“La hoja de coca no es droga”

I recently read that Evo Morales, the populist president of Bolivia, is having some success at convincing farmers to grow other crops beside coca leaves. While Morales remains president of a powerful coca growers union, he is providing incentives for farmers to grow other crops as well to better deal with the recent increase in world food prices.

As I’m writing this I’m sipping a cup of “mate de coca”, green tea made of coca leaves. When I’m in the US often get asked about coca tea, since the coca leaf is also the base ingredient of cocaine. As the title of this post says: “The coca leaf is not a drug”, and there are no stimulating effects when you drink coca tea.

The coca leaf has historically had many uses here in the Andes region, it is practically worshiped for the natural healing qualities it is believed to hold. Native people chew the coca leaf, similar to chewing tobacco, and us gringos are offered coca tea when we first arrive to Cusco to help deal with the effects of the altitude. When I was ill earlier this year Tio Miguel (that’s Patricia’s uncle Miguel) gave us some healing lotions, which felt really good when I had pneumonia.

The US government has financed coca eradication programs from Columbia to Bolivia for decades, in an attempt to stop the flow of cocaine into the US. Since I moved to Peru I’ve become convinced those programs are akin to the Prime Minister of India coming down to Texas and telling the ranchers to stop raising cattle because it’s sacreligious.

The problems with the US programs are that they don’t recognize the value of the coca leaf here in the Andean cultures. In addition, they involve methods like spraying pesticide from airplanes. Not even my old pilot buddy Ralph Feather – who could barrel roll a loaded Convair 240 – is good enough to spray fields at night and not hit any people as well.

I wouldn’t pretend to have an easy solution to the drug problem, but it seems like Evo Morales is on to something not half bad in this case.

Ward Welvaert

Update: read about our trip to Bolivia.

"Evo SI" billboard in La Paz, Bolivia

'Evo SI' billboard in La Paz, Bolivia

Typical Peruvian countryside

Typical Peruvian countryside

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6 thoughts on ““La hoja de coca no es droga”

  1. I have studied this issue for decades. The coca leaf chewed & made into tea (Erythroxylum coca) is known as Trujillo coca. It is harmless & legal in the United States. It is used to flavor Coke & Pepsi. Many people mistakenly think Coca-Cola stopped adding coca, but in fact, the company stopped adding the drug cocaine to the children’s soft drinks. Cocaine is no longer in Coke, but coca IS the main flavoring in both Coke & Pepsi. Coca tea tastes good & is very healthful. (Kola nut tea is also very good; it’s high in caffeine & similar compounds.) Trujillo coca contains minute amounts of cocaine; its effect is mainly from the other coca alkaloids.
    The subspecies Erythroxylum coca boliviana, on the other hand is high in cocaine. It grows only in a 12-mile wide area high on the Eastern slope of the Bolivian Andes. No one chews it, because it is guarded by men with machine guns. No one defoliates it, because these paramilitaries use anti-aircraft weapons. (See the book Cocaine Politics.) The U.S. directs the defoliant ONLY against Trujillo coca, the harmless, non-drug kind. However, some of the Trujillo coca & other crops defoliated in Colombia are replaced by coca boliviana (as documented in Wired magazine). Based on this situation, the oldest coca boliviana crops in Colombia are only 10-years-old: Not old enough to produce cocaine yet. 15-year old coca boliviana crops IN Bolivia produce cocaine, but experts doubt if these transplanted coca crops can indeed produce commercial quantities of cocaine when they mature, because their latitude, altitude, climate & other growing current conditions are significantly altered from the natural habitat. In addition, any cocaine made from coca grown in the Agent-Orange-infected soil could be toxic.
    For 25 years I have worked for the Church of the Tree of Life, which uses Trujillo coca as a sacrament, though it is usually unavailable in the United States EXCEPT in soft drinks. I know that Trujillo coca is harmless: I myself have consumed over 145 grams at one sitting, to no ill effects. Sincerely, Norman Bie.

  2. One of my students at ICPNA wrote this about the legend of the PICAFLOR of MachuPicchu:

    In a lot of communities in the valley of Urubamba it is said that the Inka Pachakuteq ordered to build Machupicchu because the gods asked him for a place where they could have meetings. Pachakuteq accepted the order and entrusted the project to Haytapuma and Choquetarki, two famous architects in the Tahuantinsuyo.

    But the men couldn’t bring the huge stones up the mountain to build MachuPicchu, and the architects told Pachakuteq. The Inka consulted the gods what to do about the problem the men were having.

    One night, Pachakuteq had a dream with a little bird, a PICAFLOR. It was the PICAFLOR who told him the best way to build Machupicchu: the bird showed him the COCA, a sacred plant you must use to have energy.

    The next day Pachakuteq told the Tahuantinsuyo his dream and they started the project

  3. Pingback: GE releases 4Q earnings « Life in Peru

  4. I lived half a year in a little village at 4200 metres altitude in the Bolivian Altiplano. Drinking tea made out of coca leafs was an everyday routine. We also chewed them as a relief for the soroche, the altitude sickness.

    Coca is very much part of the Andean culture adn I doubt the US programs will be any more successful in erradicating coca in the future!

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