How can one plant be simultaneously so reviled and revered? As the source of cocaine, coca has been roundly condemned and threatened with total obliteration. News accounts involving coca often frame the issue in terms of narco-trafficking and law enforcement, or lament the billions of dollars spent to eradicate the plant in a futile effort to curb cocaine use.
Yet in Andean cities like Cuzco and La Paz, even tourists casually sip coca tea to ease their transition from sea level to high altitude. Some also chew coca leaves, widely available in small plastic bags, or slip coca tea bags into their suitcases for the trip home.
And lately coca leaves have been appearing in a different guise: as a favored accessory of Evo Morales, certainly Bolivia's most celebrated cocalero (coca farmer), as well as the country's first indigenous president. Morales frequently appears at public ceremonies wearing a garland of green coca leaves draped lei-like about his neck.
So polarized are the conflicting views of coca that they defy reconciliation: on the one hand a vilified substance, the bane of civilization; and on the other an innocuous natural plant, venerated by those who are closest to it.
Anthropologists tell us that the latter image--that of a benign plant with ritual uses as well as medicinal and nutritional benefits--predates by millennia coca's association with cocaine and the view of coca as a scourge to be eradicated.
There are actually numerous species and varieties of coca's genus, Erythroxylum, many of which grow wild in Central and South America. Of those that can yield cocaine, the amount of cocaine alkaloid in a leaf tends to be minuscule, typically less than 1 percent. Anthropologist Lynn Sekkink of California State University, San Jose, points out that there are fourteen different alkaloids in coca, only one of which is cocaine. Some of the other alkaloids, she says, produce the slight numbness in the mouth and the boost in energy that coca-chewers experience. The coca leaf also contains several vitamins and minerals.
Long before colonial times, even before the reign of the Inca, the ancestors of the Quechua and Aymara people chewed coca as a mild stimulant and a hedge against illness. (In coqueo, or coca-chewing, the chewer doesn't swallow the leaves, but merely extracts the juices.) As early as 2000 B.C.E., coca leaves circulated among the natives of Huaca Prieta, along what is now the northern coast of Peru. Other pre-Columbian cultures likewise left evidence of their use of coca throughout the Andean region, sometimes in the form of human figures sculpted with bulging cheeks or coca pouches worn round the neck.
In fact, traces of coca at ancient high-altitude complexes have been cited as evidence of trade between the people of the Andean altiplano and the coca growers at lower altitudes. Sekkink says that coca gradually got traded up from the Amazon basin, where it is still in use. "But the Andean people really embraced it," she adds.
They still do. Mate de coca, a legal infusion in Bolivia, rivals coffee and tea as a popular drink. In addition, "there's a whole litany of uses in traditional medicine and pharmaceuticals," says Sekkink, citing coca's effectiveness against digestive disorders, headache, and altitude sickness.
Carmen de Londono, whose family members hail from Peru and Bolivia, swears by an aromatic blend of coca, anis, and chamomile known as trimate. "It's very good if you have an upset stomach," she says, to the enthusiastic agreement of her mother, Rosario, and teenage son, Martin.
Coca grows mainly on the eastern slopes of the Andes, at elevations up to about six thousand feet. Growers typically harvest three crops per year. The plant has been cultivated as far north as the Caribbean, and south into Argentina and Chile. In 1499 the Dominican missionary Tomas Ortiz reported coca plantations along the coast of Venezuela. …