The Andes are a zone of many marvels, among them great and amazing constructions and wonder foods. There is another, that is a food and more, the leaf of the coca plant. In ancient times, and today, many people see it filled with extraordinary virtues. It is a great discovery of our ancestors.
The Incas had large areas dedicated to the cultivation of coca. The leaf was not only something people consumed and which gave them nutrients, it also had a fundamental magical religious function.
In his book, the Royal Commentaries of the Incas, Garcilaso de la Vega narrates some of the corpus of Inca legends. He tells how the sun god created coca to defeat thirst, kill hunger, and make men forget their tiredness.
The Incas recognized the leaves held medicinal properties to treat an array of illnesses. In the same way it provided energy to people when they were working and they used it to protect themselves from tiredness, hunger and thirst.
In the times of the Incas the leaf was used also for ritual, for communicating with the earth and for sharing with each other and with the land and natural deities. Three leaves were brought together in what is called a k’intu. This offering was then placed in specific places and was used in many ceremonies in order for people to receive protection and good harvests.
The k’intus manifested a dialogue between them and the spirits of nature. From the first days the Spanish penetrated Tawantinsuyo, the Inca Empire, they became aware of the existence of coca plantations. From early on the chroniclers asked about the characteristics of its use. They also opened a debate on whether or not its cultivation and use should be allowed or banned.
The parties close to the clergy argued that its cultivation and consumption should be forbidden. They claimed it held satanic properties because it was used in magical religious ceremonies which ran counter to the Church. Their doctrine of “The Extirpation of Idolatries” tried to make the plant disappear.
However, that position lost force when it was seen that the coca was also nourishing and had food value. It helped people survive the rigors of forced labor such as in the mines and on estates. As a result, other elites argued for the leaf to keep the costs of production down.
Today, most people in rural Peru still carry with them a small bag of coca leaves. They call the bag ch’uspa. Some of them use it as an offering to the earth. It is also used to protect their harvests. People use it as their ancestors did. As a result, coca still plays an important role in the social and cultural system of beliefs of the traditional peoples of the Andes.
With the discovery and isolation of an alkaloid within coca that we call cocaine, and with its growing international demand as a stimulant and as a drug, one that is highly addictive, the image of the coca leaf, once again, has been sullied.
The solution claimed by governments was to eradicate coca. Soldiers would come into coca fields and cut the plant at its roots, without always making a differentiation between the consumption of cocaine and the traditional –and benign– use of the leaf.
The production of cocaine damages the environment and its producers. It relies on toxic chemicals, while the traditional uses fit easily within sustainable environmental and social practices.
The use of cocaine is impelled by a world that seeks to cover its spiritual emptiness with drugs. It is vastly different from the use of coca among those who built an empire like the Incas and who, today, wish to maintain and continue our ancestral ways.