5 Things I Did Not Know About Coca Leaves

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My first experience with coca leaves was casual.

Before becoming a hopeless information addict, my life had a sense of direction. At the age of 19, I was a student of mechanical engineering in Lima, Peru. Somehow during my sophomore year, my college offered me a splendid internship. I was going to travel to a silver mine in Arequipa, in the southern region of Peru, for two months. The position involved working as an assistant for the heads of mining operations, two engineers from the UNI, a prestigious university in Peru. Since all expenses were covered, I did not give it much thought. I packed my belongings and left.

Arequipa And The Trip To A Medieval Era

The mine was located at a height of 12,000 feet and the average temperature was 15ºF. A month later, I was still trying to accustom to the weather and lack of oxygen. Overall, the experience was a cultural shock. I was thrown into the “world of the adults”, but in its most nightmarish form. The UNI engineers I worked with were brilliant. They dealt with complex algorythms and were fluent in German, English and Quechua. But they treated their subordinates very lowly.

Let’s be clear. Even America has a caste system, but they disguise it well under their “institutions.” In Peru, the caste system was promoted shamelessly.

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The production line was composed by truly gigantic machines. Natives from a near community were in charge of operating them. I knew there were hundreds of operators. But it was difficult to talk to them. Whenever I and the engineers approached, they operators rushed to hide behind the machines. They seemed afraid of us and I felt bad. When I inquired the engineers about it, they said: “Do not try to talk to them, Pedro. They are Indians; those people can’t think.”

What I heard became ingrained in my mind. That simple phrase taught me more about cultural studies, ethnic studies, class structure, capitalism and social theory than any academic book I encountered years later.

The Indigenous Superman

One night, one of the machines broke. I accompanied the engineers to the site, located near a mountain peak. It was freezing cold and we could hardly breath. The engineers and I covered our bodies with blankets. While inspecting the machine, one of the engineers ordered:”Go and search the operator.”

I found the operator inside the transmission room. He instantly waved at me. At a temperature of 10ºF(-12°C), I was dressed with three clothing layers and a blanket. But the operator only wore a thin shirt, short pants and a pair of boots. He was not even shivering, but carrying a heavy shaft of steel. I was stunned. While debating if I just encountered a superhuman being, I saw him chewing something. His teeth and tongue were entirely green. After asking him what he ate, the operator said: “Kuka.” Seconds later, he pulled out two green leaves from his pocket and offered them to me.

The Sacred Coca Leaves

Later I learned that the mining corporation bought several pounds of coca a month. Management did not even enforce their consume. The operators ate them willingly. Coca allowed them to endure the freezing weather while working eighty hours a week without a blink. I was stupefied. Back then, I ignored the Kuka (Coca in Quechua) was and still is a sacred indigenous institution. Coca was used for medicinal, nutritional and divinatory purposes. Here are five things I did not know about coca leaves.

1. Coca Has Been Chewed For Thousands Of Years

A Shaman holds predicts new year at Agua Dulce Beach in Lima
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Coca was a revered leaf for the Incas. Especially for those who lived in the southern area of Peru. Cuzco, capital of the Inca civilization, with an altitude of 11,000 feet, was a strenuous region to live in. But the Incas were able to endure the high altitude, lack of oxygen and low temperatures just by chewing coca leaves.

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2. United Nations Loosened Its Restrictions On Coca Leaves

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Living in such inclement conditions was unfeasible without coca leaves. This is why the indigenous communities revered it, considering a gift from the Gods. But western culture sought to disappear it. Such measure of cultural genocide came from the United Nations (UN). In their 1961 “Convention of Narcotic Drugs” the UN stipulated that “Coca leaf chewing must be abolished within twenty-five years from the coming into force of this Convention”.

But since January 2013, United Nations reversed its intolerant approach on Indigenous coca chewing. Bolivian Indigenous President Evo Morales was essential for this achievement. Morales had often accused the UN of criminalizing a fundamental “cultural heritage.”

3. Coca Consume Was Only Allowed for Inca Noblemen

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In regions of no significant altitude, Coca was only consumed by Inca noblemen. But when Spaniards conquered the Incas, this tradition changed. As everyone knows, Spaniards kept the natives as slaves, working in their lands and mining fields.

As soon as Spaniards noticed that coca improved the efficiency of slaves, they democratized Coca use among all natives. Before Spanish Conquest, Coca saved the natives from the hardships of nature. After Conquest, Coca helped them withstand the exploitation enforced by Spaniards. It is then no wonder why natives revere coca.

4. Offering Coca To A Stranger Is An Act Of Friendship And Trust

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Whenever I walked accompanied by the engineers, nobody approached me. But when I was alone, the operator offered me coca. I often wondered why he did that. Later I learned that, according to Indigenous custom, offering coca is an act of trust and friendship. Had I known that before, I would have received the leafs with both hands and bowed as a sign of respect.

5. After Cocaine Was Isolated, It Became Popular Among Europeans

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For over two centuries, coca virtues were only known by a few European academics. But in 1860, cocaine was isolated by German chemist Albert Niemann. Then, in 1863, French chemist Angelo Mariani conceived the idea of manufacturing a cocaine based tonic. Vin Mariani, was made with Bordeaux wine and coca leaves. Originally, the tonic contained 6 mg of cocaine per ounce of wine.

But soon Vin Mariani faced strong competition from similar drinks produced in America. Accordingly, the amount of cocaine was raised to 7.2 mg per ounce. Vin Mariani was consumed by various personalities such as Queen Victoria, Pope Leo XIII, Pope Saint Pius X, inventor Thomas Alva Edison, General Ulysses Grant and American President William McKinley. Writers also loved it: Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, Arthur Conan Doyle, Robert Louis Stevenson and Alexandre Dumas. Attaboys!

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