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Bolivia's Morales seeks legitimate coca market

VILLA TUNARI, Bolivia -- Bolivian President Evo Morales has tried to develop legitimate markets for his country's thousands of acres of coca plants, despite the belief of U.S. officials that most of the crop ends up as narcotics.

He has promoted coca's use in fighting off fatigue and for whipping up wholesome treats such as sweet breads and coca puff snacks.

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.

A longtime leader of a coca growers union, Morales has a personal stake in seeing the destigmatization of the crop. The processing plant he built in 2008 with a $900,000 donation from his late friend, Venezuela's Hugo Chávez, and other such endeavors have all failed.

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.

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."

Coca growers such as Morales point out that indigenous communities have long chewed coca to fight off the effects of altitude sickness and fatigue and use it in religious rituals.

The Morales government has tried to promote coca foods at culinary festivals and offers incentives for private companies that produce the treats. He also built a second factory in the capital, La Paz, as part of his promise to help fellow coca growers produce everything from hand lotion to syrup. So far, all that's planned there is production of coca tea, with artificial sweetener.

That's a twist on a popular, traditional means of consuming coca: in tea to fight altitude sickness, as well as held between lip and gum, where it helps farmers and miners fight off fatigue.

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