This month the UN’s International Narcotics Control Board recommended a ban on coca chewing and the use of coca in mass-consumption products such as tea in Peru and Bolivia.
Millions of Indians have chewed coca on a daily basis for many hundreds of years, yet never has a plant been so misrepresented and its use so controlled by prejudice and ignorance, including up to the present day. The Conquistadors considered it an idle and offensive habit to be prohibited, but it was soon seen that the Indians could not work without coca even when forced to do so.
Chewing coca has continued to be a custom not because it is a ‘habit drug’, but because it is a part of Andean culture which, most importantly, knows how to make work a sacred activity. The Indians chew coca just as they do everything else, very deliberately and systematically. A mouthful of leaves is carefully chosen from an exquisitely woven coca bag or chuspa. Llipta, or lime, is intermixed with the leaves while chewing to liberate the active ingredients.
The Incas regarded coca as ‘the divine plant’ mainly because of its property of imparting endurance, nevertheless its use was entwined with every aspect of life; the art, mythology, culture and economy of the Inca Empire and the Andean civilisations which preceded it.
Even today, distances are measured in ‘cocadas’ - how far an Indian carries his load under the stimulus of one chew of coca. But the ceremony which brings out the essentially shamanistic dimension is the mesa , and this unites the whole community.
The mesa may begin with discussion of pressing social and political issues; this too, is accompanied by ritual coca chewing. Later offerings are made for Pachamama or Mother Earth. In some places the mesa can also be an all night session, held secretly indoors. After this, divination with coca leaves is performed on a specially woven cloth. In the Andean world there is no split between the spiritual and practical sides of life. Their concept of health is much more holistic and ecological than ours; it means keeping the balance between the individual, his community and the environment.
A harmonious individual is happy and healthy and can work hard so there is abundance for the community. A happy and healthy community without internal conflicts can care for the children who do not produce. A willingness to do community work means that terraces and irrigations systems are maintained, while storing seed crops for the next year and other community efforts make the environment healthy
This is part of an attempt to crack down on cocaine production. Both Andean countries have defended the use of coca which has been used for medicinal and religious purposes for centuries and is part their cultural identity.
The Peruvian and Bolivian governments criticised the UN report for only concentrating on coca cultivation as the basis for cocaine production and that it lacked respect for indigenous cultures. To protest against the UN recommendations, dozens of Peruvian Congress members chewed the coca leaf publicly. Indigenous activists led by the Congress woman Hilaria Supa also gathered in central Lima to raise awareness about the spiritual and cultural uses of the coca leaf.