stray from her mission.

It hasn’t been easy. Aside from the death threats from traffickers, The Coca-Cola Co. sued her over the use of “Coca” in the name of her soft drink, Coca Sek. The irony was not lost on Piñacué. Coca-Cola is said to have previously used cocaine, a derivative of the coca plant, in its original recipe, most likely inspiring the brand’s name. After proving that the word “coca” was not the property of Coca-Cola, but part of the indigenous Nasa language, Piñacué won the legal battle.

But Coca Nasa’s problems didn’t end there. When Piñacué tried to legally bring her products into the market, the national health authorities refused to grant her the documents she needed. After acquiring them from indigenous authorities instead, Colombian health officials insisted that the documents were only valid in indigenous territories.

Piñacué is weighing an appeal to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, though a long-anticipated crackdown from health authorities on Bogotá shops selling Coca Nasa products has not materialized … yet. “Prohibiting us from working won’t work,” Piñacué says. “When they tell us that we can’t, we find ways to continue going.”

OZY’s 5 Questions With Fabiola Piñacué

  • Who is your hero? The Cacica Gaitana because she’s done what I haven’t been able to do. She’s an indigenous leader. When the Spaniards arrived and invaded her land, she brought together her people and displaced the Spaniards from her lands.
  • What do you worry about? That everything has become about money and that we’ve forgotten about human beings.
  • What’s the last book you read? All That Is Solid Melts Into Air by Marshall Berman. It’s a critique of modern society.
  • What’s one item on your bucket list? I’d like to go to Machu Picchu.
  • What’s one thing you can’t live without? My children are the soul and motor for everything I do in this life. I already lived the experience of losing my daughter, so the children that I have left are my life.

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