Let's talk Latin America

Cultural heritage, narcotics and the coca leaf

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When you think about the coca leaf, what images spring to mind? Charlotte Lindsey highlights the varying worldwide perceptions of this multipurpose plant, which has come to be irrevocably associated with one of the world’s most popular drugs.

The coca leaf. It is a plant that continues to spark heated debate concerning the way it is perceived. Amongst Andean cultures, it is considered a sacred and medicinal plant. The association mainly held by the rest of the world however, is with its cocaine alkaloid content, which is extracted to make the drug cocaine.

This is despite the fact that the traditional method of chewing coca leaf, acullico, exisited before the arrival of the Spanish conquistadores in the Americas. In fact, archeological evidence dates the cultural chewing of the coca leaf back to 6th century AD. It is also treasured as having medicinal properties, acting as a mild stimulant to overcome afflictions such as hunger, pain, and fatigue, rather than acting as an addictive, harmful drug. Additionally, it helps overcome altitude sickness, and was thus used by miners during Spanish colonization. As previously highlighted Indigenous people consider the plant as having divine origin and therefore any attempt to displace it faces a collision with an almost religious tradition.

 From 1980 onwards, however, strategies to eradicate or lessen the plant’s cultivation in the Andean region have been carried out with more and more force. Primarily initiated by the United States (the main destination of Central and South America’s cocaine trade) and the U.N., Colombia has been subject to forced eradication of coca leaf cultivation through aerial spraying of herbicides. Bolivia have campaigned with success to reverse the UN’S 1961 Single Convention, classifying the coca leaf as illegal and prohibiting its commercialization. President of Bolivia, Evo Morales, who has been acclaimed as a key supporter of indigenous rights, also heading the regional coca growers’ union, is a fervent advocate of expanding legal markets and commercialization of the coca plant. His political slogan embodying what the Bolivian population want the world to recognise reads, ‘the coca leaf is not cocaine.’

The chewing of coca by indigenous populations continues to be a popular tradition, as it was for their ancestors thousands of years before them. It is estimated that seven million people stretching from southern Colombia to the north of Chile and Argentina still practise chewing coca plants and therefore the issue affects a huge amount of people across a vast geographical area. Outside of South America, most countries’ laws make no distinction between the coca leaf and any other substance containing cocaine, making the possession of the coca leaf prohibited.

 With the cocaine alkaloid content in coca leaf ranging between 0,5 and 1,0 per cent, the traditional Western view (which equates coca with cocaine) appears in need of re-addressing. In order to respect the national sovereignty and ancient cultural heritage of the Andean people, governments worldwide must recognise a distinction between plant and drug. Although this appears clear enough, whether such a shift could occur without compromising international anti-drug efforts, remains an ensuing and dividing dilemma.

Header photo: Greanville Post