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February 01, 2011

Traditional coca leaf: medicine or menace?

Bolivia is appealing to lift a worldwide ban on coca leaf production and consumption, claiming that it violates the right of indigenous peoples to practice the ancient custom of coca chewing. But not everyone is happy with the appeal, notably the United States, which has concerns centering around the cocaine derivative of the plant.

Long before the Spanish conquistadors arrived on South American soil, the peoples of the Andes were aware of the properties of the coca leaf. They knew that chewing a ball of the leaf could relieve altitude sickness, stave off hunger and increase stamina.

But the coca leaf is also the raw material from which alkaloids are extracted to produce cocaine. As a result, the UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs voted in 1961 for a universal ban on the plant’s production and consumption, with the exception of a limited number of plantations intended strictly for “traditional” consumption purposes.

In Bolivia, the ban was never fully enforced. President Evo Morales, himself an ex-coca farmer, has made the decriminalisation of the coca leaf one of his top priorities. In 2009, his government passed a law legalising coca production for domestic consumption. The leaf was even listed in the Bolivian Constitution as forming part of the country’s “cultural heritage".

Bolivia’s Foreign Minister David Choquehuanca is currently on a European tour to drum up support for his country’s appeal to lift the ban. If no countries object to amending the UN convention by the end of the month, it will no longer be labelled a controlled substance.

However, the United States, which has the world’s highest rate of cocaine consumption, is likely to block the appeal on the grounds that it jeopardises worldwide efforts to curb drug trafficking. Washington argues that Bolivia’s coca production is already too big to be intended solely for domestic, traditional consumption.

Sdenka Silva is a sociologist whose speciality is the culture of the coca leaf. She is also the director of the Coca Museum in La Paz.

It is difficult to overstate the importance of the coca leaf in Andean culture. It has been sacred to the Aymara, Quechua and Guarani people for over 5,000 years and passed down through their ancestors. To offer someone coca leaves is to demonstrate fraternity and equality, the cornerstones of the social system. It is used in rituals because it has spiritual significance to these people. In many places it is used for bartering, which is important for the peasants who otherwise would sell their products for a low price, but buy other essentials at a high price.

Besides the cultural reasons for coca consumption, there are also health benefits. A report by American botanist Timothy Plowman showed that no stimulant is good for the body except for coca leaves, and a Harvard report showed that it is rich in vitamins and minerals. Coca is known to stimulate the flow of oxygen in the body. No miner in Bolivia will go into the mine without having a large bag of coca leaves because the oxygen levels down there are so low. It is also a very good anaesthetic. European countries realised this when they arrived in the Americas and saw how useful it was. There was no anaesthetic in Europe at that time. The UN seems to overlook this information and these reports.

Because of its properties, there is a multimillion-dollar market awaiting the coca leaf, particularly in northern Argentina, where there is a large illegal coca leaf black market. The United States says there is more coca leaf being produced in Bolivia than can be used domestically, and that the surplus is feeding the drug industry. But part of the reason that the excess gets used in narcotics is because there is no legal international market for coca extracts. Ironically, the only international company currently making commercial use of the coca leaf is Coca Cola.

Slowly, Bolivians are starting to understand that the so-called war on drugs has disastrous consequences on local populations. If this amendment goes through, it will rehabilitate a centuries-old indigenous tradition, after 500 years of racism against the native people of this region.

It will also open a potentially huge market for ordinary Bolivians to lift themselves out of poverty. Unfortunately, the opposition to lifting the ban is such that I’m not optimistic that we will see progress – at least not in the immediate short term. Changing the racism against the indigenous people of this region is a very slow process.”


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