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.
Update: read about our trip to Bolivia.