Those on a Peru tour are bound to come across coca leaves.For most of us the coca leaf has negative connotations. We imagine sunglasses wearing drug barons mowing down police officers with gigantic machine guns in order to maintain their vice-like grip on the international cocaine market. However, aside from the most commonly known application of the leaf for the preparation of cocaine, coca has a rich and treasured history in the Latin American countries from which it originates dating back 4500 years.
The most widely used type of coca (or Erythroxylum Coca) grows mostly in the mountainous regions of Peru and Bolivia at altitude. Anthropologists have speculated that the word coca derives from the pre-Incan Tiwanaku word khoka – meaning “the plant”. The Aymara word q’oka means “food for travellers and workers”. For all you chemical-heads out there, you’ll be disappointed to know that only about 0.5% of the leaf actually contains the stimulant cocaine. This is normally activated by adding an alkaline agent, like burnt plants. This reacts to saliva in the chewing process and releases the cocaine. Putting the nutritionist hat on, research has shown that 100 gm of Bolivian coca leaves satisfied the dietary allowance for calcium, iron, phosphorous, vitamin A, vitamin B and vitamin E.
When the Spanish conquistadors, technically the first people to take a Peru tour, discovered the Incan Empire in the 16th century, they found even the Emperor Atahualpa chewed the leaves. The Incan nobility had monopolized the supply and usage and as a result the Inca considered the right to chew leaves the highest prize of all, greater than material riches of silver or gold. Aside from the spiritual significance, the practise of chewing coca brought practical benefits, including the ability to withstand the effects of altitude, suppression of hunger and the brutal hardships of a working agricultural life outdoors in all weathers the Andes. It’s also a commonly known fact that coca leaves were used as an anaesthetic for operations such as trepanning, where big chunks of the patient’s skull were chiseled off for various reasons.
The Spanish conquistadors in fairly typical steamrollering fashion initially outlawed coca leaves, but this position was eventually reversed. Many believe that this was done to allow the Spanish to work the natives harder, longer, and with less food in national silver mines. The Empire also taxed the indigenous population frequently in coca leaves as this was a commodity with a very profitable turnover.
Coca made it over to Europe by the 16th Century, but things didn’t start getting interesting until 1859. Albert Niemann, a German chemist, discovered how to process coca leaf into the alkaloid cocaine hydrochloride, a mind blowing 99% pure product. Cocaine usage for medicinal purposes exploded in Europe and North America. Sigmund Freud, one of the most famous figureheads of modern psychiatry, wrote about his personal experiences of use and the product’s virtues around the same time.
In one of the better known commercial successes of coca, 1886 John Pemberton launched a tonic in 1886 on the American market called Coca-Cola. The “Cola” in the name indicated the presence of an extract of kola nut, an African product that contains about 2 percent caffeine. Although cocaine was removed from Coca Cola in 1904 following an American politician’s crusade to purify food and drink products available on the market, decocainised coca leaves are still used and caffeine prevails in the ingredients.
The modern standard on coca was established through the United Nations law in 1961, giving the leaves the same classification as opium, morphine, and heroin. Based on a single report written in the 1950’s, the UN’s justification has been widely disputed. The trafficking of leaves in the 1970 for the preparation of cocaine for recreational use further blackened the name of coca and today a tug of war in interests prevails.
Following an international war on drugs, support has been provided to the Colombian Government, the highest profile supplier of coca leaves in Latin America, to police the cultivation of coca. Consequently supply increase has shifted to other countries such as Peru, in which the government is placing firm controls on growers and stamping down on production. At the same time, movement is currently underway to allow expansion of legal markets for coca leaves, with the presidents of Bolivia and Peru openly championing the use of coca. Even Hugo Chavez, President of Venezuela stuck his oar in on the issue, proclaiming in a speech on January 2008 that he regularly chews coca. Chávez reportedly said “I chew coca every day in the morning… and look how I am” before showing his biceps to the Venezuelan assembly. With endorsement like that, who needs advertising?
So next time you visit Colombia, Ecuador, Peru or Bolivia and someone offers you some coca tea or some leaves to chew, don’t tense up; you’ll be participating in a ritual that has lasted for millennia, spoiled only in the last one hundred years. Who knows, it might actually do you some good!