Cocaine at its Roots

By Caroline Kuritzkes

Inundated with popular discourse about the dangers of cocaine abuse, we can easily lose sight of the intricate web of production that lies at root of the drug trade. Time and time again, the foreign costs of unwavering United States policy become lost in political dialogue, and in this regard, U.S. efforts to eradicate the cocaine market are no different. When most Americans think of cocaine, they picture the white, powdery substance responsible for killing thousands of U.S. consumers annually, destroying family structures, and perpetuating elaborate crime rings. Rarely do they visualize the tiny, green coca leaf — the crop from which cocaine is processed.

What’s all but vanished from this conversation is coca’s tremendous cultural significance for local populations throughout much of Latin America — and in Bolivia, Peru, and Colombia in particular. In Aymara and Quechua culture, chewing coca leaves is a common practice that has persisted for centuries. Contrary to popular belief, the plant is a nonaddictive, mild stimulant that causes no harm to the human body when consumed in its unrefined state. The cocaine alkaloid is present in less than one percent of the coca leaf (not unlike the caffeine alkaloid found in minute quantities in coffee and cacao), and coca must undergo cycles of extraction and chemical processing to reach its dangerous narcotic state. Chewing it can actually serve a nutritional and medicinal function. The leaf’s ability to quell hunger, thirst, and fatigue has made it integral to the labor and livelihoods of farmers and miners who spend hours on end working without time for breaks. For this reason, coca has proved instrumental in helping workers cope with exploitative labor systems. (Arguably, the plant paradoxically enables oppressors to extract as much sustained labor from their employees as possible, but that’s a story for another time).

Moreover, coca plays a vital spiritual role for many Andean communities, and a whole industry exists for the production, exchange, and consumption of non-cocaine related coca. Chuspas — the colorfully woven purses that locals use to carry coca leaves — as well as coca tea, sweets, soaps, and oils, constitute only a fraction of the products surrounding the traditional-purpose, unprocessed coca market. Conceivably, tens of thousands of Latin American workers are employed in the coca industry or in markets contingent on coca production. So where does cocaine fit into the picture? The problem is the faint line between licit and illicit coca production and consumption, and whether or not the U.S. government and supranational bodies are willing to recognize where that line falls.

A local market in La Paz, Bolivia, sells licit coca-related products, such as  teas, candies, soaps, oils, and medicines. The leaves themselves are displayed on the top right.
A local market in La Paz, Bolivia, sells licit coca-related products, such as teas, candies, soaps, oils, and medicines. The leaves themselves are displayed on the top right (Caroline Kuritzkes/TYG).

United States policymakers have fought long and hard for the destruction of the coca leaf, yet the War on Drugs has come at a steep economic and human cost for coca growers whose livelihoods depend on the plant’s cultivation. Popular in the late 1980’s through the early 2000’s, forced eradication methods (otherwise known as the military-assisted demolition of coca fields) have led to armed clashes between eradication squads and coca growers protesting the demolition of their crops, resulting in violence and deaths on both sides. Such procedures commonly involve aerial fumigation — the spraying of chemical herbicides that bear severe health hazards for laborers, as well as disastrous environmental consequences. Drift from aerial spraying also ruins the soil of adjacent fields, preventing farmers from planting new crops on easily accessible land. The upshot of such coca restriction strategies has been the displacement of indigenous communities, facing no choice but to migrate in search of fertile land untainted by fumigation.

The measures outlined above are championed through mechanisms of international control, guided by a heavy U.S. hand. From drafting international treaties to leveraging trade benefits that pressure Latin American governments to limit coca growing, the United States has proved an integral player. Indeed, what is most troubling is that the U.S. crackdown has historically not discriminated between traditionally purposed and cocaine-related coca, but rather targeted both kinds of production. Harry Anslinger, the first commissioner of the U.S. Federal Bureau on Narcotics, pushed for the famous 1961 United Nations Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, which banned coca among a list of far more dangerous narcotics such as cocaine and opium. The failure to acknowledge the distinctions between coca and these other drugs by grouping them in the same category reflects a fundamentally misguided U.S. policy, propagated through international channels. The convention even went so far as to call for the abolition of coca chewing within 25 years from its enactment.

Interestingly enough, Peru, Bolivia, and Colombia have blatantly ignored that stipulation, and the practice of chewing coca is perfectly legal today in those three countries (though unlimited traditional-purpose coca cultivation is not). Evo Morales, Bolivia’s first indigenous president (in office since 2006), has repeatedly filed objections to the Single Convention, calling the ban “an affront to Andean culture.” His efforts include petitioning that the U.N. remove coca chewing from the convention’s list of banned illegal substances in 2009, as well as withdrawing from the convention altogether. Morales’ resistance to some U.S.-administered drug policies does not stop there; in 2008, he opted out of the War on Drugs by expelling U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agents from Bolivia, accusing them of inciting violence in the Amazon in an anti-Leftist conspiracy against the Bolivian government. In May 2013, he barred the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) from doing work in the country, citing the organization’s attempts to promote forced eradication methods and encourage crop-substitution among Bolivia’s coca growers. Up until the Morales presidency, the U.S. government had supplied Bolivia with $150 million in aid each year in exchange for the country’s cooperation in coca substitution and eradication programs. Still, Morales has joined the Peruvian government in instituting a quota on coca acreage to limit the quantity of legal coca cultivation to a certain degree, even for traditional-purpose unprocessed coca.

Beyond partially rejecting the U.S. War on Drugs, Morales has gone so far as to convert the coca plant into a Bolivian symbol. Indeed, coca has become almost synonymous with the country’s national character. A once coca farmer and leader of the coca growers’ union before assuming the Bolivian presidency, Morales forged much of his presidential campaign through an alliance with Bolivian cocaleros, coca growers who have organized to combat U.S.-directed coca-elimination efforts. A 2007 Reuters article reported that Bolivia had considered including the coca leaf on its state flag, and Morales is frequently photographed holding a single coca leaf or wearing a wreath of leaves around his neck. For a country divided into several indigenous factions, it is no surprise that he seeks to unify Bolivia under the common cause of anti-Americanism. The coca leaf perfectly captures this sentiment of anti-American intervention and sends an implicit political message: that coca, and Bolivia itself, will endure despite U.S. efforts to tear away at the plant’s production and the roots of Bolivian identity.

All these factors considered, it is clear that Morales’ fetishization of the coca leaf is an extremely savvy political move. As a member of the Aymara indigenous group himself, his fusion of this traditionally indigenous symbol with Bolivian nationalism reveals a fiercely propagandistic statement. (It’s no wonder that Morales was reelected for a third term this past October!) Even more fascinating is that Morales may have transformed the coca question into a chicken and egg dilemma. Did he capitalize on the coca image because it contained a centuries-long symbolic history of indigenous identity? Or did Morales elect the coca icon as a response to the U.S.’s War on Drugs and American intervention in Latin America at large, thus imbuing it with indigenous cultural significance? Both these factors, and many more, are likely at play for this little leaf with far too much at stake: Bolivian identity, American foreign policy interests, the lives of coca growers, and the subversion of global power structures.

Caroline Kuritzkes ’18 is in Ezra Stiles College. She is a beat blogger for the Globalist Notebook on Latin America. Contact her at