Things you didn't know about coca

07 Oct, 2011 | Maeva Gonzalez

History & Politics

The coca leaf, discovered 3000 years ago by the Incas, is still cause for both pride and controversy.

Eduardo Lopez Zavala, the director of the movie Inal Mama (see BX Issue 6) understands it as a symbol of Bolivia. But coca is also part of a world market that has transformed the traditional use of the coca leaf into a sparkling drug experience that attracts ever-growing numbers, especially of young people. However, there is more than cocaine to the coca leaf: the consumption of coca tea is an ancient and harmless practice, and while nowadays it is drugs that make the press, in fact the market for the coca leaf in Bolivia is expanding to alternative uses, principally in pharmacology and cosmetics.

In the early 1900s, the United States, first users in the world, decided to eradicate coca production. This was followed by a series of international conferences aimed at prohibiting the coca culture. In 1951, the World Health Organization (WHO) classified coca amongst the most highly addictive products, and ten years later, an international convention definitely prohibited its production. Though Bolivia and Peru benefited from a 25-yearold respite, coca production has tripled since. The heritage left by this situation is a prolific narco-trafficking trade that crosses over the Bolivian frontiers to please an ever growing European and American clientele, while cutting its prices.

Evo Morales announced in 2006 that he would seek scientific proof of the necessity of legal coca plants for the economical wellbeing of the country, and since then some steps have been taken to control the illegal trade. Back in 2009, the federal police of Bolivia (led by Bolivia’s National Planning Director General Wilge Obleas Espinoza) and Brazil decided to work together against crime involving drug trafficking. This action was followed the same year by a meeting between Evo Morales and the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy in Paris where they discussed the sale of civilian and military helicopters, respectively named Super Puma and Cougar, to help the fight against drug smugglers. The meeting spoke volumes among the international community and a few months later, Bolivian counter-narcotics forces, known as the FELCN, made their biggest drug bust in ten years. The anti-drug police dismantled a cocaine processing property in Santa Cruz province: a house that was being used as a drug factory.

Psychiatrist Mabel Romero Maury, who has worked with doctors treating drug addicts, informed me that the government was indeed focused on fighting narcotrafficking but that not enough effort was made to educate people in Bolivia to prevent addiction. Nevertheless, the work of Dr Jorge Hurtado, a coca specialist and founder of the coca museum in La Paz, to create a coca paste, has helped some patients to recover from extreme addictive behavior. When the government asked for the help of several doctors and coca specialists to discuss the future of the coca leaf, it appeared, said Dra Mabel Romero Maury, that they had a lot of information available. Unfortunately there was less flexibility to apply these ideas in the country.

Although Bolivia took effective action against the illicit cocaine trade and did adhere to the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB), the government is engaged in talks with the US on Law 1008 (the ban of coca production), and is not quite ready yet to kill the “goose that lays the golden eggs”, to quote a famous Aesop’s fable.

Meanwhile coca’s essential and diverse potential is beginning to become evident through its uses in the alternative market. Many Bolivians are reviving coca’s original uses: for cooking, folk medicine (the unadulterated coca is well-known to be a mild stimulant which counteracts the effects of altitude sickness) and Andean religious rites.

The coca leaf is a major part of several aspects of Bolivian society: social, political, chemical, legal and criminal among others. Dr Jorge Hurtado explained that coca has properties similar to anesthetics and is often criticized for wrong reasons. According to him, while the coca leaf has been classified as dangerous and unhealthy, there are no doctors or medical studies that have proved this assertion. One of the most striking examples he gave during our meeting was that forty years ago, when the government tried to stop coca consumption, it appeared that work in mines was decreasing. The explanation is that miners need coca to work, as it helps the body and the mind to stay alert. To refuse them their usual coca chewing meant they had no energy for this hard work. Consequently mines’ production dropped. The reintroduction of the coca leaf into the miners’ daily work maintained the production at a high level without making the miners coca leaf addicts.

In fact “the coca leaf has more vitamins than quinoa, for example, and around 25% more calcium than milk”, added Hurtado. The leaf is a common food supplement as are vitamins pills in Europe. – there is no proof that chewing coca leaf and Bolivia has more alcoholics than cocaine addicts - a relative comparison between leaf and drug might be the relationship of grapes to wine. The coca leaf may contain the essential ingredient for cocaine production, but it does not become harmful until it is transformed by man.

In 1949 procaine was discovered, a similar substance to cocaine, this chemical was found to have an effect akin to the “Fountain of Youth”. After administering procaine to patients, especially older ones, researchers noted amelioration in muscles and motion. Ana Aslan played a role in the initial discovery of the anti-aging property of procaine. Coca was then used in various ways to enhance people’s physical capabilities. Unlike morphine it does not cause any kind of addiction.

Of course, the coca leaf also relieves stomach pain. In Europe I have been used to drinking coffee after eating, which is in fact the worst thing we could do to our digestion. Coffee opens a so-called “sphincter” in the stomach, which regulates the passages between the top and the bottom of the digestive system. Coca, on the other hand, is beneficial to the digestion process. “I could give you more and more uses for coca leaf but this is endless and still very controversial even if studies proved us right”, finished Dr Hurtado.

In cosmetics, various brands have introduced coca to shampoos, body lotions or hair conditioners. Tourists will probably still be checked at the airport if they try to bring one home. This happened to Bryce, 22, a NGO worker in La Paz: “My friend forgot she had coca shampoo in her bag and as she went through security the dogs began to look nervous. Fortunately we didn’t get into trouble but I wouldn’t recommend the experience.” Coca also appears in some toothpaste, as it prevents some gum diseases.

As my research through the history of coca comes to an end, I feel I have discovered that the coca leaf is far more than just a tradition here in Bolivia. It is a growing market linked to different aspects of the Bolivian economy: the people, the laboratories, the cosmetics, the medicine and more. Despite crackdowns on illegal parts of this sector in the past, the coca industry in Bolivia is still very much alive and given a few years, ready to expand.

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