Arts, Culture & Media

The tradition of chewing coca

We're headed to the Andes for the Geo Quiz. We're looking for two countries on the South American continent where chewing coca leaves remains popular. It's been a cultural tradition of indigenous people in Andean countries for centuries.

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Coca leaves provide an energy boost, when chewed or consumed in tea. They're used to treat headaches, toothaches, and intestinal cramps, among other things.

What are the two countries we're looking for? Here's one more quick clue: these countries are neighbors but only one of them lies on the Pacific.

Answer: Bolivia and Peru.

By John Otis

At an outdoor market in a slum in the Peruvian capital, Lima, a coca vender stuffs handfuls of green leaves into plastic bags. She has many loyal customers who say that chewing coca suppresses hunger and provides a boost of energy.

One buyer, who's a truck driver, said sometimes he gets tired. "So I chew a little coca," he said, "and I no longer feel weary."

Back in 1961, the United Nations Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs classified the coca leaf as a dangerous narcotic, putting it in the same league as cocaine and heroin. But critics say that's absurd – like equating barley with whisky.

Coca leaves are high in calcium and can relieve altitude sickness. Many South American Indians use coca in religious ceremonies. Before he was elected president of Bolivia, Evo Morales headed his country's main coca growers union. And he's been known to say that it's scientifically proven that coca leaves in their natural state don't harm human health.
Symbolic quest

Morales has been lobbying to eliminate the provision about coca chewing from the UN treaty. His quest is largely symbolic since chewing the leaves is permitted in Bolivia and Peru, where Indians have chewed coca leaves for centuries. There's even a Peruvian government agency that buys coca from farmers and sells the leaves to chewers. But proponents say the Morales amendment would remove the stigma from coca and enhance the market for tea, soft drinks and other natural products made from coca leaves.

At a Lima bakery, workers mix cookie dough using green flour made of ground-up coca leaves. Manuel Seminario, the owner of the bakery, also sells pasta, energy bars, wine, and toothpaste made with coca.

But Seminario can only sell to people in Peru because the UN treaty bans the export of coca leaf products. On the international market, Seminario claims coca-based energy drinks could be a healthy alternative to Red Bull. He's so passionate about coca that he and his wife, Mariel, host a weekly radio program to promote the plant.

Among UN member states, there's wide support for easing restrictions on coca chewing. But the change requires unanimous support, and the Obama administration opposes the Morales amendment, saying it would send a confusing message amid the war on drugs.

There are other concerns about giving coca the UN's stamp of approval. Just a tiny fraction of the 300,000 tons of coca leaf grown each year in South America is used for chewing or food products, according to Peruvian economist Hugo Cabieses. The rest is mixed with gasoline, uric acid and other toxic chemicals to make cocaine.
Number of chewers dropping

Meanwhile, the number of coca chewers may be going down as highland Indians migrate to the cities and give up traditional practices.

"Each day fewer people chew the coca leaf because young people leave the Andean regions and they do not carry the custom anymore," said Alejandro Vassilaqui, head of CEDOS, a Peruvian anti-drug organization that works closely with the US government.

Yet coca leaf products are also winning some new converts. Coca tea is served at hotels throughout Peru and Bolivia. Jerry Borscheid, an American tourist bound for Machu Picchu, swears by it.

"I have not drunk a cup of coffee since I've been here," Borscheid said. "It's been this every morning."

In fact, Borscheid and his wife have considered bringing some back home to Minnesota – until they remember that coca tea is illegal in the US.