The coca leaf in South America

Cultural Insights — By on November 7, 2006 at 7:00 am

When I was in Peru a few years ago, a common drink served at every restaurant and small hotel at high altitude was coca tea.  It has a mild stimulant affect, very much like the caffeine in coffee or black tea, and is said to be especially helpful for dealing with the physical effects of altitude.  Some indigenous people chew on the coca leaf.  Today, residents of Peru, Bolivia and Colombia are even using coca in a number of other products, ranging from bread to shampoo.

None of this is remarkable, except for the fact that harvesting the coca leaf is also the first step on the way to producing cocaine, and the United States has spent billions of dollars over the years in an effort to destroy coca production in South America.  Now some of the peoples of South America are fighting back, suggesting that it’s unfair for them to destroy a native crop that has so many other uses and benefits which have nothing at all to do with the drug trade.

It brings up some interesting questions, of course.  Would the U.S. be so determined to stop South Americans from growing coffee beans, for example, if the plant could be reduced to a similarly lethal drug?  And, if all of these years fighting the supply side of the drug trade has yielded so little success, might we be better off focusing our efforts on reducing the demand in our own country?  A recent article in Newsweek looked at the coca industry in Bolivia and Peru from the point of view of the native peoples there.

Armed with scientific studies, Bolivian officials are attacking the impression that coca itself is harmful to health. They argue that legal products could be a viable alternative to growing the plant for use in cocaine, and far more effective than trying to wipe out the hoja sagrada, or sacred leaf, that has been a staple of Andean daily life and religious rituals since ancient times.

Meantime, in the Andean countries of Bolivia, Peru and Colombia, dozens of businesses are developing new coca-based goods. In Bolivia, industrial production of coca tea began in the 1980s, and since 2000, small companies have put out some 30 different products—coca bread and pastas, toothpaste and shampoo, ointments, candies, liquors.

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