Coca and Andean Culture - The New Dangers of an Old Debate


The fifth to the sixth of July 1985 saw the coming together of Peruvian and Bolivian scholars in the highland city of Cuzco, Peru to discuss the cultural importance as well as the current problems regarding the use of the coca leaf in Andean society. This Conference of the Coca Leaf, sponsored by the Organization of American States and the Inter-American Indian Institute,(1) was timely, and noteworthy for the variety of perspectives which it brought together.

Uniting against the cultural discrimination promulgated by many people at the national and international levels who want to eradicate coca cultivation, these anthropologists, sociologists, physicians and Quechualogists, representing major universities of Lima and Cuzco, Peru and La Paz, Bolivia, presented cogent and well-documented testimony on different aspects of coca. Their presentations provided an integral picture of the history, problems, cultural value and uses of the coca leaf, as well as current misperceptions about coca. Most notable and distressing are the eradication programs, and much of the current discussion on the topic, which have failed to distinguish between the different chemical contents of coca and cocaine, between cultivation for licit consumption of the leaf and cultivation for illicit processing of the leaf into cocaine, and between the different cultural uses and physical effects of the two. This lack of understanding, in turn, reflects a more general problem - the widespread ignorance about, and disregard for, Andean society and culture as a whole.

Debate Four Centuries Old

In the presentations by Juan Ossio, Alejandro Ortiz and Fernando Cavieses it was revealed that the current debate between those who advise eradication and those who defend the native use of coca is in fact an extension of a debate that has raged for over four centuries. As early as 1567, Matienzo wrote, "An old and much debated question between the inhabitantes of this Kingdom, priests and neighbors alike, is whether there should be coca or not..."(2) A recent article by Masuda (1984), which lists and summarizes references to coca in chronicles of the 16th and 17th centuries, reveals just how extensive this debate was. Most chroniclers agree that in the Inca state before the Spanish arrived, production and distribution of coca, which was reserved for the Inca and provincial nobility, served to consolidate alliances and to celebrate royal religious ceremonies. According to some, however, coca was given to warriors and to state colonists. It was even available to the common man on certain ritual occasions such as marriages and the construction of houses (Murua, 1618, in Masuda). Indeed, much evidence suggests that though the Inca controlled production, commoners enjoyed a certain access to the leaf.(3)

Whatever the case, coca production increased forty to fifty-fold after the Spanish conquest and its use became much more generalized. Now transformed into a market item, and even more accessible to commoners, demand for the leaf increased greatly, and coca trade became one of the most lucrative businesses in the New World. As before, the new exploiters monopolized coca production and distribution; already in 1567, there were between 1,500 and 2,000 Spaniards making their livelihood selling the leaves to the Indians(4), and "...the major part of the money that has gone from Peru to Spain, has been from what the Indians have paid for this leaf".

Some of those who called for eradication pointed to its widespread use in "idolatrous" ceremonies: "Few are the sacrifices made in which coca does not enter" (Murua). Indeed, coca was (and is) one of the principal ceremonial items used in ritual offerings to the deities, for divination purposes, for protection against spirits, in the cleaning of irrigation canals, for most agricultural rites, and in times of drought or other natural disasters. Chuspas (small woven coca bags) and lliptis (small/hollowed out gourds that contain lime, which is mixed with the coca) were (and are) part of the widespread ritual paraphernalia of coca use.(5) Many thought that eradicating the coca would be the most effective measure to expunge the native religion and convert the Indians into good Christians: "Coca is a plant that the devil himself invented for the total destruction of the natives". Its use in sacrifices and as a fetish in "heathen" rites resulted in its being condemned at the first ecclesiastical council of Lima in 1551.

Those who supported coca cultivation pointed out that many other plants and animals as well as cloth, gold and silver were ritual objects and commonly sacrificed as well. Should these be done away with, too? Matienzo argued that coca should not be eradicated " any means, because if God allowed it to grow in this land more than any other, it must be necessary for the natives as God does not create something without reason...Indians are naturally lazy, cowardly, and cold...coca is hot and humid...and takes away part of the natural laziness and slowness which they possess, and gives them energy and power to work better...for your Majesty". Coca caused the Indians to "...not feel hunger or thirst, rather greater energy and vigor", and indeed, Matienzo saw coca as essential to the Peruvian economy; " do away with coca is to do away with Peru...".

Others in favor of eradication emphasized the suffering and deaths of the Indians forced by many Spaniards to cultivate the coca in the hot and humid, disease-ridden, lowlands as well as the supposedly detrimental effects of the leaf ("the worst or all plants and the most damaging to the Indians", wrote one chronicler). Defending coca, Garcilaso and Matienzo described its medicinal uses for many types of sickness, in healing broken bones and for preserving teeth. According to those who advocate eradication, this was all superstition; the devil had also convinced the Indians that coca took away hunger and thirst.

It is unquestionable that the Spaniards exploited and profited greatly from the indigenous use of coca; though the lightly narcotic effects of coca came to provide a certain relief from the strains of their miserable colonial existence, many thousands of Indians died in its forced cultivation. Nevertheless, it is also equally unquestionable that coca had increased in its capacity as a cultural symbol, now a symbol of Indianness and of Andean culture, and one central to their religious, social and economic life. Though Matienzo was ultimately concerned with the good of the colonial economy, and though not much less biased regarding "Indian nature" than his contemporaries, his opposition to eradication of coca also professed a certain concern and understanding for the native culture; this is evidenced by the 48 laws concerning coca that he suggested to the King of Spain. These laws sought to limit coca cultivation to the existing fields as well as limit the degree of exploitation the Indians suffered in the process, without depriving them of the culturally valued leaf. Indeed, Matienzo sounds fairly understanding when he says, "If we are surprised to see them carrying in their mouths such a crude and unsavory substance...they, too, are surprised to see the eating of garlic, olives, and radishes...trying them, they spit them out..."

Coca Confused with Cocaine

Coca was not eradicated and continued in importance throughout the colonial and republican periods. During the 19th century, the "black legend" was revived. Some people, such as Poepping, claimed that coca was responsible for the degeneration of the "Andean race." Others, such as Tschudi, Humboldt and Markham, spoke favorably of the plant. With the isolation of the alkaloid that made the processing of cocaine possible in the second half of the 19th century, and with the subsequent acceptance and later rejection of cocaine as a "miracle drug" by the European scientific community,(6) the nefarious chemical properties of cocaine came to be equated and confused with those of the coca leaf.

Cavieses, physician, world-renowned authority and longtime defender of native uses of the coca leaf, has studied the chemical properties of coca and cocaine for the past 40 years. He argues that the coca leaf, when chewed in quantity, is a mild narcotic, and relieves hunger, thirst and fatigue. He likened these effects to those produced by coffee, tea or tobacco. However, as many experiments have proven, it in no way produces the euphoria, anxiety, depression or addiction that is experienced by cocaine users. He noted that cocaine is just one of more than a dozen alkaloids found in the leaf, and that extraction and purification of it results in a qualitatively different substance, which like the distinctive methods by which it is introduced into the body, produces different physiological consequences. It is, as he put it, " if instead of smoking or chewing tobacco, we refined and injected it..." He also remarked on the high protein content of the coca leaf, and the medicinal benefits of mate de coca (coca tea) as well as it use by thousands of tourists, national and international, who each year visit the Andean highlands.

Due to misunderstandings about the effects of the coca leaf, some indianists who see coca as a legacy, and one of the principal means of colonial exploitation, the supposedly detrimental effects of coca confirm their views: coca is a colonial rather than an Andean phenomenon. This, in turn, justifies the eradication of coca. Other indianists see the coca ancient, primary cultural symbol that is an integral part of Andean society; they defend the Andean world view, however "false," or influenced by colonial events, it may be.

Coca a Cultural Symbol

The expositions of Oscar Nuñez del Prado, Percy Paz and Mauricio Mamani at the Conference of the Coca Leaf were especially effective in illustrating this world view and the continued importance of coca in contemporary Andean society. Native to the Andes, fluent in Andean languages and possessing broad ethnographic experience, these highland anthropologists spoke vividly of the varied traditional uses of the "sacred leaf." In most of the more than 3,100 officially recognized Andean peasant communities in Peru, the traditional uses of coca are integral to daily agricultural activities, to the different forms of mutual aid labor and to almost all ritual activity, whether with agriculture, divination practices or those rites that mark different stages in the life cycle. Indeed, the newborn child is brought into the world with the help of coca; to insure strength and rapid recovery its placenta is burnt with the leaf. When the child is "socially born," at the time of his or her ritual haircutting, coca is again a conspicuous element in terms of the child's continued health and in terms of god-parenthood. At a young age (five or six years), instruction in the chaccha or pikcha, the proper and culturally prescribed way of masticating coca, is begun, though the male child will not actually begin chewing until he achieves adult status, and in the case of the female, until after marriage. In the marriage ceremony, coca protects the couple and ensures their fertility. At death, and in those ceremonies in which the dead are remembered, chewing and offering coca is again necessary.

The dual nature of the cosmos, society and man is reflected in the physical structure of the leaf itself, and certain types of leaf are distinguished as possessing more ritual power and efficacy than others. The similarity of these practices with those described in the 16th century also attests to a great cultural continuity. In "payments" to the earth, in the blessing of the herds and the crops, in the cleaning of irrigation canals, in healing and divination practices, as a protector of amulents, and even in the navigation of boats in Lake Titicaca, coca is an essential element. Because of its protective, curative, spiritual and sacred qualities, and because coca continues to possess efficacious power even after the boleo or "chew," the masticated leaves are not discarded haphazardly. Buried in one's field or corral or placed in a certain part of one's house, the leaf again assures fertility, security and well-being.

Coca is also a basic part of mutual aid labor (ayni, minka, and faena - exchange, festive and communal labor). In the festive construction of a house or in rotating agricultural exchange labor, the beneficiary of the labor (the house or plot owner) must provide, among other things, coca. In communal labor projects, it is the community, through its authorities, which must supply the leaf to the workers. Indeed, in some communities such as those of Huarochiri, communal authorities publicly chastise workers who neglect to bring the appropriate paraphernalia, the chuspa and llipti, to the restive or communal work projects. According to Paz, Mamani and Nuñez del Prado, as the leaf becomes more and more restricted, participation in these different forms of work reciprocity has declined considerably. But coca, which many consider the "ethos" of Andean culture, is an informally ritualized form of social contact and an essential element of etiquette, not just as concerns work, but at all levels of Andean reciprocity. As one of Paz's informants expressed, " coca is dialogue, achieves everything..."

Mamani, native to a Bolivian Aymara-speaking community, and with considerable anthropological experience in many others, noted that coca shares a similarly central place in Aymara society and culture, attesting to the pan-Andean importance of the plant. Both Mamani and Paz decried the negative effects certain legislation is having on indigenous people. The appropriation of coca for domestic consumption by police and civil guards, and the subsequent reselling by these officials, is just one instance of abuse. Restriction of kerosene in some areas, widely used for cooking (and unfortunately also to process the leaves into cocaine), also has obviously adverse effects on the local populace and environment.

Eradication Threatens Cultural Identity

The previous emphasis on the cultural importance of coca to the Andean people does not ignore the fact that the production and trafficking of cocaine is a very real problem. However, it suggests that a solution must take into account and respect the traditional Andean uses of coca, which in no way are responsible for, or should be equated with, the international problem of cocaine use. Since the Conference of the Coca Leaf, the new President of Peru, Alan Garcia, has made courageous efforts (against many odds) to stop the production and export of cocaine; "Operation Condor" has already resulted in the capture of many clandestine airports and factories in the Amazon region (where much of the large-scale cocaine production takes place), as well as the arrest of previous government officials connected with drug trafficking. It is ironic that in spite of these efforts (and in light of its relatively lenient posture toward the more subservient, yet less effectual, previous Peruvian government), the Reagan Administration has threatened to cut off all aid to Peru if coca crops are not substituted, without, in the words of one Peruvian magazine, "...taking into account the economic and social situation of the peasants of the region" (Caretas, 9/85). As President Garcia recently expressed in an address to the United Nations, the problem is largely created in, and must also to a large degree be resolved by, the United States, where the demand originates.

The scholars who took part in the Conference of the Coca Leaf, representing the Andean peoples in the latest stage of the centuries-old debate, underlined the new and dangerous factors which threaten the traditional uses of the coca leaf. In effect, a solution must be elaborated which will not destroy what is, as we have seen, a cultural symbol, used by millions of Andean peasants for a variety of secular and religious purposes. If Europeans and Americans have in the last couple of centuries become accustomed to having tea and coffee at home and at work, Andean peoples have had millennia to develop etiquette and a "taste for" the coca leaf. Yet, as should be apparent, the traditional uses of coca represent more than just a "coffee break." Possessing great ritual, social and medical value, and associated with agricultural work, with reciprocity between people as well as between mankind and supernatural forces, coca pervades all aspects of Andean life. Eradicating coca would not only uproot indigenous economic, religious, political and medical systems, but remove a principal feature of cultural identity as well. The international politics of the cocaine trade must not be used as yet another excuse for inflicting abuse and cultural oppression against the "Andean majority." As one Andean peasant expressed to Paz, " is as if they were to take away our shoes..."

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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