The War on Coca Leaves

Chuspa, traditional coca bag

Chewing the leaves of the coca plant (Erythroxylum coca) plays a significant role in traditional Andean culture. Coca acts as a stimulant to overcome fatigue, hunger, and thirst. It is considered particularly effective against altitude sickness. It also is used as an anaesthetic to alleviate the pain of headache, rheumatism, wounds and sores. Coca leaf chewing is most common among indigenous communities across the central Andean region, particularly in the highlands of Colombia, Ecuador, Bolivia, and Peru, where the cultivation and consumption of coca is part of the national culture, and where sharing coca leaves is a powerful symbol of social and cultural solidarity. And the consumption of mate de coca, coca tea, is common among all sectors of society in the Andean countries, and is widely held to be beneficial to health, particularly at high altitudes.

Chewing coca leaves

Doris Rivera Lenz, in an interview with Howard G. Charing, says that chewing coca is part of an Andean culture that knows how to make work into a sacred activity. When sharing coca, a mouthful of leaves is carefully chosen from a decorated chuspa, coca bag, and mixed with llipta or ilucta, alkaline lye, while chewing, to release the active ingredients; the lye is often kept in an ishcupuro, a small decorated gourd hung around the neck, and added to the leaves with a small stick. Sharing coca leaves may be a preliminary to the sacred Andean mesa ceremony, and coca leaves play a crucial part in offerings to the apus, inti, and pachamama — the mountains, the sun, and mother earth. Coca leaves are often used for medical diagnosis and divination.

However, the United Nations Convention on Psychotropic Substances classifies coca in Schedule I, along with cocaine and heroin, as substances that are considered particularly unsafe and lacking any medical use. Under Article 7(a), parties to the convention must prohibit “all use except for scientific and very limited medical purposes.” This classification is based primarily on a 1950 study, widely considered to be seriously flawed, which included the coca leaf as “narcotic drug."

Coca leaves for sale in the marketplace

This month, the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) — a United Nations monitoring body that oversees the implementation of the UN drug control conventions — has called for the governments of Bolivia and Peru to abolish all uses of the coca leaf, including coca leaf chewing. In its 2007 annual report, the INCB asks Bolivia and Peru to make possessing and using coca leaf criminal offenses — a move that would affect millions of people in the Andes and Amazon. The INCB is heavily influenced by the United States when making and suggesting policy. The 2007 recommendation reads:

Recommendation 7: The practice of chewing coca leaves continues in Bolivia and Peru. The countries in the region are suffering from the illicit manufacture of and trafficking in cocaine. The Board calls upon the Governments of Bolivia and Peru to initiate action without delay with a view to eliminating uses of coca leaf, including coca leaf chewing, that are contrary to the 1961 Convention. The Governments of those countries and Colombia should strengthen their efforts against the illicit manufacture of and trafficking in cocaine. The Board calls on the international community to provide assistance to those countries towards achieving those objectives.

Coca leaf divination

This recommendation has been widely criticized. Famed Amazonian ethnobotanist James Duke and pharmacologist Dennis McKenna, an expert on psychoactive substances, have condemned the proposed ban. The Transnational Institute, a group that studies drugs and conflict in the region, made the following statement: "The INCB, rather than making harsh judgements based on a selective choice of outdated treaty articles, should use its mandate more constructively and help draw attention to the inherent contradictions in the current treaty system with regard to how plants, plant-based raw materials and traditional uses are treated."

Some of the criticisms have been quite blunt. Pien Metaal, a researcher specializing in coca issues at the Transnational Institute, put it like this: “The Board is displaying both arrogance and blindness by demanding that countries impose criminal sanctions on distribution and possession for traditional uses of the coca leaf, which is a key feature of Andean-Amazon indigenous cultures. Isn’t it time for this UN treaty body to get in touch with reality and show some more cultural sensitivity?” And the International Drug Policy Consortium said, "The approach adopted in the report towards this complex and sensitive issue demonstrates a surprising ignorance and insensitivity not suitable for a UN body."

Congresswoman Hilaria Supa Huamán

Even more srikingly, legislators in Peru criticized the recommendation by defiantly chewing coca leaves on the congessional floor. Congresswoman Hilaria Supa Huamán — activist, active member of several indigenous women's organizations, and congressional representative for the Andean capital of Cusco — initiated the protest. "The coca leaf has existed for thousands and thousands of years," she said. "It's part of our agriculture, our food and our medicine. It's sacred." And she added: "The United Nations doesn't know our culture. It doesn't understand our values." Dozens of politicians took handfuls and chewed the leaf during what has been described as "a raucous session."

Jose Garcia Belaunde, the foreign relations minister of Peru, said that Peru's right to chew coca leaves is protected as an Andean tradition. Bolivian President Evo Morales, who rose to power as a leader of coca growers, has pushed to have coca removed from its current classification as a controlled substance.


  1. Great article Steve~

    I hope they are successful in holding onto their traditions. Cleary, the government does not understand the importance of this tradition in the Andean culture. I'm sure their take on it is to slow the incoming cocaine traffic into this country.
    Do you think that by making the coca leaves illegal this would cause a breakdown in the Andean culture and social fabric?
    Perhaps they should look at making the processing and export of this leaf illegal,because from what I understand the leaf itself is not highly's the processing that turns it into illegal cocaine.
    There are several ways around this...I hope they stick to their guns and push the UN to honor international indigenous rights.


  2. Arauco monien palei, marchimew!

    Kallalla cemanahuac-tewatnsinsuyo!

    Mama Coca, huel cualli, nican ca!

    Mama Coca, Maka pejuta waste!

    Since I am no ones pastor and none of my friends are running for office (yet). I am in no need to measure my words and in one of those rare occasions I am going to give it my best try to talk about ethno-euro-centrism and what I see as plain ignorance on this particular topic without losing my marbles.

    If the UN instead of showing its lack of understanding and sensitivity towards the nations that traditionally use coca leaves does some of the things that it was formed to do such as fight poverty, malnourishment, ignorace,marginalizing of children and women and protect nations that are being attacked by invading forces; It may restore some credibility in the eyes of many disappointed people all over the world.
    The UN and the INCB are openly showing how an international entity that is based on the respect to human values and virtues and is supposed to be the moral backbone for this planet is completely clueless about the spirituality and the nutritional value of the coca leave. Ironically the Mama Coca can be the solution to many of the problems this institution is trying to solve. The UN could have the coca leave be part of its efforts to eliminate hunger. Instead of feeding a whole bunch of people in places like Uganda, Ethiopia and Haiti with lab produced portions of fat an protein that send peoples bodies into shock, the pilchjar, mambear, drinking in tea or chewing of the coca leave could be employed as a way to relax, nurture an ready the body for more solid food and larger amount of fats and proteins. The excess of antioxidants and digestive enzymes would not hurt an starving metabolism either.
    An important component in all indigenous cultures is the one of sovereignty. The respect to the rights and beliefs of others equals peace. Wise words by the Tlatoani Benitotzin Juarez based in the Huey Tlatolli of the continent. I recommend that the UN looks into this.
    But, since I am openly upset, here is my decree:

    If we as native people have to leave the Mama Coca, then in the best retributive spirit; I call for European countries with membership on the UN and the non indigenous peoples in the US (European-Americans only) to call for a halt on consuming alcohol, and to stop using medicines that could be perceived as drugs that have been marketed and stolen from the American continent such as Cacao, Tobacco and Coffee. By the way I would also make a recommendation on the proper treatment and education of consumers of cocaine or any other manufactured substance in the states and Europe. I would like to recommend too, to make sure that people get the proper societal acknowledgement and emotional nurturing they need so they do not have to escape from their reality by using cocaine. Aho, Wastelo, Kallalla, Ometeotl, Amen!