Condoleezza Rice knew coca would top the agenda in her meeting with Bolivia’s new president, but she likely wasn’t expecting to get the real thing.
At the end of their 25-minute meeting, President Evo Morales presented the U.S. secretary of state with an Andean guitar that bore a coca-leaf inlay.
“The gift was well received. We will just have to check with our customs to see what rules apply. We certainly hope we can bring it back (to Washington),” said a senior State Department official who attended the meeting.
Morales, Bolivia’s first indigenous president, came to prominence as a leader of coca farmers who want more freedom to grow coca, which is the main ingredient in cocaine but is also used legally for traditional medicines and in teas.
And here are some facts on the traditional uses of coca…
In the Andes, the indigenous peoples have been chewing the leaves of the coca plant for millennia. They traditionally carried a woven pouch called a chuspa or huallqui in which they kept a day’s supply of coca leaves, along with a small amount of ilucta or uipta, which is made from pulverized unslaked lime or from the ashes of the quinoa plant. A tiny quantity of ilucta is chewed together with the coca leaves; it softens their astringent flavor and activates the alkaloids. Other names for this basifying substance are llipta in Peru and the Spanish word lejía, lye in English. Many of these materials are salty in flavor, but there are variations. The most common base in the La Paz area of Bolivia is a product known as lejía dulce (sweet lye) which is made from quinoa ashes mixed with anise and cane sugar, forming a soft black putty with a sweet and pleasing licorice flavor. In some places, baking soda is used under the name bico.
The practice of chewing coca was most likely originally a simple matter of survival. The coca leaf contained many essential nutrients in addition to its more well-known mood-altering alkaloid. It is rich in protein and vitamins, and it grows in regions where other food sources are scarce. The perceived boost in energy and strength provided by the cocaine in coca leaves was also very functional in an area where oxygen is scarce and extensive walking is essential. The coca plant was so central to the worldview of the Yunga and Aymara tribes of South America that distance was often measured in units called “cocada”, which signified the number of mouthfuls of coca that one would chew while walking from one point to another. Cocada can also be used as a measurement of time, meaning the amount of time it takes for a mouthful of coca to lose its flavor and activity. In testament of the significance of coca to indigenous cultures, it is widely believed that the word “coca” most likely originally simply meant “plant,” in other words, coca was not just a plant but the plant.
Coca was also a vital part of the religious cosmology of the Andean tribes in the pre-Inca period as well as throughout the Inca Empire (Tahuantinsuyu). Coca was historically employed as an offering to the Sun, or to produce smoke at the great sacrifices; and the priests, it was believed, must chew it during the performance of religious ceremonies, otherwise the gods would not be propitiated. Coca is still held in veneration among the indigenous and mestizo peoples of Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador, Colombia and northern Argentina and Chile. It is believed by the miners of Cerro de Pasco to soften the veins of ore, if masticated (chewed) and thrown upon them (see also Cocomama). Coca leaves play a crucial part in offerings to the apus (mountains), Inti (the sun), or Pachamama (the earth). Coca leaves are often read in a form of divination analogous to reading tea leaves in other cultures.
In the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, on the Caribbean Coast of Colombia, coca is consumed by the Kogi, Arhuaco & Wiwa by using a special gadget called poporo. The poporo is the mark of manhood, but it is a female’s sexual symbol. It represents the womb and the stick is a phallic symbol. The movements of the stick in the poporo symbolize the sexual act. For a man the poporo is a good companion which means “food” “woman”, “memory” and “meditation”. Women are prohibited from using coca. It is important to stress that poporo is the symbol of manhood. But it is the woman who gives men their manhood. When the boy is ready to be married, his mother will initiate him in the use of the coca. This act of initiation is carefully supervised by the mama, a traditional leader.
The activity of chewing coca is called mambear, chacchar or acullicar, borrowed from Quechua, or in Bolivia, picchar, derived from the Aymara language. The Spanish masticar is also frequently used. Doing so usually causes users to feel a tingling and numbing sensation in their mouths, similar to receiving Novocaine during a dental procedure. Even today, chewing coca leaves is a common sight in indigenous communities across the central Andean region, particularly in places like the mountains of Bolivia, where the cultivation and consumption of coca is as much a part of the national culture similar to chicha, like wine is to France or beer is to Germany. It also serves as a powerful symbol of indigenous cultural and religious identity, amongst a diversity of indigenous nations throughout South America. Bags of coca leaves are sold in local markets and by street vendors. Commercially manufactured coca teas are also available in most stores and supermarkets, including upscale suburban supermarkets.
Coca herbal tea (Spanish: Mate de coca) is a tisane made from the leaves of the Coca plant (Eritroxilécea). The consumption of coca tea is a common occurrence in many South American countries. Coca tea is also used for medicinal and religious purposes by many indigenous tribes in the Andes. On the “Inca Trail” to Macchu Picchu, guides also serve coca tea with every meal because it is widely believed that it alleviates the symptoms of mild altitude sickness. And traditionally, official governmental persons travelling to La Paz in Bolivia are greeted by a mate de coca.
Chances are, if you’ve had a novocaine shot at your dentist’s, had lidocaine injected during surgery (or used a topical antiseptic/painkiller containing it), or taken a drink of Coca-Cola, you’ve actually consumed coca and not even been aware of it. (Yes, Coke does contain an extract of coca, but don’t get too excited–it’s a non-drug flavoring agent. Coke stopped containing actual coke in the early 20th century. The kick in the can these days is actually just sugar and caffeine.) Bolivians are quick to point out that there are many other uses for the plant, as well…
Kind of makes a mockery of the cynical, hypocritical drug war, doesn’t it?