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The story of an Indigenous woman in Colombia who fought back against Coca-Cola

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

It's a common story - a corporate giant gets into a trademark dispute with a smaller company over a particular word. Darian Woods and Wailin Wong from our daily economics show, The Indicator From Planet Money, have the story of one Indigenous woman in Colombia who decided to fight back against a multinational juggernaut - Coca-Cola.

DARIAN WOODS, BYLINE: When Fabiola Pinacue read the letter back in 2021, she was livid.

FABIOLA PINACUE: (Through interpreter) I wanted to kill them, but, of course, you can't. They're very far away. They're very big, and there's nowhere to find them.

WAILIN WONG, BYLINE: The letter that got Fabiola so riled up was from the Coca-Cola Company. It was a cease-and-desist letter. It said that her company had infringed Coca-Cola's trademark, and they had 10 days to pull their drinks from the market or risk legal action.

WOODS: The product in question was a beer infused with the coca leaf. In Colombia, where Fabiola lives, pola is a common word for beer, so her coca beer was called, naturally enough, Coca Pola.

PINACUE: (Through interpreter) I was very angry because they had been in the market for 100 years. I'm sorry. This has been in my life forever, and I'm a descendant of a thousand-year tradition of people using the coca leaf.

WOODS: Fabiola Pinacue is a member of the Nasa people, who are indigenous to the southwest of Colombia. And as a kid, Fabiola remembers her grandparents chewing on the coca leaf.

PINACUE: (Through interpreter) For me, the coca leaf has been one of the fundamental elements of the Nasa people's culture.

WONG: For more than 8,000 years, the coca leaf has helped Andean people with altitude sickness, suppressed hunger, provided calcium and given moderate energy boosts. Of course, coca can also be processed to make cocaine. So on the one hand, chewing raw coca is legal in Indigenous Colombian territories. On the other hand, the Colombian government has waged battles against coca. Up until several years ago, it welcomed U.S. support in spraying enormous amounts of pesticides from planes in order to destroy illicit coca plantations.

WOODS: But it's worth knowing that the raw coca leaf, as used traditionally, is really mild, like a kombucha compared to a bottle of rum. Yet even so, global government efforts to eradicate cocaine brought stigma to the coca leaf over the last half-century or so.

PINACUE: (Through interpreter) I watched my grandparents stop chewing coca leaves, and they hid it, only using it for rituals.

WONG: And Fabiola was seeing more than just the use of the coca leaf disappearing. To her, it was symbolic of the threats to her entire culture.

WOODS: And so after going to university, Fabiola decided to start a business that would make coca products. She called it Coca Nasa.

WONG: But selling coca products outside of the Indigenous territories put her in a bit of a legal gray area, with the Colombian government flip-flopping between tolerating and stamping out her products there. Fabiola was even once detained for a few hours for carrying toasted coca leaves in a bus terminal. She was released without charges. Despite these obstacles, she grew the company to about 20 employees, and it became well-known in Colombia.

WOODS: And then in late 2021, Fabiola receives that cease-and-desist letter on behalf of a company with 80,000 employees, Coca-Cola, a company long associated with the United States and all its global powers. And you could see, at least on the surface, why Coke might be writing this complaint. Coca-Cola, Coca Pola - pretty similar names. Jennifer Jenkins is a professor at Duke University who teaches trademark law.

JENNIFER JENKINS: Trademarks confer limited, exclusive rights over words, over symbols, over devices to brands so that I can see Coca-Cola on a bottle and know that I'm getting the drink that I'm trying to buy.

WONG: Avoiding confusion in the marketplace is the No. 1 purpose of trademarks, and it gives companies an incentive to produce a consistent level of quality because they know their work won't be undermined by a competitor pretending to be them.

JENKINS: And so here we have the valuable trademark rights of this company coming into conflict with another culture 'cause, you know, words have significance and meaning in multiple cultures.

WOODS: So this case is a clash of values - clarity to the consumer versus the rights of Indigenous people like Fabiola to words they've used for generations. Manuel Chavarriaga is a Colombian trademark attorney. He wasn't involved directly in this case, but he says in 2012, a similar case was before Colombia's Supreme Court, its constitutional court.

MANUEL CHAVARRIAGA: The constitutional court says coca is just a generic term, so coca can be used by anyone in the market.

WONG: Adding to this ruling, Manuel says there's a bunch more arguments that Fabiola could use in defense of Coca Pola. Colombia's constitution ensures Indigenous territories have the right to make their own laws. In 2000, Colombia agreed along with Bolivia, Ecuador, Venezuela and Peru that new trademarks from Indigenous cultures couldn't be filed without those communities' permission.

WOODS: This all bolstered Fabiola's case. But Manuel says when Fabiola got that cease-and-desist letter from Coca-Cola, it was by no means guaranteed what the outcome would be if it went to court. Coca-Cola, with tens of billions of dollars' worth of annual sales, could afford some pretty good lawyers, which is what makes Fabiola's next decision all the more jaw-dropping.

PINACUE: (Through interpreter) What we did was that we wrote a letter on the same terms and gave them 10 days. They gave us 10 days. We turned it back around and wrote the same letter back to them and gave them 10 days to respond on who gave them permission.

WOODS: Who allowed Coca-Cola to use coca in their name? The letter threatened to ban Coca-Cola from Indigenous territories if they persisted. And, yeah, that would be a tiny share of Coca-Cola's global sales, but Coca-Cola does have half a billion consumers in Latin America who would learn about this. We reached out to Coca-Cola and its lawyers, but we didn't receive an answer.

WONG: In the end, Coca-Cola didn't answer Fabiola either. Both Coca-Cola and Coca Pola are still on shop shelves in Colombia. It's kind of a stalemate, which the Colombian trademark lawyer Manuel Chavarriaga says might actually be the best solution for both Coke and Fabiola's company, Coca Nasa.

CHAVARRIAGA: Coca Nasa just quietly continues doing what they were doing, and the legal system in Colombia doesn't have to take a stand. Everyone's benefiting from the gray zone.

WOODS: Because in the end, there's one thing that can be even stronger than the law for multinational corporations - public relations.

CHAVARRIAGA: It's just bad PR. It's just bad PR. You see the articles, and all of them are talking about Coca-Cola attacking the Indigenous population in Colombia. And then the Indigenous used a very good PR response. You might think you're right, and even the law could back you up, but you just don't risk your publicity that way. Your reputation could be harmed by this.

WONG: As for Fabiola, she says she's concerned Coca-Cola could come after her again. She's trying to prepare herself if that happens.

WOODS: Darian Woods.

WONG: Wailin Wong, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Darian Woods is a reporter and producer for The Indicator from Planet Money. He blends economics, journalism, and an ear for audio to tell stories that explain the global economy. He's reported on the time the world got together and solved a climate crisis, vaccine intellectual property explained through cake baking, and how Kit Kat bars reveal hidden economic forces.
Wailin Wong
Wailin Wong is a long-time business and economics journalist who's reported from a Chilean mountaintop, an embalming fluid factory and lots of places in between. She is a host of The Indicator from Planet Money. Previously, she launched and co-hosted two branded podcasts for a software company and covered tech and startups for the Chicago Tribune. Wailin started her career as a correspondent for Dow Jones Newswires in Buenos Aires. In her spare time, she plays violin in one of the oldest community orchestras in the U.S.