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Coca: Tradition And Promise

Baldomero Cáceres Santa María[*]

“Of all of the South American Indians' medicinal plants, adopted by modern science, the Coca leaf, Erythroxylum coca Lamarck, is probalvy the most famous.”
                                                                                                                                                                                  Richard Martín, 1970

The Coca bush, Erythroxylum coca Lamarck or Erythroxylum novogranatense Morris together with its corresponding varieties [Plowman,1984] -whose leaves have for centuries inspired the autochthonous peoples of these American lands [as shown by archaeological findings Patterson, 1971; Cohen, 1978]- has not been duly researched by the region’s academics. Paradoxically -given its pertinent cultural, economic, social and political importance- it is not even studied by our own Faculties of Agriculture. Officially viewed as an undesirable crop which should be substituted in the Andean countries in accordance with the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, 1961 (New York), its eradication would leave solely the production required to supply indigenous peoples’ need to maintain their age-old custom, or “co-tradition,”[Bennett,1948], a tradition shared by the diverse peoples of this land, from Argentina and Chile to Colombia.

In 1977, when I began the bibliographic review of “the Coca problem” which led me to a hasty article published in La Prensa of Lima under the title Coca the Andean World and Eradicators of 20th Century’s Idolatries (La coca, el Mundo Andino y los extirpadores de idolatrías del siglo XX), I had no idea that it would be so difficult to restore the value of our traditional crop since I assumed that this would be a shared task. The reasons and non-reasons for Coca’s international condemnation were clear. There were the prejudicial research papers, basically those by the Peruvian School of Psychiatry, which found the Andean coqueo (Coca chewing) guilty of being an addiction, contrary to what regional medicine sustained; medical view which was furthermore ignored by the United Nations Commission of Enquiry on the Coca Leafwhich in 1950 published a Report that was to serve as the basis for its condemnation by the World Health Organization’s Expert Committee on Dependence Producing Drugs (1952-1953).

This view, as I was later to see, was nothing new. In 1970, Richard T. Martín had pointed out this distortion in a critical pioneer article, published in Economic Botany, regarding Coca’s role in South American indigenous peoples’ history, religion and medicine. This effort in the United Sates to restore the value of Coca was paralleled by Doctor Andrew Weil’s study, The Natural Mind , in 1972. US academics had not only preceded us in research on Coca, they were also ahead in its defense. As regards historical studies, suffice it to call to mind that in Historical Peruvian Sources (“Fuentes Históricas Peruanas”: the reference book for scholars on Peru) the historian Raúl Porras Barrenechea could only briefly refer to Coca by quoting Doctor Hipólito Unanue’, “the most precious branch of all produced by fertile Peru”, and the “vast repertoire” of the medical doctor and historian Golden Mortimer, “the man from New York who in 1901 published Peru, History of Coca , The “divine plant” of the Incas and which, one hundred years later, has still not been translated into Spanish..

It is therefore not surprising, considering the above, that Coca is still in an abandoned state in our universities, with the exception of the field of anthropology whose voice was heard in 1978 through a special issue of América Indígena 4 dedicated to the defense of Coca by the Indigenous Inter-American Institute (Instituto Indigenista Interamericano III). The institute further re-edited part of this material in Coca, Indigenous View of a Satanized Plant (La Coca, visión indígena de una planta satanizada 1986), together with an article on the economic history of Coca by the historian Ruggiero Romano, who had been forewarned by the reaction of US academics.

This academic reconsideration carried out by the anthropological movement achieved its basic goal, namely, to guarantee due respect for this Andean custom in the Vienna Convention of 1988 . Its preamble states thereby that “The measures adopted shall respect fundamental human rights and shall take due account of traditional licit uses, where there is historic evidence of such use, as well as the protection of the environment.” Historical evidence duly legitimizes the use of Coca from Argentina and Chile , at least as far North as Colombia.

A year later, the Indigenous Inter-American Institute published the multinational report Coca...Tradition, Ritual, Identity (La coca...tradición, rito, identidad” 1989), with an introduction by the institute’s director, Doctor Oscar Arce Quintanilla, which summarized this new perspective according to which Andean coqueo cannot, under any circumstances, be considered the equivalent of an addiction.”

This Peruvian “interdisciplinary” group was made up of six anthropologists and a medical doctor, and so I contributed to the institute’s journal, Perú Indígena 28, 1990, a documentary on the black legend of the Coca which pointed to the root of its condemnation. In History, Pejudice and Psychiatric Version of Andean Coqueo ("Historia, prejuicios y versión psiquiátrica del coqueo andino"), I highlighted the misguidance of the judgment issued against this Andean custom as well as that of the psychiatric “theory” regarding "plants which are likely to produce addiction " which in all instances (poppy, cannabis and Coca) was based on the denial of the plants’ medical properties as of knowledge held by other cultures, and its reclassification as a “drug”. I concluded that the only way to recover the legitimacy of these forbidden natural resources is by avoiding the point of reference construed by this psychiatric theory and its corresponding terminology. Bypassing this “framework” [Allport,1939] should allow for the recovery of a strictly medical outlook.

Coca as a Legitimate Natural Resource

In 1991, Peru’s National Coca Enterprise (Empresa Nacional de la Coca del Perú -ENACO S.A) took a series of steps with the aim of officially restoring the true value of Coca as part of an educational campaign in which I participated as Academic Advisor. In 1992, the I Forum on the Virtues of the Coca Leaf (I Forum sobre Bondades de la Hoja de Coca) was held with the participation of Andrew Weil, Mauricio Mamani , co-author with William Carter de Coca en Bolivia (La Paz,1984), and Ana María Lema, then Director of Cocayapu (La Paz), an institution which took part in President Paz Zamora’s new Coca diplomacy. A II Forum, Por la Revalorización de la Coca, held in Cuzco (1993), brought together those who first defended this Andean resource, among others, Anthony Henman, author of Mama Coca [London, 1978] and Enrique Mayer, leader of the Indigenous Inter-American Institute’s campaign and personally responsible for the special issue of América Indígena 1978. In July 1994, the Ilo Declaration, signed by the presidents of Bolivia and Perú , signaled a new Coca image. Section 19 states the, “Agreement to form a high-level bi-national commission, coordinated by both Foreign Affairs Ministries, to design and carry out a joint strategy to restore the true value of the Coca leaf and whose main objective is to have this natural resource withdrawn from List No. 1 of the Single Convention of 1961.[1]

As noted by Andrew Weil in an article on the new Coca policy in the Andean countries, [Weil, A. "Letters from the Andes: The New Politics of Coca" The New Yorker, May, 1995] the steps required to put an end to the so-called “war on Coca” would not be easily carried out by our countries’ governments in spite of existing academic support towards a review of the issue.

Notwithstanding the transcendental importance of changes in official standpoints, as shown by the aforementioned bi-national declaration, the fact is that crop-substitution measures were continued in Bolivia and Perú while at the same time, in 1995, we noticed that large plantations were being displaced to our sister nation Colombia, where most likely, the Andean controversy regarding Coca was not as widespread as in our case.

Today, as the regional threat of the repressive nature of Plan Colombia comes to fore, the Andean Coca cause demands academic attention as a means of finding the strength to establish “...the virtues of the famous plant called Coca”, as acclaimed by Doctor Hipólito Unanue, forefather of our Independence and scholar who founded the Peruvian School of Medicine.

Coca Tradition: its nature

When thinking of our historical legacy and of the need for regionalizing our search for sustainable development, we must firstly address this transcendental regional issue, namely, the place of the Coca crop in our regional agricultural development policies.

Psychological experimental research has shown how perception is conditioned by pre-existing beliefs; “see to believe would be the opposing complement of the well-known proverb. From Kulpe [1904] to Bruner [1949, 1955] the fundamental act of perception is described as “identification”, “recognition” or “categorization”, thus confirming the findings of social psychology regarding prejudices and stereotypes [Allport,1959]. Allport’s “framework”, which is in our case the coexistence between modern culture and the Andean World, plays a key role in this identification scheme. The placing of Coca in a drug category instead of under the category of “food” and “medicine”, corresponds to this standpoint.

In the traditional Andean world the Coca leaf has been, as of the special virtues it continuously shows, a favorite nutritional element: “tanta”, as bread is still known today in Quechua. Natural and experimental medicine has observed and confirmed its qualities. Towards the end of the 18th century, Hipólito Unanue dubbed it the “vegetal kingdom’s hyper tonic” and, in the mid 19th century, Paolo Mantegazza, in an award-receiving essay which stirred much interest in Europe, referred to Coca as “food for the nerves.” Experimental medicine, based on reason and experience as stipulated by Claude Bernard, properly acclaimed Coca. Golden W. Mortimer, resisting the tendency towards discredit, duly recorded how Europe and America accepted Coca throughout 19th century.

Unfortunately, modern culture ¾rationalist and materialistic¾ placed its trust in those who, alleging a scientific knowledge they did not possess, attempted to deal with human existential vicissitudes by imposing their own arbitrary rules. Apocalyptic scourges such as war, famine, plagues and death, were substituted by psychiatric scourges such as addictions and dependence. As a result of a scandalous misuse of cocaine prescribed by Sigmund Freud in Vienna in 1884, an imprudent Freud was accused of having given birth to a “third scourge” German academic psychiatry, as established by Emil Kraepelin in the precursor text of a new doctrine [Psiquiatría,1899 and others], reclassified this substance, in an arbitrary manner, in the toxin category and it habitual use, thereby, as “chronic intoxication”.

For a young medical student, Hermilio Valdizán, who was at the time studying psychiatry in Italy and later founded Peruvian psychiatry, the prestige of this new field was irresistible and he accordingly assumed, without the slightest critical perspective, this reclassification of coqueo and all that it implied. In an article prior to the denigrating version published in La Crónica Médica of Lima, of August 15, 1913, the title of Doctor Valdizán’s article itself , Coca Addiction and the Indian Race (“El cocainismo y la raza indígena”), suggested the school of thought which would guide Peruvian psychiatry under his ten-year orientation through a psychiatry professorship in the Medical School of the Universidad Mayor de San Marcos. An unforgivably hasty judgment and, what’s worse, guilty of ignoring the medical knowledge held at the time. His article, when it does not fail to cover a bibliographical review of the subject, mutilates with biased intentions what it does cover, as in the case of Unanue’s Dissertation on the aspect, culture, commerce and virtues of the Famous Peruvian Plant Called Coca (Disertación sobre el aspecto, cultivo, comercio y virtudes de la famosa planta del Perú nombrada Coca), which Valdizán limits to an “agronomic study” under the title The Coca Crop “El cultivo de la coca”(sic).

I have opted for criticizing the silence surrounding the fallacious start given by Valdizán to Peruvian psychiatric doctrine, as shown by the exclusion of his article from Doctor Javier Mariátegui’s detailed bibliography in his biography of this San Marcos scholar and paradoxical student of Peruvian medical history, Hermilio Valdizán, El Proyecto de una Psiquiatría Peruana (1981).

The scope of this exclusion of medical criteria by the “eradicators of idolatries” -from Valdizán to Carlos Gutiérrez Noriega in the 40s- was made evident in the biased bibliographic review which preceded the 1950 Report by United Nations Economic and Social Council’s Commission of Enquiry on the Coca Leaf. Not only did it omit any mention to Unanue’s work [1794,1821] but it also failed to include reference to latter medical reports (Moreno y Maíz, 1868; Ulloa, Colunga y Ríos,1889). Mortimer’s monumental historical review, whose mention was inevitable in such a bibliography, was disallowed by a critical note: ”Al in all this book is not trustworthy and can therefore simply be disregarded.” In the 1952 Narcotics Bulletin, in response to the criticism provoked, the author of A Notated Bibliography (Bibliografía anotada”), Doctor Pablo Oswaldo Wolf tried to justify the omission of Uname’s work by quoting what Hermilio Valdizán had written in 1913 . What was but a coarse attempt at forgetting Coca’s medical prestige prior to its psychiatric stigmatization was not challenged at the time and has not been denounced up to now in spite its regional significance, or maybe out of fear of it

When the World Health Organization Expert Committee on Drug Abuse met in 1992 and assessed the chances of reopening the Coca leaf issue, it set itself at a distance from the emerging Andean movement to restore the value of Coca and unscrupulously took refuge in what was stated in the 1950 Report to reject a critical examination of the dossier. Thus an instance which is purportedly scientific refused in all impunity to update it information. As far as I know, our governments did not protest this time either. President Paz Zamora’s quest at the time to restore the value of Coca within the framework of the V Centennial celebrations was not followed through and what had been tied up continued so, much as it does today.

The only requisite ¾established by the Single Convention of 1961 itself¾ needed to revise the international standing of the Coca leaf would be to ask the UN Secretary General to reopen the case under the consideration that valuable documentary evidence which was concealed in 1950 with the aim of disallowing the nutritional and medical value of Andean coqueo in negation of what was sustained by the region’s medical knowledge up until the condemning psychiatric prejudice was officially adopted.

Domestic and Foreign Significance

At the begining of a new millenium in the era of globalization our generation has the responsibility of reflecting on what the Andean Region has gone through during the past twenty years as concerns violence, corruption and economy. We must bear in mind that political analysts such as Ethan Nadelman in his transcendental article U.S. Drug Policy: A Bad Export, [1988] have pointed out the abundant negative effects in the Andean countries of existing legislation, that of which we are all also aware. International meetings convened by the Andean Jurists Commission between 1989 and 1993 have left a legacy of publications which examine the diverse thorny issues associated with the “Coca problem.”

Regrettably, regardless of what has been argued and published regarding the consequences of the international veto on our natural resource, Coca, and despite the singular symbolic value of Coca in the Andean conscience, no concerted action has been carried out to consolidate and reaffirm the value of this “highly-prized leaf” mentioned by the Inca Gracilazo de la Vega in his Royal Commentaries, and which is staunchly defended by the peasants of Bolivia and Perú, and more recently, Colombia. Our own societies are still out of touch with the subject, and the political realm, generally speaking, conforms to the system which excludes our production from world markets.

As Andreu Viola concluded in his report on the investigation on alternative development carried out in Bolivia from 991 to 1994, “the Coca leaf, if we left aside its controversial international penalization, could be something like a development economist’s dream come true.” Viola sustained this on the basis of what was stated by the Thiesenhusen’s expert assessment [1987] which stipulated that there were 10 criteria to estimate what could be an optimal crop for a given region;10 criteria of which the Coca leaf fulfills 7, as in the case of traditional peasant support. Restoring the legitimacy of this rich natural resource, within the framework of the appreciation of medicinal plants which characterizes our times, would in all likelihood open the way to a diversity of agro-industrial possibilities which would channel our current Coca production and expand the agricultural frontier thus solving the root causes of the evils derived from narcotic trafficking, corruption and violence.

The National Foreign Intelligence Board under the authority of the Director of Central Intelligence anticipating security assessments for Latin America for the year 2015 holds that: “The weakest countries in the region, especially in the Andean region, will fall further behind. Reversals of democracy in some countries will be spurred by a failure to deal effectively with popular demands, crime, corruption, drug trafficking, and insurgencies.” Let’s hope this prediction does not come true and that by the year 2015 we will be sovereign and the region’s rightful owners of our Coca production while recovering our ancient Andean tradition. Given globalization, it is of vital importance for the region to take advantage of its competitive margin especially in the case of agro-industries and our ancestral resources, of which the most notable is our Coca leaf.

To conclude, I wish to reiterate my desire to find the much-needed support for this Andean cause in this harmony of forces which, however contrary they might be, can only attain knowledge from the university and maybe only within her circles,” as pointed out by José María Arguedas in his farewell letter to the Universidad Nacional Agraria de La Molina, on whose campus he put an end to his life.

In the current world context, where people are hungering more than ever for peace, and precisely because of the challenge of terrorist insanity, there would be no better way to extinguish the fires of violence than by an international reorganization of persecuted plants in Afghanistan, in the Beca Vally of Lebanon, the Colombian Putumayo, the Peruvian Huallaga or the Bolivian Chaparé. We have to make our voices heard by that other America which, as José Martí warned us, probably underestimates us because it frequently sees us “begging and condoning” (“limosneros y arrimadizos.”)

There is much which can be endeavored towards duly incorporating Coca into regional awareness, from highlighting it in our Museums of Archaeology and History up to including the truth in our schoolbooks, which have consistently discredited this South American indigenous custom. We need not wait on our respective governments until they set themselves free from the neocolonial imposition established by the current international order. The sub-region’s academic world should incarnate the idea expressed by German philosopher Karl Jaspers when stating that its role is to be the most “lucid conscience of its time” Let us hope so.

Translated by María Mercedes Moreno


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1939 “The Psycologist´s Frame of Reference”, Psychological Bulletin 37,Nº1

1958 The Nature of Prejudice, Doubleday Anchor Boos,New York

Bennet, Wendell 1948 “The Peruvian Co-Tradiction”, in Reappraisal of Peruvian Archaeology. Wisconsin.

Bruner, J.S 1947 “Value and need as organizing factors in perception”, Journalof Abnormal and Social Psychology,42:33-44

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1990 Narcotráfico: Realidades y alternativas, comp. D. García Sayán, Lima

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Díaz, Aurelio 1998 Hoja, pasta, polvo y roca, Publicacions d´Antropologia Cultural, Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona.

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1989 La coca...tradición, rito, identidad, Méxco

Mantegazza, Paolo 1859 Sulle virtio igieniche e medicinale della Coca...,Milan

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Valdizán, Hermilio 1913 “El cocainismo y la raza indígena” en La Crónica Médica del 15 de agosto , Lima

Viola, Andreu 1995 “ La coca es nuestro oro verde: el fracaso del desarrollo alternativo en Bolivia”. Ecología Política, 10, p, 73-84.

Weil, Andrew

1972 The Natural Mind, Houghton Mifflin Co., Boston

1995 “Letter from the Andes, The New Politics of Coca”, The New Yorker,, May 15: 70-80

[*] Psicólogo social, Universidad Nacional Mayor de San Marcos, Lima; M.A , Leland Stanford Junior University, Palo Alto. caceresyvegas[at]bonus.com.pe

[1] Re-translated from Spanish.

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