The coca leaf, national identity, and the struggle to protect it

The Fight for the Coca Leaf

From: The Sydney Globalist
Alexandra Dzero explores the history and changing role of the coca leaf.

The coca leaf - small, dark green and relatively unremarkable - would probably not be noticed by an untrained eye. Tourists arriving in La Paz eagerly take photos of Indigenous women selling the plant, while bewildered locals look on. As you chew the coca leaf your mouth numbs, your headache clears and breathing becomes easier at the extreme altitude. Apart from these humble side effects, the leaf is used for another purpose: as the base ingredient in the manufacture of cocaine. It is this fact that has caused an international legal, political and economic war for over 48 years.

The Andean people have been chewing the coca leaf for centuries, with British anthropologist Alison Spedding revealing traces of the leaf amongst ancient Peruvian storehouses dating back to 1,000 BC. After their first introduction to coca, tourists realise that it will take a lot more for the effects of the leaf to turn into those of its more infamous by-product. 72 chemicals and extensive processes are needed to turn the green coca leaf into a white powder, and tourists’ initial excitement soon wanes as they realise how normal and everyday the presence of the coca leaf is to the Bolivians.

However, the coca leaf has come onto the international stage once more. It is wedged between U.S.-backed arguments that all traditional practices should be banned and the calls of the new Bolivian President, Evo Morales, for the leaf to be returned to its rightful position as a traditional plant that has been used not only for its physical benefits, but also as a symbol of Indigenous life.

In 1961, the UN adopted the Convention on Drug Control, officially defining the coca leaf as a drug in the same category as cocaine, and instructing that the chewing of the coca leaf should be abolished within 25 years of a signatory signing the Convention. Bolivia signed the Convention in 1976, but although the deadline for abolition expired in 2001, the coca leaf remains as prominent as ever in Bolivian culture.

In general, Bolivia saw few of the consequences of signing the 1961 Convention until the 1980s. In 1988, the UN adopted the Convention against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances to reinforce both the 1961 Convention, and the 1971 Convention on Psychotropic Substances. On July 19, 1988, Bolivia passed the infamous Law 1008, which promoted voluntary coca crop eradication and the enforcement of a national legal limit of 12,000 hectares of coca crop for traditional use. These 12,000 hectares were to be restricted to the Los Yungas region and all other crops, including those of the traditional Chapare region, were to be destroyed.

“As you chew the coca leaf your mouth numbs, your headache clears and breathing becomes easier at the extreme altitude.”

Current estimates place the size of the Bolivian coca leaf crop anywhere between 22,000 and 25,000 hectares. Therefore, any excess of the 12,000 mark is open to U.S.-backed eradication programs, most often conducted by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA).

Tensions between Bolivia and the U.S. have escalated since the 2005 election of the outspoken Indigenous President Evo Morales, who has staunchly opposed increased U.S. pressure to begin expanding coca eradication. In early March 2009, the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) released a report stating that to “allow the cultivation and consumption of the coca leaf … in particular coca leaf chewing … is contrary to the provisions of the 1961 Convention on Drug Control”. In the same month, Morales attended the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs, where he attempted to convince the UN to remove the coca leaf from the narcotics list and to reintroduce it as a legal plant.

The argument Morales presented to the Commission was that the drug classification was a “mistake” and that it is time “for the international community to reverse its misguided policy toward the coca leaf”. This argument is rooted in the belief that the coca leaf is an integral part of Bolivian culture and identity, and that its eradication, based on what are perceived to be U.S. interests, is a form of Western neo-imperialism.

The unwillingness of the U.S. to soften its hardline approach is not aiding the problem in any way. The attitude that “there is no other use for coca but cocaine” and that the properties of the coca leaf are in fact dangerous is pervasive within their proposed strategy.

In the 1990s, the World Health Organisation presented a report stating the coca leaf did not present any foreseeable health problems. In 2006, it released a further report, which identified the ability of the coca leaf to suppress appetite and increase endurance, as well as recognising the leaf’s historic use “for the relief of gastrointestinal problems and respiratory ailments and treatment of altitude sickness”. According to a 1975 Harvard study, the leaf is rich in phosphorous, calcium, riboflavin, vitamins, and iron.

“The coca leaf is an invaluable and integral part of Bolivian life. U.S. attempts to eradicate it represent a narrow-minded assault on traditional Bolivian life.”

By invoking the criminalised status of the coca leaf, the U.S.-backed ‘War on Drugs’ has been able to continue its operations for eradication within Bolivia. The well-funded project is largely based on the false notion that it is possible to solve U.S. domestic narcotic issues by stemming international supply.

By pretending to shrug off Morales’ dismissal of DEA officials and expulsion of U.S. ambassadors from Bolivia, the U.S. has found itself between a rock and a hard place. Refusing to pull out of a process that has already cost it so much, the U.S. is now left fighting a determined and popular leader who, with his famous statement “Coca Si, Cocaina No”, has risen on a wave of cocalero support from the very section of the population that the U.S. is attempting to influence.

The election of Morales as head of both the Coca Growers Union and the Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) party reflects the Bolivians’ desire for a strong nationalistic leader who will rectify Bolivia’s long-standing lack of international confidence. Since being elected, Morales has taken a firm and confident stance against U.S. intervention. Ignoring U.S. requests, he has expanded policies regarding coca growth, allowing an extension to 1,600 square metres, otherwise known as a cato, of coca leaf cultivation per family. U.S. intervention in Bolivia’s domestic affairs has become highly unwelcome, with the coca leaf, as an integral aspect of Bolivian cultural identity, being used as the rally call.

Coca leaf eradication programmes, as well as the overarching ‘War on Drugs’, have generally been considered a failure and the U.S. has not been able to offer any new or flexible alternatives. Cocaine is still widely available within the U.S. and its price has fallen significantly over the past two decades. The U.S. strategy will continue to fail until it recognises the basic economic rule that demand will inevitably create its own supply. Attempting to prohibit the coca leaf has only further financed organised crime, both in Bolivia and the U.S.

Isolated and impoverished peasants looking to sell their excess crops will attempt to sell it to the highest bidder, which in most cases will take the form of the ‘narco-trafficker’. High demand for cocaine thus leads to greater profits for peasants, whose only other option is to destroy their excess crop and forsake much-needed money.

The question is not only one of economics. Why should Bolivian coca growers change what they have been growing for centuries in order to appease another state? In essence, the U.S. is holding Bolivia, as well as Peru and Columbia, responsible for its domestic problems of drug abuse.

The double standards of the situation are harshly illuminated when the scenario is inverted. If Bolivia were battling national alcoholism, would the U.S. ever stand to be told to stop producing the barley that goes into the manufacture of alcohol? The situation is further exacerbated by the U.S. Government’s allowance of the Coca-Cola Company to import the coca leaf to flavour its famous soft drink. A member of the constituent assembly, Sabino Mendoza, asked the simple question: “Why they don’t also ban Coca-Cola? If they think coca is poisoning their people, why they don’t also ban alcohol and tobacco?”

The solution may be in line with what Morales and others are suggesting. The coca leaf market should be expanded rather than contracted by diverging into markets where the coca leaf can be used in toothpaste, confectionary, teas, and drinks. Allowing a greater legal base of demand will soak up excess supply and allow fewer coca leaves to fall into the wrong hands. Such projects have already been successfully implemented in Peru, where the state company Enaco has begun exporting coca teas to South Africa and supplying coca as an anaesthetic to Japan and Belgium.

Dogmatically pursuing the hardline will not win the U.S. the results for which it is searching. The coca leaf is an invaluable and integral part of Bolivian life. U.S. attempts to eradicate it represent a narrow-minded assault on traditional Bolivian life. A new, more flexible and more pragmatic solution is required and it may be time to turn an ear to those straining to be heard. It might just be time to embrace the coca leaf instead of persisting in the fruitless war to destroy it.
Alexandra Dzero is in her second year of a Bachelor of International and Global Studies, majoring in Political Economy and Government and International Relations.

Sydney Globalist: The Fight for the Coca Leaf
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