Coca is a plant that is native to the Andes Mountains in South America. It is a small bush and the leaves contain alkaloids (chemicals) that protect the plant from being eaten by insects. The indigenous populations discovered this early and for generations, the leaves were chewed because the alkaloids have an effect similar to caffeine in that they energize the body and suppress appetite. Unfortunately after the Spanish arrived, modern people discovered how to concentrate the alkaloids through chemical processing to produce cocaine.
The chewing of the leaves in the traditional manner is legal in Bolivia. My father-in-law and I enjoy a bolo of coca leaves daily. Yesterday we went to a nearby market to purchase a fresh supply. The coca leaf industry is regulated by the government and there are officially licensed coca leaf venders in all the markets in Bolivia. According to my father-in-law, a license to sell coca leaves cost about $2,000.
In the Los Pozos market near the house, the 12 de Octobre Cooperative operates the market. Juana, a woman originally from La Paz was selling coca leaves in a small stall in front. She had two types of leaves, and we chose the higher-priced larger leaf variety. She said they were from Las Yungas, a region of lower elevation just east of the capital. We also purchased some packets of baking soda to go along with leaves. A kilo of leaves and soda cost around $4.
Coca is a controversial issue here in Bolivia. The President, Evo Morales, besides being the first indigenous president, is a former coca grower. The US government’s war on drugs a few years ago, consisted in part of eradicating the coca fields in the Chapare region of Bolivia. When Morales took over as President, he immediately expelled the US government’s Drug Enforcement Agency out of the country. The growing of coca increased dramatically to the point that today, there are more than enough leaf production to supply the legal market of the country. The excess leaf production obviously is going towards cocaine production.
I am glad that Morales kicked out the US government. I didn’t agree with the US policy of focusing on battling against drugs and “democracy promotion” which basically meant supporting the status quo of a white/mestizo (mestizo means mixed European and Native American heritage) dominated government. They should have been focusing on poverty eradication through improvement of health, education, and infrastructure. This is one of the major reasons why US influence in Latin America is at an all-time low. I was hoping with Barak Obama as president, there would be a change in policy, but I guess his attention is focused on the Middle East and Latin America has been largely ignored except for free trade agreements.
Coca chewing has its upsides and downsides. It is pleasurable and like a good strong cup of coffee, it perks me up, especially in the late afternoon. The bad thing is coca leaves have an odor slightly reminiscent of foot odor, which is disagreeable to some people, especially my wife. I made an instructional video on how to prepare and chew coca which I’ll post as soon as I can.