Evo Morales and the coca leaf

Last week the president of Bolivia Evo Morales chewed coca leaves at the UN drug summit in Vienna. “This is chewing”, he said defiantly. “It doesn’t hurt anyone. Ingesting it  does not make me a drug addict. If it were so, Mr. Costa (the top U.N. counter-narcotics official) would have to arrest me".

His attitude surprised to the international media. But it is only natural that Evo would do so. Decriminalizing the coca plant has always been one of his main goals.

In 2004, I was sent to Bolivia to inteview Morales when he was still a coca producer. Back then, the erradication policy – backed and financed by the US – was so unpopular that he quickly became a popular opposition leader. As he spoke to me, he showed no doubt that he’d be elected one day.

"When I’m the president", he said, "our coca will be respected, because it is sacred for us. How come a single plant can be ‘demonized’ instead of the drug dealers that turn it into cocaine?" He repeatedly vowed to try to change that. After all, he said, coca has always been seen as a plant that can heal, provide energy, vitamins and nutrients at the same time it relieves hunger and altitude sickness.

Five years later, at the UN convention, he was nothing but fulfilling his promise. That’s why he was elected by his people after all.

In that same trip I met Silvia Rivera Cusicanqui, a sociologist and university professor in La Paz. With her long black hair, the 40-year-old woman organized all sorts of pro-coca events. Thanks to her, coca fairs – in which farmers from all over Bolivia display their coca-based products like tea, flour, juice – came to be noticed by several foreign journalists.

In her messy kitchen, the fragrant leaves would be used for all sorts of experiments: she’d cook bread, cakes, candies. Her whole house smelled of coca. She loved the plant, and loved its impprtance for the ancient culture of her ancestors. She told me how aymara indians would use coca when they wanted to connect to a newcomer, by blowing the leaves before offering them for the stranger to chew. Silvia, who has studied the coca traditions for several years, also told me how the plant is seen in the indigenous tradition as a divine entity, "Mama Coca", daughter of  Pachamama, the Mother Earth.

But apart from the symbolism of the coca plant, Evo’s coca grower’s movement only came to be so strong because it had an economic background. By planting coca leaves, farmers could earn enough money to survive, feed themselves and buy goods such as soap. None of the replacement programmes funded by the US had proven to be as profitable for these farmers – profitable meaning that they could sometimes buy clothes for their kids, a pen or some sugar. 

Of course, Morales never believed that farmers should freely plant coca to be turned into cocaine. He has always been rarsh critic of the drug trade. He wanted to turn coca into the raw material for a lucrative consumer-goods industry. Many researchers had already proven that coca is a high quality medicine and could be the basis for toothpaste, food supplement, soft drinks. More and more, youngsters in Bolivia drink coca-based energetic drinks, not much different to the ones we usually see in European nightclubs.

Bolivia is the world’s third-biggest producer of coca, with 28,900 hectares produced in 2007. Now if the qualities of the plant were recognized, Morales argues, this could be a great push for an industry based on their national plant. They could export everything from medicine to chocolates or beverages, coming from the single thing that is uniquely from the Andes: the coca leaf.  

There is one major problem, though: the leaf can not be exported, because it is considered an illicit drug under the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs. Such convention also determined that coca chewing must be abolished within 25 years. Of course, that goal was never achieved.

One could think that after all those years – and with the growing acknowledgement of the relevance of traditional cultures, medicine and knowledges – the views towards this traditional plant would have changed. Well they have not. Last year the International Narcotics Control Board released a report calling on countries to "abolish or prohibit coca leaf chewing and the manufacture of coca tea" and to "establish as a criminal offence the posession and purchase of coca leaf for personal consumption".

Peru and Bolivia reacted. After all, this was said about a plant that is used by no less than 10 million peasants in South America!

But Evo Morales, an aymara indian, knows this is not a recent struggle. Coca leaves have been alternately demonized and praised thoughout our continent’s history. This long and surpising story can be checked out at the website of The Coca Museum, in La Paz, directed by one of the top specialists in coca, Jorge Hurtado.

Coca use was encouraged by the earlier European colonizers as a way to make indian slaves work harder with less food. Then the catholic church had it prohibited sayign it was a diabolic plant. Some centuries later, it was used as the basis of the most trendy beverage in Europe, Vino Mariani. A later, non-alcoholic version fo such wine was developed in the US. It became the most popular drink in the world: Coca-Cola. It took decades for the original recipe to be changed, with coca leaves freed of the cocaine alklaloid, which was replaced by caffeine. Imported from Peru, coca leaves are still used to provide flavour to Coca-Cola.  

Now that’s what Evo had in mind when he went to the UN to chew some of his leaves. He knows his request for decriminalization of the coca will take at least one year to be analized. And that it will have to overcome the prejudice of dozens of UN members to succeed – especially the US. He knows this is very unlikely. But Evo also knows that his request is only a chapter in a much older history. And that history is slow, but made of opportunities. "Mistakes are an unavoidable part of human history, but sometimes we have the opportunity to correct them. It is time for the international community to reverse its misguided policy toward the coca leaf", he wrote at a New York Times editorial.