Coca leaves, or erythroxylum coca, have been used in the Andes for thousands of years as a nutritional supplement, as an herbal medicine, as part of social interaction and as a ceremonial offering. The use of coca leaves is an integral part of the Andean tradition in Peru and Bolivia but the coca plants are also found in other parts of the world. Plants are found in Columbia, Brazil, Chile, Argentina, Cameroon in Africa, Pakistan, India, and on the Islands of Java and Sri Lanka. It is only in Peru and Bolivia that the tradition of coca has carried on since time immemorial. Today these people face an on-going battle to defend their cultural use of coca against a western campaign, lead by the United States, which sees coca as cocaine and uses extreme methods of aerial fumigation and forced eradication by biological methods to stop the use of coca. For further reading on the eradication methods and its effects please see www.mamacoca.org .The ethnic groups that continue the tradition of coca have launched their own campaign “La coca no es droga or coca is not a drug”.
The sacredness of the coca plant stems from the Inca mythology, when Tayta Inti, father sun, saw that the people of the world were living no better than animals he sent his son, Manco Capac and his daughter, Mama Ocllo, to guide and teach the people. As part of the teachings Manco Capac, the first Inca, taught the people the many uses of the coca plant. For this reason the people of Andes believe that the plant is sacred. It is believed that the first to use the coca plant were the Aymara people from the Lake Titicaca region, the area from which Manco Capac first appeared and then spread to the Quechua people found the other regions of the Andes. Coca was used throughout the Incan Empire, which stretched from present day Ecuador, Columbia, Peru, Bolivia, Chile and parts of Argentina and Brazil, although it is only in present day Peru and Bolivia that use of coca remains strong.
The people have always known of the great nutritional value that is within each coca leaf, although they may not have been able to give you a list of the all vitamins and minerals that are found in the coca leaves. They did know that it helped them to live at high altitudes with ease and that when they chewed the leaves it increased their energy enabling them to till their gardens and follow their herds of llama and alpacas up and down the mountain paths. In addition to this it also staid their appetite and thirst helping them to live and work at altitudes from 2,000 to over 3,000 meters above sea level. These people were also aware of the many curative properties of the coca leaf and use them as salves, compresses, and poultices.
Today through scientific research we know of the great nutritional value and healing properties of coca. “Studies done by the University of Harvard in 1975 entitled ‘The Nutritional Value of Coca Leaf’ has show that coca leaf contains the following nutrients.
Each 100 grams of Coca Leaf contains:
Total Nitrogen – 20.06 mg
Total in volatile alkaloids – 0.70 mg
Fat – 3.68 mg
Carbohydrates – 47.50 mg
Beta Carotene – 9.40mg
Alpha Carotene – 2.76 mg
Vitamin C – 6.47 mg
Vitamin E – 40.17 mg
Thiamine (vitamin B1) – 0.73 mg
Riboflavin (vitamin B2) – 0.88 mg
Niacin – 8.37 mg
Phosphate – 412.67 mg
Potassium – 1739.33 mg
Magnesium – 299.30 mg
Sodium – 39.41 mg
Aluminium – 17.39 mg
Barium – 6.18 mg
Iron – 136.64 mg
Strontium – 12.02 mg
Boron – 6.75 mg
Copper – 1.22 mg
Zinc – 2.21 mg
Magnesium – 9.15 mg
Chromium – 0.12 mg
In addition to the above nutrients, coca also contains 14 natural alkaloids that are beneficial for their digestive, circulatory, anti-fatigue and calming qualities. These natural alkaloids are:
Cocaine: has an anesthetetic and analgesic property.
Ecyonine: a carbolic derivative of an atropine has the capacity to metabolize fats, glucose and carbohydrates. It also thins bloods.
Pectine: is an absorbent anti-diuretic which when joined with vitamin E helps regulate the production of melanin in the skin.
Papaine: this product of protein (which is found in its greatest quantity in papaya) is very similar in structure to animal cathepsin that aids in the fermentation to accelerate digestion.
Hygrine: excites the salivatory glands when there is a deficiency of oxygen in the environment.
Globuline: It is a cardio tonic that regulates the lack of oxygen in the environment that helps improve blood circulation and aids in altitude sickness.
Pyridine: improves the functioning of the brain by increasing blood flow through the pituitary glands.
Quinoline: with the aid of phosphorous and calcium aids in preventing tooth decay.
Conine: is an anaesthetic.
Cocamine: is an analgesic.
Reserpine: regulates pressure in the arteries and prevents hiccups and hypertension as well as helping in the production of cells in the formation of bones.
Benzoyne: has a therapeutic property for gastritis and ulcers.
Inuline: refreshes and improves the functioning of the liver, the secretions of bile and its accumulation in the vesicle. It is a diuretic, which helps to eliminate toxic substances. It also helps promote the production of healthy blood cells.
Atropine: is a neurotransmitter, whose function is to mediate the synaptic activity of the nervous system.
These fourteen alkaloids, the amino acids they contain, the acids, and vitamins A, B1, C and E, thiamine, niacin, and riboflavin make coca a plant with the highest quality of non-proteinic nitrogen in the world. The combination of these helps to eliminate toxins and pathogens from the body. It also has solubility and hydration properties.” (The above nutritional and alkaloid information taken from Coca is Not Cocaine )
When considering that many of the people in the high altitude rural areas of the Andes have a very basic diet of carbohydrates and meat and lacking in fresh fruit and vegetables, one can see how important coca is to their dietary needs. It also may account for the low incidence of cardiovascular diseases among the indigenous population of coca chewers.
The coca leaf is not only an important part of the Andean diet; it also serves as a fundamental part of their social structure and interaction. In the Andean culture they practise a form of reciprocal interchange called ayni. The concept of ayni is based in the idea that you help me today and I will help you tomorrow. This concept can take many forms and plays a part in many different social interactions, but one thing you will find in all these transactions is a sharing of coca leaves before the transaction is completed.
One of the main activates in which the principal of ayni takes place is in the planting, tending and harvesting of crops in the rural areas. This work is often done as a community and not individually because much of the labour is still done by hand or with the use of oxen pulling a wooden plough. Each day before the labour begins the people of the community will sit together, share some food, chew coca leaves and discuss what needs to be done that day. This process of sharing coca leaves will continue throughout the day as the group takes breaks or finishes for the day. This same process of ayni and sharing of coca leaves also takes place when building a home for community members.
In the Aymara communities around Lake Titicaca coca is used when asking for ayni. If a man or a woman asks for ayni from someone they will offer a handful of coca. If the person being asked the favour takes the coca then he or she agrees to the ayni.
When visiting someone’s house or when sitting around in a social gathering coca leaves are passed around. In a manner of bonding, trust and goodwill each person will bring out their coca bundle and prepare a kintu(three perfect coca leaves placed one on top the other) for each person in the group. These are presented to each person by holding the kintu with the thumb and forefinger of both hands with the shiny side of the leaves up. The person being offered the kintu also takes it with the thumb and forefinger of both hands holding on to the end with stem. Still holding it with both hands the person then offers an invocation to Pachamama (Mother Earth), to the spirit of the mountains, to the ancestors, to the creator and to all those gathered. They then gently blow on the leaves three times before putting them in the mouth for chewing. After each person has presented a kintu to each other person in the gathering, they then freely select and add leaves to the wade that is forming in their cheek. Once this sharing of leaves has taken place, conversation flows and a bond has been created with all those gathered.
All Andean rituals are celebrated around the coca leaves. They are offered in thanks for blessings, as offerings to Pachamama (Mother earth) for a good growing season and harvest, to the various Apus (spirits) for watching over them, for a good luck, to bless a marriage, business, or birth and the list goes on. Offerings can be in the form of a kintu, a hand full of coca in which an innovation is said or in a more formal despacho (offering) ceremony where a very special offering is made by first laying down a bed of coca leaves and then adding a wide range of others things including grains, incense, bits of llama, sweets and various items representing symbols for whatever the despacho is being offered. Coca is present for all the important moments of ones life.
Coca is not only part of the Andean people’s survival, but it is a sacred part of their lives, their culture, and their heritage. Mama Coca is not a drug but a part of thousands of years of a cultural heritage for the Andean people. To deprive them of this cultural heritage is to deny them their right to live and practise what they hold most sacred. The western world needs to view the use coca leaves with different eyes and see it’s many benefits and not focus solely on the production of cocaine, which is a chemical concoction far removed from the use of the fresh leaves.
Love and blessing,