This month the UN’s International Narcotics Control Board recommended a ban on coca chewing and the use of coca in mass-consumption products such as tea in Peru and Bolivia. This is part of an attempt to crack down on cocaine production. Both Andean countries have defended the use of coca which has been used for medicinal and religious purposes for centuries and is part their cultural identity.
Millions of Indians have chewed coca on a daily basis for many hundreds of years, yet never has a plant been so misrepresented and its use so controlled by prejudice and ignorance, clearly including up to the present day.
The Incas regarded coca as ‘the divine plant’ mainly because of its property of imparting endurance, nevertheless its use was entwined with every aspect of life; the art, mythology, culture and economy of the Inca Empire and the Andean civilisations which preceded it.
Even today, distances are measured in ‘cocadas’ – how far an Indian carries his load under the stimulus of one chew of coca. But the ceremony which brings out the essentially shamanistic dimension is the mesa , and this unites the whole community.
The Peruvian and Bolivian governments criticised the UN report for only concentrating on coca cultivation as the basis for cocaine production and that it lacked respect for indigenous cultures. To protest against the UN recommendations, dozens of Peruvian Congress members chewed the coca leaf publicly. Indigenous activists led by the Congress woman Hilaria Supa also gathered in central Lima to raise awareness about the spiritual and cultural uses of the coca leaf.