*   Chapter extracted from the thesis of Sdenka Silva. Universidad Mayor de San Andres, Sociology.

Coca is a plant whose historical significance dates back to before the conquest of the Incas, in Andean prehistoric times:

"... amidst small groups of nomad tribes which inhabited the Andes during the immediate post-glacial period".'

the coca leaf was used (and still is) by the Aymaras, Quechuas and many other Andean cultures.

The earliest coca leaves were discovered in the Huaca Prieta settlement c. 2500 - 1800 BC in the northern coast of Peru positive proof that the natives of South America were using coca for a series of purposes for more than four thousand, five hundred years. 2

All pre-Columbian cultures in the Andes have left evidence of usage of these leaves.   Similarly, there is ample evidence that coca was one of the oldest domesticated plants in the New World. Its use extends over an area which includes Peru Bolivia, Ecuador, Colombia, Chile, Argentina, Paraguay and Brazil.

The first mention found on the leaf, was one made by Father Tomas Ortiz, and later on many more chroniclers will mention the leaf starting with the cartographer and explorer Americo Vespucci. Cieza de Leon also devoted extensive paragraphs of his writings to the Coca plant.

In 1558, Acosta asserted in this respect:

"To speak truthfully, I cannot be convinced that this is all a figment of the imagination. I am rather inclined to believe that there is, in fact, another force and spirit in the natives because there are no effects that can be attributed to imagination, which is how, with the help of a handful of coca leaves, they can walk for days without food, at times other such things and other similar works." Further ahead in his work, the chronicler adds: "The Lords used coca as a royal object and a gift, and during their sacrifices, it was the one thing they most often offered, burning it in honor of their idols." This same author notes that the leaf was used by the fortune teller (yatiri), by the magician (paco) and the native doctor (callawaya).

The chroniclers also busied themselves in recording the powers and uses attributed to coca by the natives: to forecast coming events, to cure several ailments and its function as a mediator with the Andean Pantheon through offerings. Such offerings were carried out during disasters, (drought, flooding, frost, and hail), or during the cycles of regular life, particularly related to Mother Earth (pacha Mama), and fertility. It is because of this that the coca was considered (and still is), a sacred plant endowed with magical powers, representing the intermediary to make contact with supernatural forces through special rituals. 3

The economic transformation generated during the Colonial period changed the value of coca leaves as a barter item. Many researchers indicate that at a given time during the Colony, the price of coca leaves was such that they were used instead of gold and silver. Poma de Ayala maintains that the Spanish conquerors changed it into a form of payment.

During this period, the usage of coca leaves by the natives is somewhat contradictory. On the one hand, the Catholic Church perceived the use of coca as a major obstacle in reformation and conquest the indigenous soul and culture, to such an extent that the Church Council of 1569 decreed the eradication of coca plantings because they believed that the plant had satanic powers. This marked the start of the Narco-Inquisition.

In spite of this, the chronicles indicate that the coca crops increased considerably given the social importance the plant had, and still has, for the native population. It was used by the Spaniards for exploitation. They were the ones who distributed the leaf, and in exchange the Indians had to serve, work more, etc., thereby increasing the economic importance of the plant, particularly in silver mining of Greater Potosf. Subsequently, King Philip II of Spain declared coca a product for the welfare of the Andean natives. The Church lifted its prohibition and established a ten per cent tax on coca.

During the Colony, the importance and commerce of coca "... supplied a regional market, centered in Potosi, which ranged from Northern Peru, Bolivia, part of Chile, and the north of Argentina, a market which survived until the beginning of this century" .4 It should be noted that Potosi, at the middle of the XVI century, had a population comparable to that of the large cities of Europe. The value of coca leaves consumed annually in this city was equivalent to the price of 450 kilograms of gold, at the rate then in effect .

During the Republican period, the coca plantings did not lose their importance. Based on this crop, the powerful association of land owners of Yungas was created, which starting in 1830, acquired a strong influence in national and departmental politics, their members becoming prominent individuals in the national elite.

Historians have emphasized the importance of coca for the mining industry, maintaining that the natives refused to work in the mines without their coca ration. The relation of mining to coca was so close that even the prices of the former depended on the prices of ores. Nicanor Fernandez stated at the beginning of the century with respect to the coca/mining relation:

"The unanimous acceptance of the working population of the mines, whose work has stopped recently due to the considerable reduction of the tin prices, has also depressed the prices of coca, causing a veritable crisis in production centers" .6

Through the Decree of August 4, 1940, coca was declared a basic article, and its sale was mandatory in mining and railroad companies. The trajectory of coca is an example of historical tenacity. We are certainly not dealing with a mere weed. Looking at it from any perspective, coca appears as a powerful articulator of social, political, cultural and economic realities of this nation. "While coca was primarily consumed by the indigenous population, it is linked through the various commercial levels all social strata, ruling classes, half breeds, merchants, lower class laborers and indians". 7

It is like Matienzo said in his time: "To do away with coca is like denying the existence of Peru." Apparently coca had not lost the significance it had at the time of the Conquest.

Currently, the traditional use of coca is quite extensive in Bolivia, Peru and Northern Argentina and part of Colombia, particularly among the Aymara and Quechua natives who work in farming, mining, or live in the cities. The research conducted by Carter and Mamani in the rural high plateau regions of Bolivia, shows that 92% of the male population and 89% of the female population were coca users, and that 82% and 68% respectively are habitual chewers.

Faced with these figures, by no means negligible, it is important to take into account that the use of coca is in open defiance to an outside world who discriminates against the coca chewer because for a long time, coca has been synonymous with native. Its use is a powerful symbol of group identity and solidarity which clearly separates those who are with the native and those who oppose them. One could say that the coca leaf is the backbone of the cultural structure of the Andean region. To achieve a better understanding of the latter, we will distinguish three relationships of the Andean inhabitant with coca:


The coca leaf operates in farming communities almost as currency for the exchange of products (barter system). It is marketed to obtain currency and be able to respond to new urban consumer demands (...).


Coca plays a key role in reciprocating manners. In the Andean culture all social interaction is conceived in terms of reciprocation or interchange. There is no reciprocal interchange in which coca is not offered, for instance: If a man or woman asks for ayni (an Aymara custom of reciprocal help), he/she will offer a handful of coca. A man would show his acceptance of the charge receiving the coca from the offeror. Petitions submitted to community leaders may be accompanied with coca and alcohol. Similarly, the coca it is very important when a leader assumes a community position, or when those who lead a group of native dancers are named. The petition of a woman in marriage is led by the relatives of the groom by offering a handful of coca. The success of the petition would be indicated by the acceptance or rejection of the gift.

To organize more complex tasks, such as feasts, constructions or even battle against an enemy, groups or the entire community will gather the whole night. There coca is distributed and is chewed during the meeting. Its use is extended in special occasions such as festivities both in the country and the suburban areas.

In the Bolivian Yungas, an area which produced coca since the Incas, the coca field accompanies the vital cycle of the family. When a couple is joined in matrimony they have to build a house and plant a coca field. The planting is bom with the family, grows and thrives with it. When their children grow and bring a wife to help with the chores, the coca field and the home will have reached the pinnacle of production and their modest wealth. In time, their offspring will leave home, their parents will grow old alone, like their coca field which yields little, but enough for the reduced family.$

Thus coca is key to enter into social relationships in Andean cultures, it promotes trust and is like a visiting card. Sergio Quijada explains this very aptly when he asserts:

"Coca, when chewed in small quantities (chakchar or acullico), is an efficient bond to knit the fabric of fraternization and amiability among fellow countrymen". 9

Socially, coca is offered and handed out to extend and strengthen the kinship and reciprocal relationships, so dearly needed in the Andean world to achieve prestige, power and social integration. 10

At work

Before starting work on the farm, together with their relatives, friends and community members who work with the owner (and will reciprocate their cooperation in the future), coca, drinks and cigarettes will be passed around. They all give thanks for the gift, choose three leaves blowing into the direction of a mountain which will protect them and the community, and pray to the spirits. Then, slowly, they begin to chew the leaves. The owner will pay homage to the ancestors and to Mother Earth, burying some coca, cigarettes and candy in the ground, invoking their ancestors (Peru).

In the Andes, the work day is divided into three or four shifts, with a break between shifts when coca is chewed after their meals. The same is done when performing community work, where their authorities will hand out the coca leaves. In the Bolivian Yungas, thanks to the leaf, the ayni or reciprocal institution has been extended considerably because coca is a permanent crop which requires good care for the future. Under the ayni, the work performed for others is done with the same care as for their own property. The harvest under the reciprocation system is done by the women and this is the social event par excellance, they don their best clothing, blue skirts in contrast with the green coca fields and reddish brown earth. The young men of the community look for a suitable partner, the women flirt about, there is laughter, tales, and gossip. The harvest is the major workshop for social control by the community.

In farming communities, the practice of reciprocation for work shows that labor is a community resource, shared by all members as if they all belonged to a single domestic unit, and it is work which will establish the rank of the community member."

Magical Practices

In the Andean area, all ritual and religious ceremonies subsist and are quite common, with slight variations.

The purpose of the use of coca, in a magical sense, is to protect the individual against witchcraft, curses, bring good luck and predict the future.

Without coca, it would be impossible for the fortune teller to forecast the future, or to indicate what is the ailment of his patients and how to cure it. He would be able to understand the punishment inflicted by Mother Earth, the guardian spirits and other god protectors. Without coca they cannot protect the future and avert curses, for this practice coca is chewed and then burned. It is given to their animals when celebrating fertility rites. It is very important for there to be an abundance of coca, alcohol and food on these occasions because these are symbols of abundance in the future of the believers. Otherwise, the ceremony is useless. 12

In a religious sense, coca is used humbly to give thanks for blessings or to make offerings to the gods. All traditional Andean rituals are celebrated around the coca leaves. All present must chew the leaves under the direction of the fortune teller (yatiri). Likewise coca is indispensable in preparing the offerings for the ancestors, to Mother Earth (Dacha Mama) as an act of thanks giving for good harvests, health and thriving of their livestock.

"The gods, the Incas, and the ancestors in ancient and sacred times, dictated the rules for social and individual use of coca. The use of this plant as dictated by custom, in agricultural feasts, at work or during the ceremonies of their vital cycle, is to enter and experience the mythical and primeval space-time continuum of the gods, cultural heroes and their ancestors". 13

Coca will always be present in all important moments of their life because it is not only a product, but heritage as well. It is not only the most important element of their survival, but it also represents what is sacred to them, their culture, traditions and their endurance against abuse and exploitation.

"Like people, it must never be killed, uprooted, nor should the leaves be cast away... I interpret your sickness and all other ill fortune as a punishment from Pacha Mama for having eradicated the coca -it is sacred- is it not true?".14