Present state of the coca-leaf habit in Colombia
years have elapsed since action was first taken against coca-leaf chewing.
The coca habit occurs locally among a few indigenous groups; geographically,
it is found in the areas of Colombia where the coca bush has been
cultivated. It is the leaves of this bush which are chewed.
Professor Jorge Bejarano,
Pages: 1 to 5
Present state of the coca-leaf habit in Colombia
Faculty of Medicine, Bogotá University.
ten years have elapsed since action was first taken against coca-leaf
chewing. The coca habit occurs locally among a few indigenous groups;
geographically, it is found in the areas of Colombia where the coca bush has
been cultivated. It is the leaves of this bush which are chewed.
not necessary to revert in this report to the history of the coca habit,
which dates back to the period of Manco Capac, the founder of the powerful
Inca tribe which carved out a vast empire. There exists a sufficient body of
literature and research on the subject, the chief interest of which resides
in its sociological and human aspects. For us, it is evidence of the great
ingenuity of man in discovering plants and substances which can provide him
with abnormal sensations and in grasping the secret of the chemical
processes for the extraction of the necessary elements by which he could
produce that state of factitious happiness and euphoria that is generated by
drunkenness or the effects of alkaloids.
absence of a reference to the historical background will, however, be more
than compensated if we note the serious concern now being shown by the
governments and international organizations which are studying the necessary
measures to eradicate a habit that has a demonstrably adverse effect on
physical and mental health.
it necessary for the purposes of this report on the present state of the
problem of coca addiction in Colombia to describe once again the mental,
psychological, economic, social and pathological phenomena produced by coca
addiction, for they have been described so often before with an abundance of
detail. The fact that, after centuries, these phenomena are still present is
the reason for the campaigns carried out both in Peru and in Colombia by
health experts, sociologists and chemists.
must, however, be repeated whenever the problem of coca addiction is
mentioned is that this problem has persisted throughout the centuries,
sometimes because of the neglect of governments and sometimes because of the
interests of groups which use it as a means of gaining an economic
stranglehold over the indigenous population. There is abundant historical
evidence of the immoral use made by man of natural vices, or of vices
fostered by civilization, to control the work, land and economy of peoples
or tribes who are slaves of opium, alcohol, chicha or the coca leaf.
The Indians first made use of the coca leaf because of its medicinal
properties or of its mythological significance but, having come under the
influence of its narcotic effects, they sold themselves into slavery for a
period of years which has not yet expired; as has been shrewdly observed by
Dr. Luis N. Saenz, neither the independence of the American peoples nor the
laws enacted in favour of the Indians to this date have freed them from this
socio-historic monograph, Nuevos Capítulos sobre el Cocaísmo en Colombia
(New Chapters on Coca Addiction in Colombia), I pointed out that there would
appear to be some justification for the cultivation of the coca bush in
Bolivia and Peru, where it has become a source of dollar or foreign exchange
earnings because there is a foreign market for the coca leaf, which is used
in the preparation of cocaine. The same, however, has never been true of
Colombia, where the only purpose of this cultivation is to exploit the
indigenous labour and economy in the areas where the coca bush survives, and
with it the habit of chewing the coca leaf. Coca addiction has made it
possible to subject the indigenous populations to exhausting tasks at
miserable wages paid in part in rations of coca leaf. Accordingly, in
Colombia there are no economic grounds to justify the cultivation of the
coca bush, and still less any of the pseudo-scientific grounds which have
been put forward in other countries as an apologia for a habit fraught with
serious social, pathological and economic consequences.
Moreover, Colombia has no experience of living conditions such as those
found in the areas of Peru and Bolivia where the aridity of the soil and the
prevailing cold winds have resulted in a lack of vegetation and appear to
have led inevitably to coca addiction because of the very narrow range of
food. Housing in those areas of Colombia where the coca bush is cultivated
and where the habit of chewing the coca leaf exists is not as primitive as
that of the Peruvian and Bolivian areas where coca addiction is prevalent.
is, however, one respect in which the situation in Bolivia or Peru resembles
that in Colombia: in all three there is a food deficiency in the zones or
areas where coca addiction is common. Whether the explanation is that the
chewing of coca leaf induces an insensitivity of the stomach, or that the
people simply do not know how to obtain an adequate diet, the fact remains
that all these people - and of course the entire family, for the low wages
and the coca habit affect every member of the family - suffer from chronic
regard to the present position of the problem in Colombia and the results of
the measures enacted by the Government from 1946 to 1948, it is interesting
to note that whereas results are not very encouraging in the department of
Cauca - where the bush is principally cultivated and where the coca habit is
most strongly entrenched - the campaign has been a complete success in the
department of Huila. The poor results obtained in the department of Cauca
are perhaps attributable to the political conditions prevailing for ten
years, which demoralized constituted authority and prevented the
implementation of the above-mentioned measures.
January 1960, the Legal Department of the Ministry of Public Health
addressed an inquiry to the sixteen departmental secretaries of public
health. Thirteen replied that the coca bush was not cultivated, and the
chewing habit did not exist in their territory. One did not reply, and only
the two departments of Cauca and Huila reported coca bush cultivation, said
to be almost negligible in the latter.
See Bulletin on Narcotics, Vol. IV, No. 3.
The department of
where coca is cultivated and consumed
Percentage of coca consumers
4. La Vega
should be noted that, of the various measures suggested in my study
published in 1952, those intended to raise educational, economic,
agricultural and housing standards have not been implemented in the campaign
against coca addiction.
Government’s measures have now been in force for twelve years; by now,
addiction ought to have been completely eradicated, and Colombia ought to be
reaping the fruits of a campaign meant to benefit the community and the
be claimed that the chewing habit is now limited to nine municipalities of
the department of Cauca, the names of which are given in the attached map
together with particulars of the population of each and an estimate (in
percentages) of the extent of the coca consumption.
habit essentially affects the indigenous population; it also affects a very
small number of non-indigenous peasants.
indigenous inhabitants are initiated to the chewing habit at the age of
twelve, and maintain it throughout life. Only the indigenous families who
are educated and protected by missionaries are free from the habit.
entire population group affected by the habit works in agriculture, as
small-holders or sharecroppers.
Economic conditions for this population group are precarious. Wages vary
between 3 and 4 Colombian pesos per day - i.e., 50 or 60 U.S. cents. Housing
conditions are deplorable; the inhabitants live in primitive huts with
neither drinking water nor sanitation. Those who succeed in becoming coca
growers live better, for they can sell the leaf at 2 Colombian pesos per
pound - i.e., half a day's wage. In some districts of the department of
Cauca, the coca leaf has virtually become currency for the payment of wages;
the indigenous inhabitants receive part of their weekly wages in coca
leaves, a social malpractice which has been repeatedly reported to the
Ministry of Labour.
wretched conditions perhaps explain the irresistible inclination of the
indigenous inhabitants to coca-leaf chewing, by means of which they find,
through intoxication, an escape from their loneliness and misery.
the municipalities affected by the chewing habit, with the exception of two
or three, the health centres suffer from a shortage of personnel and
material. One gathers the impression that they ignore the problem of coca
According to one census, there are 936 coca-bush growers, who cultivate
about 617 hectares consisting of 500,000 bushes; the annual production is
approximately 143,650 kg, representing a value (at the rate of about 4 pesos
per kg) of approximately 600,000 Colombian pesos.
coca leaf is sold clandestinely in the markets of the growing areas. In
addition, there is a clandestine traffic into other municipalities, and even
into departments where the habit was thought to have disappeared because the
bushes have been destroyed and the sale of the leaf has been brought under
control. The departments in question are those of Huila and Narino,
bordering on the department of Cauca.
consider it right to repeat in this report some of the suggestions I have
made elsewhere, and to make some additional ones on points which I consider
essential to the success of the campaign in Colombia.
The Government of Colombia should ask for expert technical assistance
to bring about the necessary changes in agriculture and education in the
areas where coca chewing still exists.
The Government should enlist in the campaign the participation of the
Ministries of Public Health, Education, Agriculture and Public Works, the
Agrarian Bank and the Agricultural Society of Cauca.
By legislation or otherwise, land on which coca is now grown should
be exempted from all taxation for five years, on condition that within a
period of not more than six months coca must be replaced by fruit,
vegetables, leguminous plants, flowers, nursery plants, coffee, sugar cane,
soya beans, grass for fodder, or by some other crop which can be used as
food for man or beast, or one which enhances the quality of the land (afforestation).
It is of course an implication of the benefit of this tax exemption that the
public-health, police or civil authorities will have power to destroy
plantations which have not been replaced by other crops within six months of
the date of the enactment.
The bishops of Popayan and Neiva should be asked to lend the strong
support of the clergy to make the campaign a success. In addition, the
missionaries who are concerned with the education of the indigenous
inhabitants or who employ them in agriculture or cattle breeding should be
invited to co-operate.
The Ministry of Labour should station in the coca-growing areas a
sufficient number of labour inspectors to discover and punish severely those
farmers and employers who pay the weekly wages of their labourers partly in
cash and partly in coca leaves. These inspectors should examine the
contracts of employment and verify whether they conform with the provisions
of the labour legislation.
Pending the replacement of coca by the other crops mentioned above,
the Ministry of Public Health, with the co-operation of UNICEF, should carry
out an intensive nutrition campaign, issuing milk to children and mothers,
and establishing school canteens in the areas in question.
Health centres should be set up in order to carry out an intensive
tuberculosis and smallpox vaccination campaign. These centres should
instruct the midwives and practitioners whom the indigenous inhabitants
consult in the elements of child health and midwifery.
The Rehabilitation Office should be associated with this campaign for
the eradication of coca-leaf chewing, and should deal with rural housing in
the areas concerned, either by improving existing housing, which fulfils
some but not all public health conditions, or by building new houses by any
of the methods which have been employed for similar purposes in the areas
affected by civil violence.
The co-operation of UNESCO should be enlisted to carry out a
programme of education by means of films, pamphlets and booklets in order to
cure the present state of ignorance.