Coca leaf sacred to Bolivia indigenous
In a mineshaft in southern Bolivia a young Quechua Indian miner scattered coca leaves at the feet of El Tio, the devilish god who guards the entrance to the mines. In a fashionable café in La Paz a woman sipped a pale green tea made of coca leaves, and on the shores of Lake Titicaca a man harvesting wheat chewed the deep green, pungent leaves as he worked a long day under the intense sun.
The coca leaf can be processed into cocaine, but the unprocessed leaf is deeply woven into Bolivian society. It is particularly important to indigenous cultures, where coca has likely played key roles in medicine and religion for thousands of years. Those uses continue today. Miners and farm workers chew the leaf for energy, and it’s used in religious ceremonies and traditional medicine.
Jaime Castro is an Aymara Indian coca farmer from the Yungas region of Bolivia. “Coca isn’t cocaine in its natural state. And for us from the Yungas coca is life, it’s clothes, it’s education.” Castro, now in his 40s, has chewed coca since he was 14 years old. He says his good health and sharp mind prove that the coca leaf is not an addictive or destructive substance.
The modern history of coca in Bolivia is a complex story. During the 1990s, successive U.S. administrations tried to eradicate coca totally in the Chapare region, but accepted growth of almost 30,000 acres in other areas, according to information from the Andean Information Network. Forced eradication in the Chapare proved a move that pitted U.S. policy against local organizations and created animosity that is still alive today.
Evo Morales, Bolivia’s Aymara Indian president, rose into Bolivia’s political scene as director of a highly organized federation of coca growers. Morales actively defends Bolivia’s right to cultivate coca for legal uses such as chewing, commercial products such as tea and flour, and in religious ceremonies. Morales has called coca “the sacred leaf” because of its importance to Bolivia’s indigenous people.
The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime estimates that in 2009 about 76,355 acres of coca were cultivated in Bolivia. Of those acres about 49,420 are legally grown under Bolivian law and considered destined for local use. In 2008, Bolivia produced 19 percent of the world’s coca leaf, behind both Peru and Colombia.
The majority of Bolivia’s legally sold coca makes its way to one of the country’s two coca markets.
Villa Fatima, a neighborhood in La Paz, Bolivia, is home to Bolivia’s largest coca market, where more than 17 tons of the leaves are bought and sold each year, changing hands between producers and wholesalers. Sacks of the dried, slightly crisp leaves sit in vast warehouses, while others are strapped into trucks. The air smells of the bitter-sweet leaves.
The sellers are members of ADEPCOCA, an association of Yungas coca growers. Nicholas Chincha is a leader in the association. He said the coca leaf is a crucial part of indigenous medicine used to sooth stomachaches, headaches and joint pain, and to stave off hunger and thirst. It also gives energy to laborers and helps them work more, Chincha said.
Because of this array of properties, the coca leaf is highly valued and used in religious rites. When offerings are made to Pachamama, the earth mother, coca is part of the ceremony. “No other food has the same properties as coca, and because of those properties it’s a very powerful offering to Pachamama or the gods,” Chincha said. “It’s sacred.”
Part of Morales’ plan to increase the legal coca market in Bolivia is to create more legal uses for the leaf. Enter Victor Ledezma, a passionate advocate of the coca leaf and founder of the Coca Colla brand. This very sweet soda uses coca leaves as a key ingredient. Ledezma hopes coca leaf products including soda, toothpaste and flour will expand the legal market’s demand for coca leaves considerably.
Like many coca growers, Castro hopes coca products someday become a legal Bolivian export to many parts of the world. Castro wants the restrictions of the United Nation’s Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, which make exporting the coca leaf in its natural state illegal for countries that have signed the convention, to be lifted. “Foreign governments demonize coca, mostly the government of the United States. But we hope that our coca can be exported in the future.”
While the legal future of coca exports remains uncertain, the leaf’s place in Bolivian society is firm. Coca continues to play a key role in indigenous life, as it has for thousands of years.