Monday, March 05, 2007


In his first speech to the United Nations as President of Bolivia, Evo Morales did something a little different : he brought along a prop. Holding up a leaf of coca in front of the delegation of heads of state, Morales was making the point that coca is not a drug. One of its derivatives - cocaine - may be a narcotic which is the cause and effect of all sorts of miseries in the world, but coca itself is not harmful.

Why did Evo feel the need to make this point? Because ever since 1950, when a North American banker called Howard Fonda studied the effects of coca and asserted that it causes mental retardation and is the main cause of poverty in Latin America, it has been the policy of the United Nations to eradicate coca altogether.

It is believed that Andean people have been chewing coca for 4,500 years. There is archaeological evidence that the Valdivian peoples practised acullico (the chewing of the leaf) as far back as 2100 BC, and fossilised leaves have been found in Peru dating from 1900 BC. Living and working 3-4km above sea-level presents difficulties - I can attest that walking up the steep hills of La Paz is bloody knackering, and I´m just a layabout traveller. So if you´re a farmer or a tin-miner working long hours, doing back-breaking work, in the thin air of the altiplano, you may need something to make life a little easier. Today, as ever, around 90% of men and 80% of women in the Andes chew coca. Acullico entails stripping the leaf from the vein, then lightly chewing the leaf with a little ash - this releases the nutrients and an alkaline substance called llycta into the mouth which produces a feeling of increased awareness, an anaesthetisation to pain to hardship, and a light tingling in the mouth. The process, as Sdenka Silva (the brains behind La Paz´s excellent Coca Museum) points out, is comparable to Westerners drinking coffee.

But there are other reasons why Andean people chew coca. Just as people in the West go for a drink to chill out, chat with friends or celebrate good news (or commiserate bad news?), coca is used as a social lubricant. And, perhaps most importantly, it is a traditional symbol of Andean culture and spirituality. In her museum guidebook, Silva writes :

In Andean culture, Mamacoca (the coca leaf) is the divine connection, the intercessor between God and the rest. Coca invites the soul to extend and strengthen the bonds of affinity and of reciprocation. When seeking acceptance into a community or family, coca opens the door to increased confidence (in the bearer) and courage and acts as a symbol of "bearing good intentions".

Some Western analysts think they know better. They say that coca is harmful to health, or that it is a social menace. But a study in 1997 by the Bolivian Institute for High Altitude Biology found that chewing coca does not inhibit the intake of essential nutrients (carbs, fats and proteins) and contains nutritional value in itself, enabling the user to work for longer, helping him / her to absorb more oxygen (pretty damn important when you´re 4km above sea level), lowering the risk of thrombosis, and helping to regulate insulin levels.

The real social menace is not to be found in coca, or in the Bolivian consumption thereof, but in the voracious appetite in the West for one of its derivatives : cocaine. The United States contains 5% of the world´s population, and yet 50% of the world´s cocaine is consumed there. This is why the US has, for decades, been at pains to eradicate coca production as part of its ongoing War on Drugs.

The path from coca to cocaine (and, of course, Coca-Cola) is a tortuous one. Andeans had been aware of the anaesthetic value of coca long before Western scientists discovered the medicinal properties of cocaine. But in the last quarter of the 19th century, German physicians began the widespread use of cocaine in their practice. And, famously, Sigmund Freud published a paper, Uber Coca, which described its stimulant properties.

Synthetic cocaine - Procaine - was discovered in 1905, and was found to be a more effective and less dangerous version of the drug. The anaesthetic properties of cocaine were lauded long before the drug was demonised. But then again, coca itself has enjoyed a mixed reputation. When the Spanish arrived in South America and observed the natives chewing the leaves, the practice was denounced as throughly blasphemous : an impediment to Christian conversion. Vespucio described its users as "horrid ; they chewed their cud like beasts, cheeks full of green herb" in 1504, and a few decades later the council of clergymen in Lima condemned coca, saying it was like the Talisman of the devil. But these early colonists had missed something : if the natives (who were by now enslaved) chewed coca, they could work for their masters for longer without collapsing from exhaustion. This was especially the case in the mines of Potosi, which in the 16th century was as big a city as Paris or London. As soon as the Spanish realised that coca was a tool for the further exploitation of slaves, they changed their tune, permitting its use and taxing it. "With this," notes Sdenka Silva, "the Spanish effectively transformed Mamcoca, an Andean symbol, tradition and cultural axis, into money and a means of trade, which persist today."

Until 1914, use of synthetic cocaine was legal, and accompained by the usual advertisements promising glamour, sexual magnetism, wellbeing - well, you know the drill with such things. The prohibition of the drug in 1914 only seemed to fuel the spread of recreational cocaine. By the 1950s, the US government had a social problem on its hands. And since a myriad therapeutic techniques for cocaine addiction have had, at best, only mixed results, a War on Drugs was launched, and continues to this day.

The way the war - another crusade against a noun - works is this. The US gives Bolivia (and other Andean countries) money in the form of credit, in exchange for which it must eradicate coca. Poorly paid Bolivian police try to enforce the Geneva Law, but circumstances work against them. There has been a recent upsurge in the production of coca (a probable consequence, it must be said, of Evo´s presidency) - one man told me the other day that coca is being grown at the expense of crops and livestock which, if true, is especially worrying given the floods in the east of Bolivia, which have destroyed large sections of this year´s harvest.

But it is not just the growers - most of whom have only relocated to coca-growing areas in the hope of a better life - who influence the cocaine trade. As Silva writes, "between the seizure of illegal drugs and the imprisonment of illegal drug users exist legal enterprises involved in the drug trade - banks that "clean" dirty (drug) money and raw chemical manufacturers that provide the material to produce cocaine. Without these industries, most of which operate in the developed world, the illegal drug would not be possible."

In other words, the problem exists outside Bolivia. It is only since coca was turned from a traditional symbol into a commodity that a worldwide drug problem was created. Bolivian police can do their best (with a severe lack of resources) to crack down on the production on coca for narcotic use, but if the processing chemicals find their way to Bolivia without going through international airports, there is really very little they can do. The onus must be on the rest of the world to clamp down on their societys´ rampant appetite for cocaine ; and the UN must be persuaded to rescind their demand for coca qua coca to be eradicated.

For more, see here and here (the latter an interview with Evo conducted soon after his inauguration, in which he gives his views on the coca leaf).


Anonymous rory bukowski said...

Thought you might find our series on the Bolivian Revolution interesting.

4:30 PM  
Blogger minifig said...

I think the sensible course of action would be for us to stop fighting this pathetic "war on drugs" altogether. Cocaine, like heroin, should be provided to addicts on prescription, with the supplies being bought legally from producing countries (preferably under some sort of fair trade set-up). While we're at it, we could sort out a lot of the problems in Afghanistan by buying the poppy crops to fight the massive morphine shortage we're suffering in the UK.

I could blather on about this for hours, but I'm guessing you've heard it all from me before...

10:03 AM  
Blogger Mathildeheiberg said...

AND NO COCA IS NOT COCAINE!!! Sometimes I get so angry at USA and Europe for not seing the cultural element in the drugwar (cocaineproblematic).
Just because one product is dangerous is not the same at the rawmaterial is dangoures. It would be the same if a country claimed the erradication of grapes in france, Spain, Italy etc. just because people get sick of drinking wine. Im for coca but agaist cocaine.

2:30 PM  

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