This is the first entry in a long saga about how the Peace Corps ended their relationship in Bolivia. You can read more about the political situation here.
What is coca? At the most basic it’s a plant. But there’s much more than that. If you ask the United States government they’ll tell you it’s a security threat that needs to be wiped off the map through prodigious use of herbacides and fire. If you ask many people in South America they’ll tell you coca is a miracle cure. Harvested for over eight thousand years, coca has helped the Andean people fight altitude sickness, fix hangovers and stomach problems, relieve pain, even combat malaria. Where’s the disconnect?
Coca can be refined into cocaine. This makes coca a premier target for US law enforcement. A key tenet of the war on drugs in South America, is the eradication of coca. Aerial fumigation and bulldozing of coca fields happen on a regular basis. This doesn’t stop the peasants from growing coca, there’s just not enough money to be made elsewhere. Study after study has shown that to effectively reduce the amount of coca being grown to reduce the amount of cocaine coming into America development projects aimed at helping the cocaleros transfer from growing coca to other crops need to be ramped up with money and personnel. Unfortunately this isn’t happening quick enough so the status quo remains. It’s a Catch-22. When coca is destroyed, prices go up. When prices go up more people plant it. The unfortunate result is that cocaine is still easy to find in America.
On the other side, coca is an integral part of traditional Andean culture. Along with the medicinal uses, some people believe that coca leaves can be used in divination. It also plays a heavy role in traditional religions. This connection to the past should be no surprise in the Andes where many people still speak Quecha, the language of the Incas. My host grandmother I lived with only spoke Quecha, her daughter had to translate the Quecha into Spanish so we would be able to communicate. With coca being so important to their culture, the coca eradication program has fanned anti-US sentiment in the region. A common refrain I heard through conversations, ‘If cocaine is such a problem in America, why aren’t they fixing the problem in America?’ There are those who claim that the war on drugs is nothing more than an attempt to finish the job the Spanish tried and crush out all indigenous culture. US law enforcement officials are no more than neo-conquistadors in their eyes.
Coca is legal in Bolivia and the Bolivian government does cooperate with US authorities to destroy illegal coca fields. Evo Morales does have many issues with the United States, but he agrees that cocaine manufacturers are a security risk and need to be dealt with. He has worked to extend protection to legal growers and tried to reduce the eradication program from the US with varying degrees of success.
Legal coca leaves are sold in bags by weight, ranging from a few ounces for a day’s supply up to hundreds of pounds to resell in local markets. It is often chewed giving off a slight tingling and numbing sensation. You can also find mate de coca which is a tea made of coca leaves. This is more common throughout the whole country, the chewing intake is normally limited to the more indigenous parts of the country.
As a foreigner there are some risks involved with coca. Outside of South America, most countries don’t differentiate between cocaine and coca. In America coca is considered a Schedule II drug, just like cocaine. So bringing any back to the states is a big no-no. Customs may let you slide on an ignorance plea, especially since the amount of coca needed to refine cocaine is outrageous, but in this day of constant security risks in airports it’s not worth it.