“When the greed of man has destroyed the natural recourses of the planet, a time of misery will come. Then the leaf which is today mistreated and persecuted will come forth to save humanity from famine” – Incan Saying
All through Andean South America, in countries like Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia and Colombia, the coca leaf is a staple of the indigenous diet and considered a life-giving medicine – and a sacred plant. Anthropologist Wade Davis says it was known as the “Divine Leaf of Immortality” to the ancient Inca and its use is still central to countless traditional societies that call this rugged region their home.
Archaeological studies show that coca leaf has been consumed in South America for at least 8,000 years, which predates any ancient civilization on earth. According to an article in Scientific American, excavations in Northern Peru reveal that the mining of lime from calcium-rich stone deposits, which was (and still is in some places) used to activate the alkaloids in coca, was the very activity that caused ancient hunter and gatherer groups to stop wandering and become sedentary communities, leading to urban development and large social organization. Yes, coca leaf actually launched the first civilization in South America.
But because the United Nations banned coca leaf in the Single Convention on Narcotics in 1961 and it has been a main target of the U.S. backed War on Drugs ever since, few people in the world have actually seen coca leaf unless they have visited the Andean region, where local laws protect traditional use and consumption. One of the most important plants in recorded history is still unknown to most of humanity.
But all that is about to change. The belief that these sacred plants have an important role to play in bringing a more ecological and just world into existence is on the rise. Coca has already helped birth an entire civilization, and now it is poised to be foundational to this new global awakening as well.
Coca Leaf is Both Food and Medicine
“Madre Tierra gave us coca to make us stronger and healthier,” Sandra Quilcue tells me one grey and misty morning in downtown Bogota from across her glass counter. Quilcue is a member of the Nasa indigenous nation from Colombia’s southern Cauca department, a mountainous region that has cultivated coca leaf for millennia and has historically faced harsh persecution for doing so.
She now lives in the country’s 10 million-strong capital, where she runs the retail outpost of Coca Nasa, a company owned and managed by the Nasa that specializes in a wide variety of health products made from coca leaf: everything from teas to skin salves to chocolate-covered coca cookies.
While traditional consumption methods of coca like teas and whole leaf are some of the most popular offerings of Coca Nasa, the creative production of coca-infused foods is a trend sweeping the urban areas of Colombia. “Coca is full of energy and vitamins,” says Sandra. “Indigenous people use it to walk in the mountains for hours without getting tired.”
The science backs this up: A study done in 1975 at Harvard University by acclaimed botanist Dr. James Duke showed coca leaf to contain unparalleled nutritional content. According to the study, a 100gm serving “would more than satisfy the recommended daily allowance (RDA) for calcium, iron, phosphorus, vitamin A, vitamin B2, and vitamin E.” Duke himself was surprised at the high levels of nutrients in coca, particularly iron and calcium (the highest plant source of calcium ever found).
Adding coca flour (harina) to food items would not just boost their nutritional content to optimal levels but also provide consumers with powerful doses of medicinal compounds that reverse some of our most challenging modern disorders. Mixed into the flour of baked goods ground coca leaf instantly transforms mundane items into nutrient-rich deep green delicacies. In a world where half of all childhood deaths are caused by malnutrition and scientific bodies are struggling to figure out how to feed the world without destroying the environment, coca has a potentially serious heroic role to play.
According to Sandra Quilcue, coca is not just a superfood, “it’s a powerful medicine that could do a lot to help the problems faced by modern society.” A new study conducted by a team of Japanese doctors in Bolivia over a period of ten years and published as a 200-page book called “Coca: Un Biobanco”, completely backs Quilcue’s claim.
It shows coca possesses a litany of medicinal properties nearly as impressive as medical marijuana, another mighty plant that is transforming the world. In particular, coca helps turn around many of the medical issues associated with our current lifestyle, from obesity and chronic pain to cognitive decline and depression.
A plant that both feeds and heals the world? Yes, that is Mama Coca. No wonder it was so highly revered by the Inca and other ancient indigenous societies. So why isn’t a wellness product like this there on the shelf of the health food store? Why isn’t it recommended by doctors? Why isn’t it being shipped all over the world, from the indigenous fields of the Andes to your doorstep?
The answer has more to do with Western cultural superiority complexes than any actual science or reason.
Coca Leaf is not a Drug
“The prohibition of the coca leaf is based on a study from 1950, and it is a racist study of thinly veiled colonialism without any scientific basis,” Dr. Jose Carlos Bouso, a clinical psychologist with a PhD in pharmacology told Reset in an exclusive interview. .
Bouso is the scientific director of the International Center for Ethnobotanical Education, Research & Service (ICEERS.org), a global non-profit that is committed to research, advocacy, and community building around traditional societies and plant medicines.
Early studies like the one Dr. Bouso is referring to, which is called the “Report on the Commission of Inquiry on the Coca Leaf” were carried out by Westerners with little experience or interest in indigenous societies and they painted the sacred tradition of coca leaf consumption as a negative practice that damaged health.
The UN then banned coca leaf along with cocaine, lumping the two together as one demonized substance and calling for complete eradication of the plant itself, whether cultivated or wild. For decades this has put traditional indigenous cultivation areas like the Cauca region of Colombia on the frontline of the U.S.-led War on Drugs.
“Put simply, coca is not cocaine,” says Sandra Quilcue, whose ancestors have been using coca leaf for its health-promoting properties since time immemorial. Despite the confusion in the Western World, this sentiment has been expressed over and over by the South American indigenous community for many years, including the ex-president of Bolivia, Evo Morales.
“This is coca leaf. This is not cocaine. This represents the indigenous culture of the Andean region” Morales said as he chewed coca leaf right on the UN assembly room floor back in 2009.
According to Dr. Bouso, this indigenous view is indeed backed up by science: “There is not a single piece of evidence that the chewing of coca leaf can be harmful to health and rather the evidence speaks of benefits. Cocaine increases cardiac output, increasing blood pressure and can cause cerebrovascular problems while the coca leaf regulates blood pressure and helps maintain cardiovascular health.”
Unlike cocaine, coca leaf consumption does not lead to either “toxicity or dependence” as Harvard educated Dr. Andrew Weil explained in back in the early 1980s in an article entitled “The Therapeutic Value of Coca in Contemporary Medicine. Weil also recommended the green leaf for everything from gastrointestinal disorders to diabetes.
Interestingly, not only did Weil claim that coca leaf was not addictive, but that it is actually able to treat “dependence on stronger stimulants”. According to Lima, Peru-based psychiatrist Dr. Luis M. Llosa, the oral administration of coca leaves, whether by chewing or in tea, is actually an effective way to break cocaine addiction and he wrote an entire book outlining this therapeutic process.
Because the whole foundation of the argument for the illegalization and eradication of coca leaf rests on the claim that it is an addictive and dangerous narcotic, the science here plainly illustrates that in the case of coca leaf, as was the case with marijuana for decades, the emperor simply wears no clothes.
“The World Health Organization (WHO) will eventually have to review the evidence on the dangers of the coca leaf and then there will be no choice but to legalize it.” says Dr. Bouso.
Coca Leaf is a Green Ally for Global Healing
The War on Drugs was recently called a “spectacular failure” that has done nothing more than fill prisons and create more crime and violence by a global coalition of over 170 non-profits. To many, waging war against nature is a sign of a deranged society in the first place. A disconnection from what many in the plant medicine community call Mother Nature or Gaia and indigenous people in South American call Pachamama, or Madre Tierra. Can we recover this connection? It’s already happening.
A 20 page report released in 2020 by Colombia’s esteemed University of the Andes entitled “Coca: From Stigma to Opportunity” outlines a strategy for shifting the country’s focus from Western-style eradication of coca to an indigenous perspective that integrates it into a national green economy.
The paper argues that coca offers a road to sustainable development in agriculture, public health, nutrition, social justice, politics – and even provides a way to make the kind of consciousness change that is needed around the world towards a more interconnected and indigenous way of living.
Many ancient Andean civilizations considered coca leaf a source of divine knowledge and spiritual information. The report goes on to say: “It’s function as a subtle, benign, and yet powerful entheogen remains a hidden niche, despite the fact that millions of people appreciate coca and the leaf is at the heart of (indigenous) community building and sustainable management practices, and implies an important lesson for the West.”
Sandra Quilcue agrees: “Coca is a sacred plant that can help change perspectives as well as heal the body,” she says.
Bolivia announced several years ago that it is doubling down on coca production and betting on a future where they can export the leaf around the world. A 2018 report by the Open Society advised Colombia to do the same and use the valuable properties and rich cultural legacy of coca as a means to stabilizing the country and achieving the peace that has eluded this vibrant land for far too long.
In October of 2020, in the middle of a worldwide pandemic that brought Colombia’s economy crashing down and reversed many of the gains made by the country’s peace process, two senators (one of them a leader from the Nasa nation itself) introduced a bill that would immediately de-criminalize coca leaf and cocaine, thereby ending the five-decade-long War on Drugs instantly.
This parallels new movements in the West like Decriminalize Nature, which has rapidly succeeded in decriminalizing plant medicines everywhere from Oakland, CA to the entire state of Oregon. Over 100 U.S. cities now have proposals to decriminalize entheogenic plants and fungi, as does the entire country of Canada.
When it comes to coca leaf, its beneficial effects on the mind, body, and spirit give it an important role to play in creating a more sustainable system that benefits all. Soon the outside world may finally get to know one of the most revered and powerful plant medicines in the history of humankind.
Just on time, as prophesized, to save the day.
Ocean Malandra is a widely published freelance writer that divides his time between Northern California and South America. He is the current author of the Moon Travel Guide series to Colombia, a former environmental columnist for Paste Magazine, and the co-editor of an anthology on plant medicines forthcoming in 2021. Follow him @oceanmalandra