Coca: A South American Perspective

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Coca leaves await immersion with breakfast.

If one plant aside from the opium poppy has caused more strife and more violence, you’d be hard pressed to look past the Coca bush.

A shrub revered in the highlands of Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador and parts of Colombia, the history of coca in South America is one which goes from special to horrid extremely quickly, because coca leaves contain one of the most damaging drugs on earth: cocaine.

Here we arrive at the difficult crossroads at which many South American countries find themselves; how do you balance the traditional and frequent use of a plant which can also be used to make a potent drug. It’s a question I cannot answer, and which has failed to be answered time and again by governments across the world.

So here’s the South American perspective, as put forth by the Museo de Coca here in Cusco. First the legend:

Many thousands of years ago, a beautiful woman with shining green skin wandered the uplands of Latin America, associating freely with many men and bewitching them with her subtle (and less subtle) charms. Every man left behind by her sensuousness was unable to banish her from their minds.

Having heard of this legendary lass, the Inca called her before their court and quickly fell for her wily charms. Luckily, there was a priest in the court to keep them from becoming too bewitched who steadfastly insisted she be killed forthwith. A little harsh by today’s standards. This was done, and her body parts were buried all over the empire, to really make sure she was gone.

This made many of the men of the nation terribly sad, still being bewitched by thoughts of her. In the spots where she had been buried, a new plant began to grow whose leaves shimmered as her lustrous green skin had done, with leaves the shapes of her eyes.

The saddened men were attracted to these leaves and began to chew great mouthfuls of them. When they asked the name of the bush they were told : Koka. And thus the plant received its name. They found as they munched on the leaves that their sadness for her passing went away and they could get on with their lives, thus the use of coca arrived in the empire.

Now this sort of myth is obviously fanciful, but its the kind of myth making reserved, one would assume, only for things held in great reference. One would suspect there are similar myths for how corn, beans and other important crops were created.

The ritual of chewing coca leaves is extremely common through the Andes mountain chain, and can see seen occurring frequently as friends and families share large bags of the leaves which they chew to relieve headache, altitude sickness, and to relax themselves. Their use is so common a large bag of leaves can be bought for less than 50 cents, and the chewed remains of the plant can be found on many a street corner. It is still treated with the sort of reverence reserved for ancient and previously holy objects all around the world.

Such is the importance of the plant that in Bolivia, a newly married couple will return to their home village and plant a new coca plant to grow with their marriage. It is intertwined with countless other rituals as well.

That brings us to the present day, after decades of attempted eradication of the plant. The difficulty for governments and farmers in the region is that even those producing the plant legally must be tempted by the huge money available for assisting in the creation of cocaine. With 30kg of leaves producing around 100g of cocaine, it’s an extremely lucrative, violent, and dangerous industry.

Now I cannot pretend to offer a solution to this, its an almost impossible bind many of the farmers find themselves in, especially in a  region with the poverty rates of Latin America. So what’s to be done? I’m unsure, but I hope this article gave you some idea of what this plant means to the people of the region, and how it’s use dates back centuries.

As was pointed out to me by a fellow traveller: this plant had little effect on humans until Europeans managed to unleash its potency. What do we owe now to the future of this much fought over plant?

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Coca leaves can even be used to divine your future. What the future holds for coca, though, has yet to be seen.
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