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Coca, the plant of a whole people

In Andean countries, especially  Bolivia, coca is a sacred plant. Its eradication is seen as cultural genocide. Andean peoples used coca leaves for religious and medicinal purposes thousands of years before white men learned to extract cocaine from them. Rich in vitamins and minerals, they were traditionally used to cure ailments such as dysentery and mountain sickness.

The vast majority of Bolivians continue to chew them daily to prevent feelings of hunger because mixed with ashes, they have an anesthetic effect on the stomach. In Andean countries, any death, wedding, or other social or religious ritual includes an offering of coca. “Guard its leaves with love,” commands the Legend of Coca, an eight-hundred-year-old oral poem. “And when you feel pain in your heart, hunger in your flesh, and darkness in your mind, bring it to your mouth. You will find love for your pain, food for your body, and light for your spirit. »

But the prophets also foretold that the white man would find a way to corrupt their “small but strong plant”: “If your oppressor comes from the north, the white conqueror, the gold digger, as soon as he will find poison for his body and madness for his mind. What they didn’t anticipate was that the backlash would be so severe. The white man succeeded in extracting the 0.5% of cocaine, the alkaloid that coca contains, at the end of the 19th century. The first eradication attempts date back to 1949, after a study by Howard Fonda, a North American banker, claimed that chewing this plant was “responsible for the mental deficiency and poverty that prevailed in the countries Andean”. Shortly after, in 1961, the United Nations included coca in table number; 1 of narcotics, thus making it one of the most dangerous substances, to be absolutely prohibited. Which, of course, had no effect on consumption in the United States – where executives snorted lines of cocaine while ghettos opted for its poorer and far more dangerous cousin, crack. In the 1980s, the superpower consumed more than half of the cocaine produced in the world, despite its inhabitants representing only 5% of the world’s population. Bolivia, one of the poorest countries on the planet, saw a niche to take and rushed into it. It was to become the second-largest producer of cocaine paste in the world. Which, of course, had no effect on consumption in the United States – where executives snorted lines of cocaine while ghettos opted for its poorer and far more dangerous cousin, crack. In the 1980s, the superpower consumed more than half of the cocaine produced in the world, despite its inhabitants representing only 5% of the world’s population. Bolivia, one of the poorest countries on the planet, saw a niche to take and rushed into it. It was to become the second-largest producer of cocaine paste in the world. Which, of course, had no effect on consumption in the United States – where executives snorted lines of cocaine while ghettos opted for its poorer and far more dangerous cousin, crack. In the 1980s, the superpower consumed more than half of the cocaine produced in the world, despite its inhabitants representing only 5% of the world’s population. Bolivia, one of the poorest countries on the planet, saw a niche to take and rushed into it. It was to become the second-largest producer of cocaine paste in the world. one of the poorest countries on the planet, saw a niche to take and rushed into it. It was to become the second-largest producer of cocaine paste in the world. one of the poorest countries on the planet, saw a niche to take and rushed into it. It was to become the second-largest producer of cocaine paste in the world.

Coca, a hardy plant ideal for tired or eroded soils, can give three or four crops a year. Now forced to grow beans and oranges under the US-funded alternative development plan, Zenon Cruz, a former coca planter in Chapare, has to feed his family on less income than he had before. . Some continue to take all the risks to enjoy a higher income. A few kilometers from Zenon’s, at the Chimore military base, a young local girl is exhibited in front of the press. Alcira Marin, 16, has just cracked after three days of interrogation: she admitted having smuggled coca paste by swallowing it. The exhibits, forty dumplings wrapped in yellow plastic wrap, are displayed on a table behind her. “I got 300 bolivianos to do it,” she whispers. I didn’t know I would die if a pellet burst inside. With Law 1008, a ruthless text inspired by United States legislation, she faces five to eight years in prison.

There is no doubt that the net is tightening, but this could simply have the effect of pushing up prices and encouraging the development of new markets elsewhere. According to the drug policy, the three tons of cocaine base that left Chapare in 2000 is enough to generate some $4 million, because tariffs have risen 300% in recent years. For its detractors, the eradication policy will only have the effect of pushing producers further into the heart of the Amazon region. If we broaden the picture, the situation is indeed discouraging. While Bolivia has moved from second to third place among the world’s cocaine exporters behind Colombia and Peru, the quantities exported to the United States and Europe have practically not decreased, according to the annual report of the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB). The explanation is that production has increased in Brazil and Colombia, where the government has virtually no control over territories located in the tropics. “It’s the perfect illustration of the balloon theory,” says Kathryn Ledebur of Andean Information Network, an advocacy organization. “If you exert pressure in one place, it swells elsewhere – unless you tackle the demand. But, instead of doing that, we have a war that focuses on the poor and it doesn’t work. On a terraced hillside in the fertile valleys of the Yungas, on the other side of the country, a little boy dressed in the traditional poncho and woolen cap kneels to make his offering to Pachamama, the Earth Mother. While he undoes a scarf full of coca leaves, lights incense, and spills alcohol on the ground, other children approach and sing in Quechua. It is both a ceremony and a preventive demonstration. The families of this region, which remains the last place where the cultivation of coca is allowed in Bolivia, know that things could very well turn out here as in Chapare. Law 1008 currently grants 12,000 hectares for the cultivation and distribution of coca in the Yungas, but the United States claims that half is enough to cover traditional needs. The families of this region, which remains the last place where the cultivation of coca is allowed in Bolivia, know that things could very well turn out here as in Chapare. Law 1008 currently grants 12,000 hectares for the cultivation and distribution of coca in the Yungas, but the United States claims that half is enough to cover traditional needs. The families of this region, which remains the last place where the cultivation of coca is allowed in Bolivia, know that things could very well turn out here as in Chapare. Law 1008 currently grants 12,000 hectares for the cultivation and distribution of coca in the Yungas, but the United States claims that half is enough to cover traditional needs.

“We have evidence that coca from the Yungas is being diverted from the illegal market to be converted into cocaine products,” the US Embassy report said in 2000. The locals think that if they give in now, North Americans will always demand more until there is nothing left. Eradication was supposed to begin in 2000, but the country exploded into violent protests. The coca planters have blown up the only road that leads to the region and the eradicators have backtracked. We are therefore at an impasse but no one has any illusions, they will come back. Javier Castro, the curator of the Coca Museum in La Paz fought for the coca leaf to be recognized as a potentially therapeutic substance and not as a narcotic of table n°; 1. Western hikers who travel here constantly drink coca leaf infusions to prevent altitude sickness, and a Harvard University study found that 100 grams of Bolivian coca were more than enough to meet daily requirements of calcium, iron, phosphorus, vitamins A and B2. Contrary to popular belief, the boost this herb provides comes not from its 0.5% cocaine content – ​​which is actually broken down by saliva in the digestive tract – but from the transformation of its carbohydrates into glucose. and its stimulating effect on the respiratory system. There are already thirty cocoa-based products in Bolivia, ranging from toothpaste to a whole range of lozenges. For the defenders of the plant, this is a considerable potential: the livelihood of several thousand poor peasants could be saved by marketing it in the West. However, the only company that has managed to circumvent the ban is the American Stepan, which – ironically supreme – legally imports 175,000 kilos of coca from Chapare each year to manufacture, among other things, a de cocaine flavor for Coca Cola.

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