Myth 5: Coca and society

Coca farmers should be identified as drug traffickers / Coca farmers only grow coca to satisfy traditional indigenous uses

coca-sitinIt is in the social realm that the attitudes surrounding coca sometimes find their most intransigent expressions, with extreme positions underpinned by deeply ingrained cultural prejudice. Some say "coca farmers should be identified as drug traffickers", others, "coca farmers only grow coca to satisfy traditional indigeous uses".

Many of the early condemnations of the coca habit had a clearly racist or ethnocentric bias. It is not surprising, therefore, that the recent revival in nationalist and indigenist sentiment in the Andes has led to a positive re-appraisal of the ancestral use of coca, and the slow diffusion of a better understanding of the plant into new social contexts. The objective of this re-evaluation of coca is clearly to distinguish the use of the leaf from that of its refined alkaloid, and thus to separate the stereotype of the “drug addict” from the image of the traditional coca chewer.

At the same time, it cannot be denied that farmers have often used the traditional status of the leaf to defend their coca crops against forced eradication, while being aware of the fact that most of their harvest probably ends up in the maceration pits for cocaine production. Both economical and cultural arguments are used to defend growing coca; the simple truth is that although producers would prefer their crop to have an international legal market, the current demand for coca is still predominantly for the elaboration of cocaine.

Today, coca is no longer an ethnic preserve, being consumed in different geographical areas and among social groups (students, urban workers, the “alternative” middle class) who, only a generation ago, would have found it unacceptable. In Chile, Paraguay, Ecuador, Venezuela and Brazil – even in Europe and North America (see for example an article on booming coca liquor in New York) – small markets for coca products are emerging. Rather than disappearing, the use of coca is currently undergoing a renaissance, much of it outside the bounds of what would be considered “traditional” in purist terms.

This fact demonstrates how ineffectual the UN conventions have been in eliminating the consumption of coca leaf in South America, and how unrealistic it is for the INCB to continue insisting that only “medical and scientific” uses for coca should be allowed by member states. It also underscores the need to define “traditional use” not in ethnic or even geographical terms, but rather as any use of the coca leaf in forms not subject to chemical manipulation.

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Further reading: Coca Myths, Drugs & Conflict Debate Papers 17, June 2009