The Coca Leaf is Not a Drug

Tear gas rises in plumes from a crowd assembled on Cusco’s busiest street, Avenida del Sol, directly across from the Inca and colonial Spanish ruins of Qorikancha. Today, Peru’s cultural capital is not the Machu Picchu paradise expected by most tourists.

A group of twenty policemen drag a shirtless youth up the sidewalk. Following them, a group of women shout, “Leave him! Where are you taking him?” As the smoke begins to subside, panicked women, furious students, and crying young girls yell through their tears the story of what had just happened to them. A group of Peruvian journalists listen and record.

The people on the street belong to an alliance of agricultural students and cocaleros (rural coca growers) from Quillabamba, Cusco department, protesting the government’s refusal to allow them to grow coca for traditional and medicinal use, something they consider a human right. They took their problems to the streets of Cusco, assuming they would be listened to by the state, which would hope to avoid a spectacle in front of foreign tourists.

Across the Andes, the coca leaf has been cultivated historically for its medicinal properties. Indigenous Andeans and Limeños alike affirm that chewing coca leaves or drinking coca tea helps to alleviate the affects of altitude sickness, a common problem in the Andes, as well as to quell hunger pains and general tiredness.

The Peruvian cocalero has made the country the world’s leader in coca leaf production.

It was the coca leaf used by forced Andean laborers – stolen from their lands by the Spanish colonialists – that helped in the clearing out of Bolivia’s famous Potosi mine, subsequently lining the pockets of their European oppressors with a mountain of silver.

With coca in their mouths, entering their systems through their saliva, the miners could survive their long unfed hours in the depths of the mountain; of course, this lasted only until the mine would kill each of them successively, after a mere ten years of work.

Before the conquest, the coca leaf was used by the Incas and their subjects in rituals for hundreds of years. Therefore, the importance of the coca leaf to the cultural fabric of the Andean highlands is obvious.

In regions like Cusco, the coca leaf has no other use than for ritual and medicine. The other, more popularly known use of coca has forced people of this region to remind the world through selling t-shirts to tourists, stating that “the coca leaf is not a drug.”

Indeed it is not.

The coca leaf does not become cocaine until it is ground into a paste and put through a complex chemical process. So, it does not possess anywhere near the same potency as cocaine.

Unfortunately for the people from Quillabamba, the US’ anti-drug policy – this so-called “war on drugs” – does not make this connection. Peruvian coca leaves are being exported to Colombia, where they are processed into cocaine and shipped to western markets.

The policy is dead wrong in targeting the fields of Quillabamba when everyone knows that the coca heading to Colombia is produced in the Upper Huallaga Valley, Satipo, and the Rio Ene (in the Peruvian lowlands and along the Colombian border, nowhere near Cusco) under the close supervision of former Shining Path guerrillas and other interested parties.

The US policy of crop eradication through indiscriminate chemical spraying is destroying the honest livelihood of thousands of Peruvian campesinos, who are already living in severe conditions of poverty. The planes flying crop-spraying missions have the same sort of accuracy we have witnessed recently in Afghanistan and Iraq. In short, US planes are spraying with chemicals the same fields that are meant to nourish an undernourished Andean population.

It is a common belief in the region that the anti-coca campaign of the Toledo government comes straight from Washington. This is another of a long list of reasons why Toledo is enjoying a typically Latin American 90% disapproval rating. Toledo has failed all of Peru’s poor even though his own roots are of a poor, Quechua-speaking, shoe-shine boy who became president. Toledo is now allowing poor Peruvians to continue living with US policy in the fields and dealing with them in the streets.

On the street outside of Qoricancha, a young woman sobs to the media, explaining that she was hit in the face by a tear-gas canister. She adds defiantly that she and the cocalero group will not leave the street until their seven companions – missing in the confusion of the police crackdown on the peaceful march – are released unharmed from the hands of a police force in the service of the US government.

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