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Thursday, February 23, 2012

Coca Growers on Zip Lines

We fly faster than Astronauts

Meet the Bolivians who defy death to soar across 650ft high valleys on zip lines
(and yes, they’re most likely on cocaine).

By Rick Dewsbury - 23 February 2012

Even the bravest of daredevils would be reluctant to try this zip line.

The precarious steel wire used to carry hauls of coca leaves stretches across a 650ft high perilous valley in Bolivia and is held together with pieces of string.

But for dozens of farmers carrying the cocaine ingredients it's no problem. And it's likely that they've taken a fair amount of the drug themselves after their boasts that they 'fly faster than astronauts'.

The harvesters used to spend up to an hour making the back-breaking trek carrying their haul of coca leaves down the valley, across a river then up the steep sides.

Hold tight: A woman in a dress sails across the Yungas Valley in Bolivia clutching her drop of valuable coca leaves, which are one of the main ingredients in cocaine

Daredevil: One of the harvesters whizzes across the steel wires above a 650ft drop to the river below. The trip is just 30 seconds long compared to the hour it used to take

But after one farmer came up with the idea of using a zip line they can make the trip in just 30 seconds.

And if they didn't have a head for heights before, they almost definitely would after eating some of their coca crop - the narcotic is one of the main ingredients in the stimulant cocaine.

One youngster who uses the zip wire every day beams with delight as he says: 'On our ropes we're like birds and we go faster than astronauts'.

The farmers have been dubbed 'the flying men of the Yungas Valley'. They eat the coca leaves and sell three sacks of the crop for $180. Most of the plants end up in the laboratories of drug traffickers in South America.

Farmer Don Ignacio, 72, had the idea for the zip lines when he settled in the Yungas Valleys several years ago. He wanted a quick way to reach his plantation on the other side of the valley.

You're next, young man: Farmers fasten their crop of coca leaves to the steel wires using a pulley. The child is the next one to be sent across the valley

So much for health an safety: The youngster is wrapped in a sack that's attached to the pulley before being flung over the river

Speedy: A coca farmer flies across the Yungas Valley in Bolivia on a zip wire that cuts the trip time down from an hour to just 30 seconds

'I first came here in 1955. I was the one who founded the community and everything you see here,' he told Al Jazeera.

'There was nothing before, nothing to get across. We used to carry everything on our backs, just like pack animals. That's when I thought about having the system of pulleys and cables. I bought steel wires and I managed to stretch them across the valley using rope.'

Fellow harvester Synthe said the wires were six or seven years old. He said that it used to be a tiring trip across the river at the bottom of the valley.

There are around 20 individual zip lines running across the and the green Amazon basin. Each one consists of four galvanized steel wires.

Pulleys fastened together with string hang on the wires and farmers use a make-shift harness to attach themselves and their crop.

Hanging around: A farmer pulls himself the rest of the way after the power runs out

Is that really safe? A tangled mess of wires holds the steel cables in place. The pulleys are kept together with strings

A lorry heads to the nearest market carrying coca leaves a large part of the crop ends up in the hands of drug traffickers for them to turn into cocaine

A video of the farmers even shows a toddler being wrapped in harness and flung across the valley.

But despite the benefits that the zip wire has brought to the community there have been at least three people fall to their death while using it.

Many women prefer to cross the valley on foot. A local farmer called Maria said her husband was killed while using the wires after losing his balance and falling.

She said: 'Look how far my husband fell. His body was shattered, his guts splattered everywhere. It was horrible.'

Her new partner, Alex, added: 'It's always a rush, and that's when you might have an accident from hurrying so much you might get careless and fall. That's why the cables aren't as reliable as they say ... it's like Russian roulette.'

Coca has become the main crop in the Yungas Valley since the price of coffee collapsed. It is worth 30 per cent more and is harvested three times a year. The leaves are sold at nearby markets.

The leaves have been cultivated since the age of the Incas and it is often chewed by the locals to overcome tiredness.

Previous governments had imposed regulations on coca farming due to links with the drugs trade but these laws were lifted in 2005.

Despite efforts to control the sale of coca leaves, an estimated one-third of all that is sold here end up in the laboratories of cocaine traffickers. Several chemicals are added before it is in its more recogniseable powdered form.

Read more: Bolivian Coca Farmers Fly High on Ziplines