Back in the land of Coca

Once again I find myself surrounded by superlative natural beauty and the vibrant people of Bolivia. Two long years have passed since last I stepped foot in the land where Pacha Mama, the earth mother and goddess of fertility is a living being, where one can walk across surreal Salt Flats and where coca leaves are daily shared.

I know that this time around, my duration in Bolivia will be quite different from what I lived two years ago and yet, the quiet reassurance during my mini layover in La Paz inundated me with a sense of familiarity at being offered coca leaves. Coca leaves in the form of candy helped me adjust to the incredible altitude of roughly 3,650 m above sea level on which the capital city of La Paz was built. Oh Coca leaves, how dear they were to me when I traveled throughout La Paz and to the Yungas (Jungle). Oh how it made the headaches brought on by altitude, magically disappear, and a smile appear on the face of elder Bolivians as they tried to show me the art of acullico, chewing, also simply called "coquear." Even though it is referred to as “chewing” to properly partake in coquear, one must not chew but rather suck. Carefully one is to form a ball with their Coca leaves and place it into their mouth, and slowly suck.

Coca with a small bag of Bico (baking soda) which helps bring out the flavour.Coca with a small bag of Bico (baking soda) which helps bring out the flavour.Coca’s importance in Bolivian society far surpasses the fact that Coca comes in handy during times of altitude sickness and makes for a delicious cup of tea. Rather Coca chewing carries a way of life with it, to coquear is to affirm the attitudes, habits, and values that are characteristic of the Bolivian way of life. For over millennia, Coca has played a central part in the religious rituals and daily life of the people of Bolivia.[i] Interestingly, many pre-Columbian cultures in the Andes have left evidence of the persistent usage of coca leaves. Such evidence is seen through ceramic containers with the remains of Coca, statues and drawings of human figures with the unmistakable ball in the cheek. [ii] Some civilizations went as far as burying their dead with a woven bag filled with Coca leaves.[iii]

Godofredo enjoting some fresh Coca from La Paz.Godofredo with fresh Coca from La Paz.During colonial times, Coca went from being a sacred plant of the Andean people to being a medium of exchange, at times, surpassing the value of gold and silver. Utilized as a tool of exploitation by the Spaniards and only permitted to the Andean people to increase mining output, as it was believed that coca leaves made one eat less, work harder, and for a longer period. [iv] Thus Coca chewing became a symbol of ethnic identity and resistance for the indigenous people towards colonialism, as the vast majority of Spaniards living in the new world had a belittling view of Coca chewing seeing it as “a dirty habit practiced by, if not savages, at least inferior peoples.”[v]

Unfortunately, it was later discovered in 1860 that coca leaves could be used to refine pure cocaine. Leading this “wonder cure” of cocaine to be used to treat opium addiction, utilized as a general anesthetic, an energy tonic, and a headache remedy.[vi] Because of the growing popularity of cocaine, in 1985, the US government decided that it was best to eradicate the Coca plant once and for all, before it could be used to make cocaine. The desire of eradication held little to no regard to the importance of Coca to the Bolivian people. Coca embodies important values and profound beliefs, which cannot, and must not be ignored. For there exists no act in private or public life for the Bolivian people, simple and modest, sacred and mysterious, which is not solemnized by the use and chewing of Coca.

With regards to this attack by foreigners on Coca leaves, the prophetic “Legend of the Coca Leaf” comes to mind. It foretells us of the difference between the way the leaf is used traditionally here in the Andes, and the corrupted form used by Western “conquerors.” God said to the Andean people as follows:

“Guard the leaves with much love and when

you feel the sting of pain in your heart,

hunger in your body

and darkness in your mind…

take them to your mouth and softly, draw up

its spirit which is part of mine…..”

You will find love for your pain

food for your body and light for your mind

Furthermore, watch the leaves dance with the wind

and you will find answers to your queries.

But if your torturer, who come from the North

the white conqueror, the gold seeker, should touch it

he will find in it only…

poison for his body

and madness for his mind

for his heart is so callous as his steel and iron garment

And when the COCA, which is how you will call it,

attempts to soften his feelings

it will only shatter him

as the icy crystals born in the clouds

crack the rocks, demolish mountains. …”[vii]

Coca continues to be exactly that as the Sun God in another legend said to an Andean wise man: “[Coca] for you shall be strength and life […] for you, natives, it will be an almost spiritual food.”[viii] Indeed one cannot help but find coca leaves intrinsically woven in a life-giving manner all throughout this breathtakingly beautiful country. From family rites, contracts, fortunetelling, acts of thanksgiving to funerals, Coca is found. [ix]

Coca is often used in a magical sense to protect an individual against evil spirits, witchcraft, as well as changing a persons’ bad luck and predicting their future.[x] It is believed that without Coca, it would be impossible for the fortuneteller/healer to forecast the future, or to indicate what the ailment of his patients is and how to cure it. [xi] If wedding bells are to be heard soon, the groom’s relatives when requesting a woman’s hand in marriage must offer a handful of Coca. [xii] The success of the offering is indicated by the acceptance or rejection of the coca gift. In some municipalities, petitions submitted to community leaders may be accompanied with Coca and alcohol. Socially the acceptance or offering of Coca extends past the giver and receiver and surpasses them to strengthen the kinship and reciprocation relationship of the entire community.

My colleagues and me enjoying some Coca.My colleagues and me having some Coca.There is much to be said and shared about Coca, yet with this short blog I hope to invite my friends back home, to be cautious of the viewpoint that diminishes the significance of Coca leaves to merely a chemical compound used in cocaine or what was originally used in the flavoring of the ever-popular Coca-Cola drink. We must recognize the Coca leaf’s natural goodness as well as the sacred and social qualities it has and continues to afford the Bolivian people.

[i] Starn, Orin, Carlos Ivan Degregori, and Robin Kirk. The Peru Reader [Electronic Resource]: History, Culture, Politics / Edited By Orin Starn, Carlos Iv©Łn Degregori, And Robin Kirk. n.p.: Durham : Duke University Press, 2005.

[ii]  Laserna, Roberto. Coca cultivation, drug traffic and regional development in Cochabamba, Bolivia. Diss. University Microfilms International, 1995.

[iii] Starn, Degregori, & Kirk, 407.

[iv] Laserna,“Coca cultivation,”66.

[v] Forsberg, Alan. "The Wonders of the Coca Leaf." (2011)

[vi] Starn, Degregori, & Kirk, 408.

[vii] Gumucio, Jorge H. Cocaine the Legend. La Paz, Bolivia: Hisbol, 1999. N. pag. The Coca Musuem.

[viii] Forsberg,"The Wonders of the Coca Leaf."

[ix] Burchard, Roderick E. "Myths of the sacred leaf: ecological perspectives on coca and peasant biocultural adaptation in Peru." (1976).

[x] International Business Publications, USA. Bolivia Diplomatic Handbook. n.p.: Intl Business Pubns USA, 2009. Book Index with Full text.

[xi]  Laserna, “Coca cultivation,”61.  

[xii]  Laserna, “Coca cultivation,” 62.

Carolina Malloy is working as a Community Facilitator with Sociedad Salesiana in Bolivia.