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3 IMPORTANT FACTS ABOUT THE COCA LEAF: BACKGROUND, PROPERTIES & STIGMAS

3 IMPORTANT FACTS ABOUT THE COCA LEAF: BACKGROUND, PROPERTIES & STIGMAS

Learn more about the Coca Leaf and its usage in this blog by Natourandes.

The coca leaf is an ancient plant that was used in pre-Incan and Incan times, dating back to 2 000 BC approximately.

It can be harvested between 4800 to 6400 FASL. and was considered a mystical plant. However, this “divine plant of the Incas” was not valued by the European colonialists and men of science who arrived in America.

For this opportunity, Natourandes will share information with you about this controversial plant, the phenomenon that has caused intrigue its usage and the scientific research that validates or not the thoughts that this plant has caused over the centuries from its beginning in the Andes to the modern era.

Coca Leaf
A Coca Leaf

Background

The leaf of the coca plant has 5000 years of history. Archaeological evidence shows that the coca leaf was already being utilized by nomadic communities after the post-glacial period. Cultures that have used coca crossed all of America from Central America and this can be still appreciated in modern Andean cities or towns.

In reality, the entire indigenous Latin American world has chewed coca – it is very strange to find an indigenous culture in Latin America that has not chewed coca. The coca leaf has been sacred in all these cultures. Mamakuka, as it was called by the Aymara and Quechua peoples, was cherished. There is not a single chronicler who did not mention the use of the coca leaf when the Spaniards arrived. One chronicler said “All these Indians chew an herb in their mouths that makes them look as ugly as mules.”

The coca leaf always held great importance as a religious symbol within Andean spirituality, which is why the Inquisition, during its extirpation of idolatries, prohibited the coca leaf. But when the rich Cerro Rico de Potosí (at that time the most important silver vein in the world) was discovered, they needed maximum work performance from the indigenous people. It was then that they realized that an indigenous person could work up to 48 hours of very hard labor while chewing coca. So Felipe II declared that the coca leaf was beneficial for the Indians and indispensable. The church began to collect tithes (taxes) and the Spaniards took over the coca trade. After the silver of Potosí, the largest trade during the entire colonial period was that of coca.

Three Coca leaves are joined manually and disposed as in the photo above to pay homage to the "Apus" or mountains, which are considered as regional guardians that protect visitors during their visit in their dominions.
Three Coca leaves are joined manually and disposed as in the photo above to pay homage to the “Apus” or mountains, which are considered as regional guardians that protect visitors during their visit in the Andes. While gathered like this, the coca leaves are called “kintu”.

In the 1980s, a census on coca use in Peru showed that 92% of indigenous Andean communities chew coca. Until that point, coca was only associated with its use for hard labor – that was the colonial belief.

During colonial times, the sacred became profane. The sacred sense of the coca leaf, which was used in social, ritual, and spiritual contexts, became distorted and used to endure slavery and exploitation. This persists today. High rates of coca use in the Andes are for work. But elders also chew coca. Why? The Andean indigenous notion of death is very close to the Tibetan concept – after dying, there is a long path to traverse. Since coca has knowledge of death, coca acts as a guide on that path. As coca understands the future and death, it is considered sacred.

Properties

The most serious scientific studies regarding chewing coca were done by Harvard University (had to say Harvard University to be taken seriously, because several studies conducted by universities in the many countries that share the Andes were done before and the scientific world just dismissed them).

The coca leaf is one of the best foods in the world. There is no plant that has as many proteins, vitamins and minerals as the coca leaf.

The coca leaf has more calcium than milk and eggs, more protein than meat, vitamin A and many other vitamins. Many researchers are just now understanding why the indigenous people cherish the coca leaf so much.

No stimulant provides energy, what they do is expend all the energy we have and then we end up tired, without energy. This is why stimulants are draining in the long run, whereas the coca leaf is not draining.

The coca leaf has 13 alkaloids and only one of them is cocaine. The portion of cocaine contained in each leaf is 0.001% which is really very little. Despite the coca leaf being a very strong stimulant, it is balanced out by also being a very nutritious food that provides energy, nourishment and oxygen.

The effect of chewing allows greater oxygen absorption in the brain, regulates blood sugar, prevents thrombosis, is ideal for high altitudes, etc.

Coca is also consumed as a hot beverage, this is recommended to people that isn't accustomed to chewing the plant.

Adaptation to the environment and reduced fatigue

The relationship between coca and altitude is direct, not only because this plant only grows at high altitudes, but also because it produces adaptation to altitude and may be indicated in the treatment of altitude sickness.

Anthropological observations show that in places with low oxygen percentages like the Andean highlands, chewing coca leaf provides a benefit by aiding adaptation to the environment. Even the updated WMS (Wilderness Medicine Society) guidelines include coca in the section on other options for treating and preventing acute altitude-related conditions, including prevention of high altitude cerebral edema.

This report recognizes the common recommendation from tourism agencies that operate in the Andean region, so coca leaf is frequently used by hikers (more commonly for strenuous hiking tours, such as the classic Inca Trail tour or the Salkantay Trek).

It is postulated that the coca leaf acts on two levels – initially increasing heart rate during submaximal effort and subsequently prolonging endurance for physical exercise. In this way, using coca leaf increases work time and decreases the feeling of fatigue. Other studies suggest it reduces muscle fatigue produced by extreme exercise.

Stigmatization

These are two of the stories that can be told around the coca leaf – that of a sacred tree for ancestral peoples, and that of leaves of blood for other cultures.

The coca plant (Erythroxylum coca) is a mystical tree in indigenous cultures from time immemorial. Its cultivation occurs essentially for use in spiritual rituals, planting it around a “Kankurwa” which is a sacred house or in places of great energetic charge where offerings are made. Likewise, it is grown for medicinal purposes thanks to its ample properties, and for the poporo ritual – that is, it is cultivated for consumption. The above defines and defends its sacred character.

The process of cultivation and sowing carries an ancient knowledge that has been transmitted for generations. For some it may seem simple to place a seed in the earth, but beyond that, each action is stipulated by the spiritual order. First a ritual of gratitude to Mother Earth at the moment of sowing, and another for the harvest, permanent care before dawn, and its collection done by the working hands of the women, to be toasted on sacred stones.

The consumption of cocaine causes 5,500 deaths each year in the United States alone, and thousands more wherever it is found and trafficked. The raw material for cocaine production is the coca leaf, a plant mainly cultivated in the Andean and Amazonian regions of Bolivia, Peru and Colombia, which is illegally trafficked worldwide by criminal organizations called cartels.

However, the coca leaf itself is not a harmful plant and is used by Andean peoples as a remedy for its potent healing qualities. Unlike marijuana, hallucinogenic mushrooms and ayahuasca – all natural drugs that have been evaluated in research labs – the coca leaf has been excluded from this possibility due to being the input for cocaine.

The exclusion of the coca leaf from all research lab studies should be surprising if one considers that the regulatory entities in charge of establishing drug policies carry out exhaustive and rigorous work, sometimes more than necessary.

Cocaine is one of the main protagonists in the drug war narrative.
Cocaine is one of the main protagonists in the drug war narrative.

The number of investigations aimed at thoroughly studying the particularities of the coca leaf has been heavily restricted since 1951 when the United Nations issued the Economic and Social Council report. This report is riddled with inaccuracies and biased information that would not be well-received today. “The report basically indicates that the Indians (referring to Andean natives) are lazy and that coca inhibits their digestive capacity,” an opinion he believes the document should be revised as it does not reflect reality.

In 1975, a team of Harvard researchers published a previously mentioned study demonstrating that the coca leaf is a rich source of mineral nutrients and essential oils. No further research was conducted after this was published due to the regulations imposed by the UN decree.

Since 2009, Bolivian President Evo Morales has led a campaign to remove the coca leaf from the list of internationally prohibited drugs, defending its cultural significance for Andean communities.

Conclusion

While the plant may still be controversial for the diverse narratives that we have shared in this article, it’s fair to say that the whole paradigm shouldn’t be judged based on only one aspect.

The coca comes as a useful resource to control altitude sickness, as for tourism this plant has helped many visitors to overcome a rough start while touring the Andes.

Contact us today for a thorough guide in Peru and more of these tips that will ensure you an unforgettable time in the Andes.