Bolivia: Legacy of Coca


Bolivia is the third largest producer of coca leaves, following Colombia and Peru. The plant, which has been a part of the Bolivian culture for thousands of years and is sometimes described as hoja milenaria, or leaf of millennia, is viewed by the U.S. as unnecessary and is the focus of eradication in the U.S. War against Drugs. The lives of Bolivian coca growers are mired in poverty: families live in remote areas in rudimentary wooden houses and entire families work the crops. The image presented of the common coca grower as a drug trafficker, or worse, narco-terrorist, is a gross misperception, based in part on a lack of understanding of the traditional and cultural significance of the coca leaf in Bolivia. It is also due to a failure to differentiate between coca and cocaine. The intent of this article is to provide a general overview of the legacy of coca in Bolivia.

History of Coca and Its Use

The cultivation of the coca leaf is distributed throughout the central and northern Andean Ridge. Coca, the sacred leaf or hoja divina, has been used within the Andean society since approximately 3,000 B.C. During the Incan empire, the plant was considered sacred, and consumption of the coca leaf was reserved for the upper classes. The Incas also used the coca leaf in religious ceremonies and as a traditional medicine. Numerous legends exist describing the discovery of the valuable effects of the coca leaf. In Bolivia, one legend, derived from the Aymara Indians, is that Khun, god of lightening, thunder and snow, angry at men for their lack of respect for their mountain home near Lake Titicaca, separated them from their homes and banished them to a nomadic life, concealing their return route. Deprived of their ordinary sustenance, the Aymara began to eat forest plants. It was then that they discovered the coca bush. Chewing on the coca leaf, their hunger and fatigue subsided, the path became more accessible, and they eventually found their way back to Titicaca.

Spanish domination served only to expand the traditional use of the coca leaf, although consumption was initially prohibited by the Spanish. Because of its sacred role within the indigenous belief structure, coca was considered an instrument of the devil and an obstacle to the propagation of Catholicism. However, the Spaniards quickly discovered the advantageous side of coca. When the indigenous population was forced to work in the gold and silver mines, chewing coca alleviated hunger and fatigue; miners could work longer when allowed to consume coca. Coca converted into a form of compensation or was sold to workers at an inflated price and the use of coca rapidly became more prevalent throughout the indigenous communities.

The traditional method of coca consumption is called acullico. The user puts several coca leaves in the mouth with a small amount of an alkaline substance called llycta. The mixture is chewed lightly and formed into a ball that is placed at the side of the mouth; the curative juices are then slowly sucked out of the leaves. Coca is used as a physical and mental stimulant; to combat elements such as altitude, hunger and cold; and as a remedy for a wide range of medical complaints. Studies have established that traditional coca consumption increases tolerance for physical labor; helps the lungs to absorb more oxygen; helps to prevent the aggregation of platelets in the blood, resulting in a lower risk of thrombosis; and helps regulate the level of insulin in the body. (The Coca Museum, Hurtado and Silva). The coca leaf is a rich source of vitamins A and C, as well as calcium, iron, fiber, protein and calories. Coca is no more addictive than coffee and there is no proof that the consumption of the coca leaf is detrimental to one’s health. (Mama Coca, La Coca No Es Cocaína).

In addition to its nutritional benefits, the offering of coca in Andean indigenous society is a traditional social gesture. Social relationships and celebrations all involve the exchange of coca, which is believed to have unique value. Coca invites the soul to extend and strengthen the bonds of affinity and of reciprocity. (The Coca Museum, Hurtado and Silva). Equally important, it retains its spiritual significance and is still used in various indigenous ceremonies.

The coca leaf can also be used to make tea, and as such provides many of the same medicinal qualities. The use of coca in its boxed tea form is more predominant in upper class Bolivian society. Among the rural population in Bolivia, it is estimated that that 60-80% of the population consumes coca in the traditional acullico form. That number increases to approximately 90% when other forms of usage, such as tea and medicinal preparations, are included. (20 (Mis)conceptions on Coca and Cocaine, p. 60, citing Carter and Mamani study).

The alkaloid base of the coca plant was isolated in 1859 by a German pharmacology student. That base was called “cocaine.” One of the more famous early users of cocaine was Sigmund Freud, who used cocaine intravenously on an intermittent basis for three years, and used it on patients to treat severe depression until its addictive side effects became evident. It is also written that Robert Louis Stevenson’s famous work, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, was conceived under a cocaine binge of six days and nights.

Perhaps the most famous use of the coca leaf was in the formula for Coca-Cola, developed in the late 1800’s. The formula included the coca leaf (with the cocaine alkaloid intact), caramel syrup and kola nuts. In 1904, due to reports of negative side-effects, the company removed the cocaine alkaloid from its product but continued to add flavor by using a coca leaf that underwent a “decocainization” process.

Also in the late 1800’s, small amounts of the cocaine base were added to many different tonics, elixirs and over-the counter products. In these products the small amounts of cocaine produced effects similar to those experienced by chewing coca leaves. The cocaine alkaloid was added to wine by a French priest, and the product, Mariani Wine, was widely popular. Famous consumers of this wine included Thomas Edison, Jules Verne and Pope Leo XIII. The wine was particularly popular among those withdrawing from opium addiction. (

The anesthetic properties of coca were discovered as scientists learned more about extracting certain alkaloids from the coca leaf. Ultimately, these discoveries resulted in numerous synthetic derivatives used as pain medications such as Benzocaine, Lidocaine, and Prilocaine. (The Coca Museum, Hurtado and Silva) While these synthetic derivatives are still commonly used, the use of cocaine alkaloid on its own as a wonder drug was short-lived as the addictive side of the drug became known. As the addiction became linked to crime, laws prohibiting its use were soon to follow.

Notwithstanding the beneficial aspects of coca, the early cultural prejudice against the use of the coca leaf was reinforced in 1949 by the United Nations Investigative Commission on Coca, which determined that “Coca use is without doubt harmful and possibly causing the racial degeneration of the Indians.” Subsequently, and under strong US pressure, the UN officially took the position that coca chewing was a form of drug addiction, despite the fact that there is no evidence of addictive qualities in coca. The coca leaf was then placed on Schedule One, the list of the most dangerous and restricted substances, during the 1961 UN Single Convention on Narcotics.

Legal Coca

Coca, a shrub, grows best in the moist climate of the Andes at elevations of 4,500 to 6,000 feet. Coca leaves can be harvested within one year of planting and three to four times a year once established. The plant is resistant to drought and disease, and doesn’t require irrigation. Until 1988, growing coca was legal throughout Bolivia, though sales were regulated.

In 1988 the Bolivian Congress passed “Bolivia’s Law to Regulate Coca and Controlled Substances,” known more commonly as “Law 1008.” This legislation was reportedly drafted with the assistance of the U.S., and passage of the anti-drug law was essential for withheld economic assistance to be released by the U.S. (Presencia, 10 Feb 1986, quoted in Jelsma and Roncken, 1998). This law criminalized new coca production in most of the country. The law did concede that 12,000 hectares of coca could be grown legally within certain areas of Bolivia for purposes of traditional use. However, the amount of coca permitted as legal cultivation is viewed by many to be too little, particularly since that number was based on a study conducted in the late 1970’s. (En Defensa de la Hoja de Coca, p. 15) Legal use of Bolivian coca has increased since that time; in Argentina, for example, the possession and use of coca leaves was legalized in 1989, and is imported from Bolivia. (Mama Coca: El “Aculli” No Tiene Fronteras). The coca growers’ unions in Bolivia have pressured the government to reevaluate this amount; the U.S. had voiced adamant opposition to any increase in the amount of legal coca, but recently the U.S. ambassador to Bolivia indicated that a new, independent study might be supported.

Consistently omitted in the U.S. discussion of coca eradication is the amount of coca leaves imported legally into the U.S. For 2004, the Drug Enforcement Agency listed Stepan Company of Maywood, New Jersey, as a business authorized to legally import coca leaves, although the registration notice does not specify from what country the coca is obtained. (U.S Department of Justice, Drug Enforcement Administration, Federal Register Notices). And, as late as 2002, Bolivia’s drug czar reported that his office had authorized the exportation of approximately 159 tons of coca leaf to the U.S. “for the manufacturing of the soft drink, Coca-Cola.” (Coca in the Cola, Narco News, Luis A. Gomez, December 20, 2002). Coca-Cola’s importation was reportedly to take place through the use of intermediaries, one of whom was Stepan Chemical Company. At that time, officials from Coca-Cola denied that coca leaves were still used as flavoring in its product. (Ibid.) However, when recently questioned about whether the “decocainized” coca leaf is still used in Coca-Cola, a representative provided an equivocal response, stating that “The formula for Coca-Cola is a very closely guarded trade secret. Therefore, we do not discuss the formula.”

Coca to Cocaine

The coca bush takes one to two years to mature. At that point leaves can be harvested: it can take up to almost 300 man days to harvest one hectare—or about 2.5 acres—of coca bushes. One hectare of mature coca bushes can yield around 2.7 metric tons (approximately 6000 pounds) of dry leaf, which in turn yields about 7.44 kilos of cocaine. Within the legal market in Bolivia, coca leaves sell for approximately $1.50 a pound.

Coca leaves are dried and the leaves are processed into a base which is screened and the impurities removed. In Bolivia this process generally takes place in maceration pits and makeshift factories outside the coca-production zones. In recent interviews with various Bolivian military officials, they acknowledged that larger, organized groups of narco-traffickers do not have a demonstrated presence within Bolivia. Cocaine-related arrests in remote areas are primarily confined to the discovery of small family enterprises that produce the cocaine base.

Chemical must be added to the base to convert it to cocaine. The chemicals, known as precursors, include ethyl ether, acetone, and potassium permanganate, and are legally produced and exported by chemical companies throughout the world, including the U.S. These chemicals arrive in the cocaine-producing countries initially as legitimate purchases by companies that are registered and licensed to do business as chemical importers or handlers. Once in a country or state, the chemicals are diverted by rogue importers or chemical companies, criminal organizations and individual violators.

The control of precursor chemicals is a focus of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration in the war against drugs, but the U.S. Office of National Drug Control Policy noted in its most recent Fact Sheet that, “Because many legitimate industrial chemicals are also necessary in the processing and synthesis of most illicitly produced drugs, preventing the diversion of these chemicals from legitimate commerce to illicit drug manufacturing is a difficult job.” In contrast to the policy of forcing limits on coca, there is no effort to force large multi-national corporations to limit the production of these chemicals to an amount deemed necessary by the U.S. government. Instead, the DEA actively attempts to limit the illegal use of precursor chemicals by setting controls for their distribution or “preventing the diversion of these chemicals.”

Once in the U.S., cocaine sells on the streets for approximately $100 a gram. (U.S. Office of National Drug Control Policy, Drug Facts, Cocaine, April 1, 2004). (One kilo equals 1000 grams.) One kilo of cocaine, therefore, has a street value of $100,000. The coca leaf accounts for only about two percent of cocaine’s value. (Painter, Bolivia & Coca, 139). Coca growers benefit least from the trade. The benefit to them is measured by the simple ability to survive: their lives remain mired in poverty.


Bolivia is the third-poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, ranking ahead of only Haiti and Nicaragua. Income inequality is also extreme; the richest 10 percent of the population receives income over 90 times greater than that of the poorest 10 percent. (UNDP, HDR 2001, 182–185). The estimated 56 to 70 percent of Bolivians who are indigenous largely overlap with the two-thirds who live in poverty; many of these are subsistence farmers. (Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs, Background Notes: Bolivia, November 2002). Nearly 30 percent of the population subsists on less than a dollar a day, and 23 percent are considered by the United Nations Development Program to be undernourished (the average for all Latin America is 12 percent). (UNDP, HDR 2001, 150 and 164–5). Bolivia also has the second-highest infant mortality rate in Latin America. (“Bolivia ocupa el segundo lugar en mortalidad infantil,” El Deber, Santa Cruz, 12 Dec. 2002). In the face of Bolivia’s widespread poverty, many families turned to coca-growing to generate enough income to guarantee their survival. (“2003 Coca Cultivation Estimates for Bolivia and Peru,” Press Statement: Richard Boucher, Spokesman, Department of State, Washington, D.C. 17 Nov 2003).

For the Bolivian coca farmer, coca is a traditional crop that has been harvested for millennia. The production of the coca leaf with few limitations was legally accepted until 1988, when a law restricting the amount of legal coca was enacted. This law did nothing to diminish the cultural acceptance of the coca leaf. Although coca crops are illegal in certain parts of Bolivia, coca leaves are sold at legal regional markets in those same areas. Military checkpoints designed to prevent the trafficking of cocaine are also points where vendors openly sell small amounts of leaves to travelers for the traditional acullico.

The sacred leaf of the Incas is now the focus of a heated battle between the U.S. and Bolivian coca growers as the U.S. wages its War on Drugs. In Bolivia, that war is fought by on-the-ground eradication of illegal crops by armed soldiers. While the traditional coca farmer recognizes the difference between coca and cocaine, he does not reap the benefits of the massive profits of drug-trafficking. Coca is the key to his survival and that of his family. This target of current eradication efforts has little reason to consider the effect his traditional crop and labor has on the U.S. drug user. Attempts at eradication are viewed with contempt and met with resistance, and have served only to enhance political and social conflict within Bolivia. Ironically, coca growers report that the soldiers who come in to remove their crops often work with a ball of coca leaves in their mouths. (Así Erradicaron Mi Cocal, p. 10). It is this image that, perhaps, most succinctly captures the contradiction for Bolivian coca growers regarding the criminalization of a harvest that is simultaneously an essential element of their society.

June 9, 2004