Friday, October 26, 2012

The Benefits of Coca Leaves

Discussing coca leaves' properties in the San Alejo Sunday flea market. 

As part of the negotiations beginning between the government and FARC guerrillas, the government is demanding that the guerrillas get out of the cocaine business, which has long provided much of their financing.

Coca leaves by the handful.
Which is as good an excuse as any to take a look at the 'good side' of the coca leaf economy. While coca leaves were banned by the United Nations in 1961, along with cocaine, marijuana, heroin and other drugs (but not, strangely, tobacco and alcohol).

Indigenous people in the Andes have chewed coca leaves for thousands of years, without apparent injury, and also used them for religious and medicinal purposes. Bolivian President Evo Morales, an indigenous man who was a coca farmer and is still leader of a coca leaf growers organization, has been lobbying for the U.N. to take the coca leaf off of the prohibited list - so far without success.

Coca and marijuana oils.
Coca tea and crackers. 
In Colombia, indigenous people are permitted to grow coca leaves on their own lands and use them for traditional purposes. The foods, medicines and other products they make out of coca leaves fall into sort of juridic limbo, as far as I understand: They aren't technically legal, but authorities tolerate them. Like so many other things, the coca leaf prohibitions are absurd. Coca leaves may not cure rheumatism and diabetes, as their sellers claim, but neither are they bad for you. Travelers traditionally sip coca tea to treat altitude sickness, with no ill effects besides a possible stomach ache. And hikers and miners chew the leaves to reduce fatigue. Each leaf sold for one of these healthful uses is a leaf which illegal drug producers can't buy.

Despite coca leaves' benefits for health and the economy of indigenous communities, Colombian anti-drug warriors have tried to demonize the plant, branding it 'La mata que mata,' (The plant that kills) in radio and TV ads, until coca plant growers sued them for defamation and won.
A sign lists coca leaves' supposed health benefits, including losing weight, removing skin blotches, and giving you energy. 
These coca products come from harvests in the Sierra de Santa Marta. 

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

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