The Unjustified Stigma of the Coca Plant
Western societies tend to link coca directly with cocaine. That is why the plant, like cocaine, is listed in Schedule 1 forbidden drugs. This unjustified and unscientific categorization of coca contradicts the perception of many South Americans.
The 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs states: coca is equally dangerous as cocaine. Being classified in the same category as cocaine, coca carries a stigma of being an unhealthy, addictive plant that generates violence and crime. This association is fueled by the global (war on) drugs policy. To try and end the production of cocaine, coca plantations have been under threat ever since the UN conviction. As coca grows solely in the Andes in South America, it is easy for outsiders to uphold misconceptions on the plant. Especially when we are merely familiar with just one single product of the plant, cocaine. The image we have of coca is shaped by our image of its white brother.
Cocaine is a relatively new chemical, whereas the coca plant has been part of South America’s culture for thousands of years. The crop is not inherently equal to cocaine in that part of the world, on the contrary: it is highly valued for its nutritional and medicinal properties. ‘Coca has multiple medicinal properties,’ confirms Carlos Rodríguez, director of Tropenbos in Colombia. ‘Firstly, it’s an anesthetic. Back in the days dentists used coca as an anesthetic for their patients. Later on, the physiological effects were being studied. It appeared a great medicine for battling altitude disease.’
‘Another effect is that it slows down bowel movements, which reduce feelings of hunger. This is because coca has a base value, while the stomach produces acid. Coca neutralizes the acid and that’s how feelings of hunger disappear. The alkaloids in the plant also stimulates the circular system and ensures better blood supply. Finally, there’s the neurological effect: coca helps you to concentrate better. Thus, coca is a very useful plant in the Andes mountains.’
The cultural value of coca
The cultural value starts with the cultivation and the harvest of the leaves. Maria Clara van der Hammen, anthropologist in Colombia, says: ‘Coca harvesting is done with great respect and is ceremonial. The leaves are picked one by one and out of respect, you have to face it. The coca is treated as if it were a fellow human being, or at least a living being. Because cocaine requires much more coca, production goes much more massively and without the same dedication.’
‘Every indigenous community from the Andes mountains uses coca in different ways. Because of the many ways in which the coca plant is embedded in their culture, the coca plant is a crop for which they have enormous respect. The groups I have worked with the most, roast the leaves, mash it and mix it with an ash. Mambe, as they call it, gives you the possibility to reduce fatigue, so it is used when they go to work or go out. But it is also used in communal ceremonies.’
‘Every evening they sit together and start speaking with each other. During a ceremony it is important not to use an aggressive language. You must talk calmly and always listen very carefully to the other person. Coca helps you to concentrate well and to use your memory better. This way the long myths can be communicated well. It is said that under the influence of coca, you have sweet talk, palabre dulce, which means that you are always peaceful in your conversations.’