The big city of La Paz may be a draw for younger people in Sabina Ramirez and her husband Roberto's village. But not for her. "I was born into a coca-growing family," Sabina says, "and we're going to keep it that way." The Ramirezes live in a humble two-bedroom cinder block house in the village of Irupana, in the forest region of Los Yungas. Of Aymara Indian stock, Roberto's eyes are constantly smiling. Sabina wears the traditional braid across her back, like most indigenous women from the area. Both show signs in their skin of a lifetime working under the strong Andean sun. Coca farmers in the crop's heartland, they are a new breed of growers striving to change the image of a plant that has long been used for a very synthetic—and deadly—end product: cocaine. But the Ramirezes grow organic coca. And they're hoping this can make all the difference.
Ever since the United Nations, in its 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, placed it alongside opium and derivatives such as morphine, heroine and cocaine, unprocessed, raw coca cannot be legally exported from Bolivia in any form. Article 49 of the treaty forbids the commercialization of coca or coca-based products, except for research or pharmaceutical purposes. However, the treaty's imprecise wording has allowed a number of products that use organic coca as an ingredient to trickle onto the market in Bolivia and neighboring countries. If development of these products continues, it might help shift U.N. and U.S. attitudes towards coca as whole. If not, the subsequent fight between farmers and government agents intent on destroying the product could turn into another all-out guerrilla war, as took place in the 1980s.