LA PAZ, Jan 11 (Reuters) - Drivers competing in the Dakar Rally were greeted with wreaths made of coca leaves, which help combat altitude sickness and are also used as the raw ingredient in cocaine, as they entered the Andean country of Bolivia on Thursday.
Coca producers from the Bolivian Yungas region placed the wreaths on drivers’ necks during a ceremony in the capital of La Paz after they crossed over from Peru, where the race began on Jan. 6 and end on Jan. 20 in Cordoba, Argentina.
Bolivian President Evo Morales, a former coca grower who greeted drivers during the ceremony, has long defended the legal use of the leaf, which can be chewed or brewed into tea and is considered sacred by many indigenous people in the Andes region.
Last year, Bolivia passed a law to nearly double the amount of land that can be planted with coca. Its coca growing area expanded 14 percent in 2016.
Bolivia is the world’s third-largest producer of the leaf behind Peru and Colombia, whose coca-growing area also increased in 2016.
“Sooner or later, the coca leaf must be able to enter countries all around the world legally and cleanly,” Morales, a socialist whose bid to run for a fourth term in office in next year’s election has sparked protests, said at the event. “We can demonstrate that coca is a nutrient and a medicine.”
Leaders of producers’ groups said they distributed some 10,000 pounds of coca leaves to drivers and spectators at the ceremony, under grey skies outside the Hernando Siles stadium.
“It is something typical of the area, and to tell you the truth it was a novelty for us,” said driver Oscar Romero.
Defending champion Stephane Peterhansel led the racers into Bolivia but Peugeot team mate Carlos Sainz had trimmed the Frenchman’s lead with his first stage win of this year’s event.
Peterhansel ended the sixth stage from the Peruvian city of Arequipa to La Paz with a 27-minute advantage over the Spaniard, a two-times world rally champion and father of the Formula One driver with the same name.
Earlier in the day, police cleared a group of demonstrators who had been blocking the road where drivers were set to arrive in protest against government spending on the race and Morales’ re-election bid.
Friday is a rest stage in La Paz.
Reporting by Daniel Ramos; writing by Luc Cohen; Editing by Greg Stutchbury