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Erythroxylum: The Condemned Leaf

By Liza González Perafán, INDEPAZ

One by one, the leaves enter the mouth like bread, breaking up between bites and saliva. They settle in the cheek to soften, warm up, and allow themselves to give their gentle company offered in greenish, bitter saliva. It is good. Its veins have the virtue of transporting millions of years of natural evolution and endless intrigue with its good-natured chemical properties. It is without a doubt good. It is resilient like a Bolivian mother; it is a mother that sustains cultures.

Coca has been planted on our lands since long before Christ. The civilizations of all of our American grandparents have risen up together, thanks to this plant. Some, as the Inca say, were born from Mother-Coca and became vital nourishment for the body and soul.

Today, when one enters the market plazas of Peru and Bolivia it is quite common to find vendors with large baskets full of green, shiny leaves. With a Sol or a Boliviano coin (less than fifty cents), one can purchase a medium sized bag filled with leaves. It is a bag filled with calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, sodium, nitrogen, vitamins, zinc, among other various ingredients necessary for health. Coca is the prime material for many medications produced by the most prestigious foreign laboratories of the world. Its healing properties are astonishing; it is an anesthetic, a painkiller, a blood thinner, a diuretic and antidiarrheal. It metabolizes fats, regulates the skin’s melanin production, stimulates digestion, improves blood circulation and liver function, accelerates brain formation, prevents dental cavities, regulates blood pressure, helps in the formation of bone cells, increases blood cells, contains therapeutic properties for gastritis and ulcers, and prevents infections in cuts.*

All of this does not even mention the long list of healing properties in the spiritual realm. Many people confirm that Coca protects the future and opens divine connections to worship the gods. For others, sharing the leaves is the best way to establish social relationships. And others simply declare: If you don’t chew it, it won’t work!

It is also beneficial for nature; Coca contributes to the balance of native ecosystems because it is the most native to the continent. It is also the ideal crop in these lands for its excellent ability to adapt and survive and its close link with other natural species. A few decades ago, when it was cultivated the traditional way without much opposition, our province of Cauca was famous for the high production and consumption of the Coca leaf. It was planted naturally and for the good of the people. It had nothing to do with current controversial monoculture. Many still remember when they could buy it in the market; the plant’s water produced concoctions that were ever-present in Popayán’s kitchens.

“Coca has become scarce,” said Doña Olga. “They hide it so much that it is looked down upon if you ask for it in the market.”

It is proven that the sacred plant is resisting death from another war waged by foreign interests against it. Throughout its history it has had many enemies with double standards and hypocritical intentions. One of its first persecutors was the Catholic Church in colonial times, but the preachers noticed that they too could reap financial benefit from the sin of Coca. It came to be worth more than gold until governors and orthodox medicine declared it dirty and bad. This was how the Coca leaf’s profile began to drop. The plant had to forget its privileged agreement with the aboriginal kingdom to become a curse.**

Now the extreme has come where they try to banish it with the worst poisonous chemicals in the world and with incredibly dangerous fungi from foreign laboratories.

However, one of the most lethal weapons against the Coca plant is the confusion about the conceptual meaning. The whole world must know that Coca is so much more than the white powder that enters Yankee noses. I believe that he who associates Coca with cocaine has the same problem of seeing a cow and thinking of a shoe. What’s more, it is unjust to stigmatize small scale farmers and indigenous people as narco-farmers when they cultivate the most important agricultural product of the Andes and the Amazon basin.

COCA says forest, magic, seed, and so many other synonyms like tea, mate, soda, balm, salve, remedy, fertilizer, soap, wine, green powder, white powder. Firewood.

It is a sacred treasure that adapts to the pleasures and powers of its consumers. Its uses depend on humans, not the plant.

When this government achieves its disastrous goal and definitively eradicates the condemned leaf (along with the rest of the beings containing chlorophyl like plantain, cacao, yucca, coffee, orchids…), it will be depressing to see the remains of our ancient tropical jungles. It will also be interesting to see the faces of the high-up Colombian authorities obligated to buy through “reduced prices” (as is the Made in the USA custom) products that at one point were native to here like the Coca leaf, plantain, yucca, cacao, coffee, and orchids.***

__________________________ Sources: * Moreno, M. Mercedes y González, Darío. 2004. ** Various facts obtained from the Museo de La Coca, La Paz, Bolivia. ***The Colombian government is in the process of coming up with alternative coca eradication strategies after suspending the controversial, U.S. backed, aerial fumigation with glyphosate. Fumigations kill not only coca, but valuable food crops as well. 


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