REPORT / Mariann G. Wizard : ‘La Vida Coca’ in Bolivia and Peru / 2

Coca leaves, a standard small bag sold for personal use in Bolivia. From 10-40 hojas are used at once while working, walking, or otherwise exerting oneself at high altitudes. Habitual users enjoy coca three or four times a day. All photos by Mariann G. Wizard / The Rag Blog, unless otherwise credited.

La Vida Coca /2: 
Currents in traditional coca 
use in Bolivia and Peru

The overall effect of chewing leaves, drinking coca tea, or eating coca-containing foods can be described as both energizing and calming. Stress and anxiety are decreased, gastric disturbances eased, and the next hill isn’t quite so daunting.

By Mariann G. Wizard | The Rag Blog | May 15, 2013

Part two of three.

[Rag Blog Contributing Editor Mariann Wizard recently visited Peru and Bolivia with former fellow Ragstaffer Richard Lee. Wizard says the whole thing was Lee’s idea, although she did the heavy lifting of writing this report of their experiences, while lifting copiously from conversations they shared and short reports Richard wrote on the spot.]

It is estimated that 50% of Bolivia’s gross national product is related directly or indirectly to coca. The illegality of much of this crop, and its ineligibility for international trade, has significantly handicapped Bolivia’s economy and given it, along with Colombia, something of an “outlaw” reputation.

Rather than succumb as Colombia has at least temporarily done to U.S. demands for crop eradication, Bolivia now charts an independent path to international legitimacy and respect. Commodities production has given Bolivia a positive trade balance since 2004. Natural gas, silver, zinc, and soybeans account for 72% of total exports.

Main imports are machinery and transport equipment, chemicals and related products, and mineral fuels and lubricants. Main trading partners are Brazil (33% of total exports, 18% of imports), Argentina (12% of exports, 13% of imports), and United States (10% of exports and 11% of imports).[1]

A new Bolivian Vice Ministry of Coca and Internal Development was established in February 2009, in a reorganization of the executive branch. It is charged with developing employment opportunities, diversifying the economy, respecting traditional cultural values, and in general furthering Bolivian President Evo Morales’ overarching vision of “Living Well.”

It is expected to rationalize the processing of coca, maintain a climate of social peace, and mitigate and prevent conflicts under the new national policy of peacefully combating drug trafficking.[2]

One of the possible side effects of this policy is a striking lack of domestic militarization in Bolivia compared with most other Latin American nations we’ve visited in recent years. It’s like the dog that didn’t bark in the night, not obvious at first but increasingly pleasant over time.

It’s worth noting that women spearhead Morales’ administration. Strides in women’s liberation are seen everywhere. Ending domestic violence and the rule of “machismo” are serious concerns in Bolivia’s social revolution. Billboards and televised public service announcements proclaim, “Don’t Kill The One You Love.” Civilian gun ownership is banned.

While we were still in Bolivia, the campaign to have traditional coca use removed from the list of narcotics finally succeeded,[3] following a powerful appeal by Morales to UN delegates in Vienna.[4] Among the folks we talked with or saw responding in newscasts, this was met with firm approval. If Evo is leading a revolution, his constituents, at least in the altiplano, are keeping pace every step of the way.

Today, there is an emphasis on developing new products to “soak up” the excess coca that feeds illicit drug production, rumored to be concentrated in Brazil. Across the Amazon River, in one of the most difficult environments on the planet, one can envision secret jungle drug labs. But in the highlands, coca is part of a healthy, active lifestyle: “Living Well.”

Coca candies, cookies, “teas” (actually infusions; true tea is Camellia sinensis), energy bars, and more are available or in the works. Coca Colla™, an energy drink made with coca extract, was reportedly launched in April 2010, but we didn’t see it anywhere; we would surely have tried it. At least 35 coca product brands are operating.[5] A new publication, Il Jornada Nacional del Acullico, launched in 2012 to “reclaim” traditional coca mastication.[6]

Stevia (Stevia rebaudiana), an herb that produces the sweetest natural substances known to date, calorie-free steviosides, grows in Bolivia and is included in many products, in line with the government’s overall health-promotion and economic development programs. It’s commonly available in restaurants as an herb.

While coca “tea” is often made with whole leaves, there are also many chopped, bagged products from large and small manufacturers. When made of pure hojas, such teas may still be chewed as well as brewed for a stronger effect.
Coca teas, Larco Museum gift shop, Lima. Note the different flavors, including a coca-green tea combination. Some sources state that the term “maté” was adopted for coca teas to capitalize on the popularity of yerba maté (Ilex paraguariensis), but it is used in northwestern Bolivia for any mixed infusion. Matés commonly include tea, anise (Pimpinella anisum), cloves (Syzygium aromaticum), cinnamon (Cinnamonum verum), or other herbs or spices.
Energizing coca- and maca (Lepidum meyenii)-based candies, left, from airport gift shop, Lima. Coca-and-quinoa (Chenopodium quinoa) cookies, right, from Arcoiris Pasteleria on the plaza in Coroico, Nor Yungas, Bolivia.

Many medicinal and personal care products are made with coca, like these at Coroico’s Blue Pine Tienda, as entrepreneurs combine traditional lore and modern marketing to legitimize coca in world markets.

Ingacoca’s™ banner lists coca syrups for coughs, asthma, prostate support, rheumatism, acidic urine, liver support, stomach ulcers, gastritis, anemia, weight loss, mental acuity, poor appetite, diabetes, nerves, insomnia, kidneys, intestinal parasites, and high blood pressure; salves for rheumatism, varicose veins, bone support (coca is high in calcium), arthritis, gout, fungi, and hemorrhoids; and shampoo and skin creams.

What scientific support is there for the claimed benefits of coca leaf? Herbal medicine expert Andrew Weil says,

Coca appears to be a useful treatment for various gastrointestinal ailments, motion sickness, and laryngeal fatigue. It can be an adjunct in programs of weight reduction and physical fitness and may be a fast-acting antidepressant. It is of value in treating dependence on stronger stimulants.

Coca regulates carbohydrate metabolism in a unique way and may provide a new therapeutic approach to hypoglycemia and diabetes mellitus. With low-dose, chronic administration it appears to normalize body functions. In leaf form coca does not produce toxicity or dependence. Coca can be administered as a chewing gum or lozenge containing a whole extract of the leaf, including alkaloids, natural flavors, and nutrients.[7]

However, as with cannabis, coca’s illegality makes it difficult for research on these benefits, all with at least some evidence, to proceed. A search of the PubMed database for Erythroxylon brought up just 109 reports, many on plant pharmacology. Interestingly, several studies used little-known species, not those most cultivated, but having local traditional uses. Most found a chemical basis for the tradition. Some reports are historical; others are policy, cultural, or environmental studies.

There are epidemiological and clinical studies of coca’s effects in altitude sickness. (Results: it works and people use it without ill effects.) A study of effects of hojas on biochemical and physiological parameters found metabolic benefits with prolonged physical activity; that is, more fat is burned by users during exercise.[8]

We started seeing coca tea and/or hojas at the hotel breakfast (desayuno) buffet in Nazca, Peru, and at most hotels and hostels after that. Coca tea was on almost every restaurant menu. We learned later that coca is also readily available in Lima, where we had spent a week in ignorance. After all, at sea level, why would anyone have altitude sickness?

But the energizing qualities of coca can benefit tourists at any altitude: see more, do more, enjoy your trip more. While I was sick in Arequipa (everyone there blamed Nazca’s water!), hotel staff, doctor, and “Ricardo” all recommended coca. Poco a poco, it helped.

Desayuno buffet at Hotel Berlina, La Paz, with hojas de coca and coca tea. This hotel also had leaves and tea, and hot water, in the lobby at all times.

So, everybody asks, “What is it like to chew coca?” What many really want to know is, “What is it like compared to cocaine?

It’s different. It’s not nearly as strong as blow, no matter how much lejia (see below) you use or how many leaves you cram into your cheeks. Yes, there is an astringent flavor; yes, you can get a numbing effect in mouth and throat; yes, there are alkaloids in the leaves and you can test positive for cocaine if that’s a concern.

The overall effect of chewing leaves, drinking coca tea, or eating coca-containing foods can be described as both energizing and calming. Stress and anxiety are decreased, gastric disturbances eased, and the next hill (everything in Bolivia is uphill or downhill from where you are!) isn’t quite so daunting.

But, unlike the single alkaloid cocaine, use of whole leaf products doesn’t end in a sudden emotional or energy crash or turn nice people into a–holes. After a time, the effect gently fades away. Neither of us ever experienced sleeplessness, anxiety, or remorse while using hojas.

And of course there is no issue of addiction or compulsion. You can take it or leave it (unless, of course, you’re one of those people who can’t take or leave anything; in that case, well, hojas are a lot cheaper than refined “salt”).

The mild, balanced effects parallel those of other whole herbs versus single compounds. A classic example is cannabis flowers versus tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), their main psychoactive ingredient. Pharmaceutical medicines of THC alone can cause anxiety. Using whole cannabis for pain control, appetite stimulation, and other medical purposes causes fewer problems and gives patients more control.

And as it turns out, many “minor” ingredients of cannabis — cannabinoids and other compounds — also have benefits. The latest pharmaceutical versions of what Mother Nature provides are standardized cannabinoid blends.

A small piece of lejia (“lye”) made from stevia (above) or quinoa ash, burned limestone, or baking soda (“bico“), is often chewed with coca to free more alkaloids. This produces a stronger effect, including numbing the inside of the mouth, than hojas alone.

Our serious quest for knowledge began in La Paz, the capital of Bolivia, 13,323 feet above sea level. We visited the coca market, ADEPCOCA, just four blocks from the Villa Fatima terminal, where minibuses from coca-growing Nor Yungas province leave and arrive hourly.

Four stories (each about 100 x 80 m) of coca fill La Paz’ bustling ADEPCOCA market. This photo, made early on a Sunday, shows little of the traffic that normally congests this intersection, so that more of the building can be seen. The structure covers a full block. The sign on the front says “COCA ES VIDA“; coca is life.
Bags of prime hojas with the ADEPCOCA logo ready for delivery to hotels, markets, and other outlets. Taxis often carry several bags at a time along with passengers, piling bags in cargo compartments and atop vehicles.
While most traditional women and older men in the market didn’t wish to be photographed, this young man with iPod had no qualms and happily posed. Many hundreds of bags like his are bought and sold daily at ADEPCOCA.

Between La Paz and Coroico, along what was once “the most dangerous road in the world,” cocal, as coca is called in the field, begins to be seen. The closer we came to one of Bolivia’s prime coca centers[9] (like our driver and some fellow passengers, chewing hojas all the way!), the more we saw the well-tended crop on steep hills framed by snowy peaks, rushing waterfalls, and infinite shades of green.

A cocal field near the road. Maintaining agricultural terraces or gradas under frequently torrential rains is an ongoing task of Andean coca growers. Photo by Richard Lee / The Rag Blog.

NEXT: Cocal up close and personal; everything else; our “Where’s Waldo?” moment.

[Rag Blog Contributing Editor Mariann G. Wizard, a Sixties radical activist and contributor to The Rag, Austin’s underground newspaper from the 60s and 70s, is a poet, a professional science writer specializing in natural health therapies, and a regular contributor to The Rag Blog. Read more poetry and articles by Mariann G. Wizard on The Rag Blog.]

[1]Trading ]
[3]Neuman W. Bolivia: Morales wins victory as U.N. agrees to define some coca use as legal. New York Times. Jan. 11, 2013. 
[4]Cusicanqui JJ. Morales buscar a retirar la coca de la lista de estupefacientes. La Razón. Mar. 12, 2013, p. A4. 
[5]Medrano E. Temen desvío de la industria de la hoja. La Razón. Mar. 12, 2013, p. A4. 
[6]Cusicanqui JJ. Morales buscar a retirar la coca de la lista de estupefacientes. Sidebar: Il Jornada del Acullico. La Razón. Mar. 12, 2013, p. A4. 
[7]Weil AT. The therapeutic value of coca in contemporary medicine. J Ethnopharmacol. 1981 Mar-May;3(2-3):367-76. 
[8]Casikar V, Mujica E, Mongelli M, et. al. Does chewing coca leaves influence physiology at high altitude? Indian J Clin Biochem. July, 2010;25(3):311-4. doi: 10.1007/s12291-010-0059-1. 
[9]The other is Chaparé.

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1 Response to REPORT / Mariann G. Wizard : ‘La Vida Coca’ in Bolivia and Peru / 2

  1. Anonymous says:

    Really good story – very informative and great fun to read.

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