The Plant, The Tree: Coca

“When the divine son of the sun, Manco Capac, climbed down from the rocks of Lake titicaca, he gave humans light, knowledge of the gods, and knowledge of the arts and of coca, a divine plant which satiates the hungry, gives new strength to the tire and exhausted, and help the unhappy to forget their cares.” –Garcilaso de la Vega (1539-1616).
A retracing of the history of the Coca plant from the Andean perspective. A review of the initial status of the coca plant in colonial Peru and the role it has played historically for the Andean peoples. Initially prohibited by the Spaniard colonizers, it passed on to be taxed during colonial times, and then researched by European scientists in modern times. Commercialized in international markets in the early 20th century, it was banned from open markets in the mid 20th century. The coca plant was a cash crop inserted in a double dynamic of international exportation: entangled in the mass consumption of the illegal recreational drug business, and the mass consumption of the legal coca-cola commerce. Throughout the changes in its status, what remains is the complex dimensions that the Coca plant plays in Andean societies.

The history of the coca plant works as a model to understand the dynamics of Capitalism in relation to colonialism. The history of this plant is connected to the history of Colonial Capitalism and it speaks of the practices, relationalities and subjectivities that were pushed out of Modernity.

The coca plant which grows in one of the main geographic enclaves of colonialism has historically been consider a ‘giver of life, strength, encouragement; fellow in hunger and fatigue, in pains and sorrows, the most faithful ally in the life of Indian resistance’ by Andean peoples. Once its properties were acknoledged by the colonizer, it was alienated by modernity and for the north and reduced into one of its many alkaloids: Cocaine. The use that Western Europe and the United States made ​​of the coca plant is a paradigm of their use of the rest of nature. While Andean peoples related to Coca in a notion of total life, with political, economical, religious, and recreational dimensions, the north transformed it into a masters of the universe drug, a performance enhancer and ultimately an appendix of capitalism.

The Social Importance of a Plant

The earliest traces of coca use has been found in Huaca Prieta (2500 – 1800 BC) in the northern coast of Peru. The decolonial writer Waman Puma writes between 1600-1615 that coca was made a form of payment by the Spaniards during colonial times. The Coca museum states its use was persecuted “marking the start of a Narco-Inquisition”. Inextricably linked to the history of mining in Latin America and thus of capital accumulation, it is central in social, political, cultural and economic realities of the indigenous peoples, and indirectly of all societies. Currently used particularly among the Aymara and Quechua peoples who work in farming, mining, and live in urban areas, Coca means survival, offering, protection, cure, endurance, bonding, tradition and culture.

The Trip from Coca to Cocaine

Between 1857-1859 the Austro-Hungarian frigate SMS Novara went on a expedition in a colonial trip throughout the world. In this journey a batch of coca leaves transported to Europe allowed for cocaine to be isolated. In the following decades cocaine was dully researched by German, Austrian, Italian, and French scientists which explored its qualities and medicinal potentials. In the 1880s cocaine was recommended and used for many ailments by a large number of chemists and doctors.

Around this time parallel experiments in other parts of Europe translated in the amplification of its commercial uses in tonics and drinks and as medicine produced by pharmaceutical companies. One of the most famous ones was 'Vin Mariani' a French coca wine whose virtues were recommended by Pope Leo XIII and Queen Victoria. That is, in the turn of the century, in 1900, coca leaves and one its alkaloids, cocaine, counted with political, economic, religious, and artistic support. Across the Atlantic, 'John Pemberton’s French Coca Wine' was inspired by the success of Vin Mariani, and after prohibition laws, the wine was replaced by a Kola nut carbonated drink that gave way to Coca-Cola.

The banning on the consumption of cocaine and later on coca leaves responds to processes of resources control on one hand and recreational times in relation to production on the other. The illegality of cocaine and the eradication of coca leaves is connected to a development of drug cartels and zones of extreme violence in Colombia and Mexico, as well as in diverse jungle regions throughout Latin America. The self appointed role of the US as the guardian of the dangers that cocaine represents and the drug war has served as another platform under which it exercises a power relationship with Latin America, in control of its governments and its resources.

The new political projects that emerged in Latin America in the 2000's, along their steady extractive resources, have changed the panorama in the last years. In the Andean area, specially in Ecuador and Bolivia, indigenous movements made their demands for participation in society heard. These demands were in the name of the land: against its exploitation by extraction industries, and against politics that prohibit the cultivation of the Coca plant. President of Bolivia, Evo Morales has been battling for long in the United Nations for the legalization of the cultivation of Coca leaves. It is no less that ironical than three of the countries that constantly align in the bloc of those countries who are opposed to the cultivation of coca leaves are Germany, US, and Austria.

An Original Use

"Coca is a plant that the devil invented for the total destruction of the natives." Don Diego De Robles, 16th-Century Orthodox Catholic artist.

Coca was cultivated and used in a similar fashion as it is today since at least 3000 years ago. The oldest archeological evidence of coca chewing is  approximately of 3000 years B.C.E. When the Spanish arrived in South America, they encountered local claims that Coca gave them strength and energy. After confirming these claims as true, they taxed the leaf, taking 10% off the value of each crop. In 1569, Nicolás Monardes described the practice of the natives of chewing a mixture of tobacco and coca leaves to induce “great contentment”: When they wished to make themselves drunk and out of judgment they chewed a mixture of tobacco and coca leaves which make them go as they were out of their witt. In 1609, Padre Blas Valera wrote: Coca protects the body from many ailments, and our doctors use it in powdered form to reduce the swelling of wounds, to strengthen broken bones, to expel cold from the body or prevent it from entering, and to cure rotten wounds or sores that are full of maggots. And if it does so much for outward ailments, will not its singular virtue have even greater effect in the entrails of those who eat it?

Erythroxylum Coca

In 1771 a batch of the coca plant is sent to Europe via the french scientist Joseph de Jussieu. Jean-Baptiste Pierre Antoine de Monet de Lamarck described and classified the genus of the plant in 1786 using Linnaeus' system. Erythros meaning red in Greek and Xylon meaning wood, but refering to the xylem or transport tissue of vascular plants. Known nowadays mostly by its greeness and the whiteness of its flowers, the flowers nevertheless mature into red berries. The second part of the name Erythroxylum coca is derived from kuka, the name of the plant in Aymara and Quechua. Árbol. Planta. The word coca is from the Aymara language and means simply “tree” or plant. This is an expression to the great cultural significance of the plant.


The seeds of Erythroxylum coca var. coca are sown naturally by birds that each the ripe drupes from the bush and excrete the seeds undigested. In the Ande, this variety is propagated almost exclusively from sees (Plowman 1979b,46). Coca seeds become infertile when they dry (normal after three days). (…) From the time of planting, a period of some eighteen months is necessary before the first leaves can be harvested. A bush produce for twenty to thirty years. (…) The plant is not disturbed by the removal of almost all of its leaves. If the leaves aren’t harvested, the bush will grown into a proper tree. The leaves of these coca trees are almost devoid of effects.
(..)The Amazonian coca bush is pruned to a height of about 1.5 meters. Suche bushes are known as ilyimera, “little birds.” Amazonian coca is propagated solely through cuttings, as this variety does not produce viable seeds (Plowman 1979b, 46f.)”

The swiss naturalist Jakob Von Tschudi (1818-1889), who was also the first European to observe and report the use of angel’s trumpet (Brugmansia sanguine) provided a very thorough description of the Andean use of coca that still applies today.

“I myself used coca over a period of eight years during my work with the indians of the Amazon, and I have never found it harmful, not to mention addictive.” Richard Evan Schultes “Coca in the Northwest Amazon” (1980,53)

Medicinal Use

Coca is used for pains of all types, neuralgia, rheumatism, colds flu, digestive problems, constitpatin, colic, upset stomachs, altitutde sickness, exhaustion and state of weakness and to ease labor (Quijada, Jara 1982, 35 ff.). Coca leaves are burned or smoke to treat bronchitis, asthma, and coughs (Morton 1977, 180*). (..) The tea is effective both therapeutically and as a preventative for soroche (Sarpa and Aimi 1985; Schneider 1993, 19*).

Although once official, coca leaves are no longer used in European medicine. The only mdder use occurs in homeopathic medicine, where the agent Erythroxylon coca him. HPUS88 is produced by macerating fresh or dried leave (LIndequist 1993, 96).


The fresh leaves in particular contain an essential oil as well as flavonoids (ruin, quercitrin, isoquercitrin), tanning agents vitamins (A, B, C), protein, fat, and large amounts of minerales, especially calcium and iron. Approximately 100 g of coca leaves suffice to provide the recommended daily dose of all important mineral and vitamins (Duke et al. 1975). Both fresh as well as dried leaves posses good nutritional value (305 calories per 100g)–which is why the Indians regard coca as food.


Coca chewing has a regulating effect upon blood sugar levels. Apparently, chewing coca will raise a blog sugar concentrations at a level that the body requires (Burchard 1975). Coca chewing counteracts the stresses associated with high altitudes and appears to improv oxygen absorption in the thin mountain air (Bitttmann 1983; Bolton 1979; Bray and Dollery 1983). The nutritional value of coca leaves is higher in the dorms in which Amazonian coca is prepared and typically ingested in the region (where everything is swallow) Schultes 1980, 52))

Scientific Research: Isolation of Cocaine

The cocaine alkaloid was first isolated by the German chemist Friedrich Gaedcke in 1855. Gaedcke named the alkaloid “erythroxyline”, and published a description in the journal Archiv der Pharmazie.

In 1856, Friedrich Wöhler asked Dr. Carl Scherzer, a scientist aboard the Novara Austrian frigate (sent by Emperor Franz Joseph to circle the globe), to bring him a large amount of coca leaves from South America. In 1859, the ship finished its travels and Wöhler received a trunk full of coca. Wöhler passed on the leaves to Albert Niemann, a Ph.D. student at the University of Göttingen in Germany, who then developed an improved purification process.

The Novara Expedition

The Novara Expedition (1857–1859) was the first large-scale scientific, around-the-world mission of the Austrian Imperial war navy. The journey lasted 2 years 3 months, from 30 April 1857 until 30 August 1859. The frigate had been renamed after the Battle of Novara, following the Austrians’ retaking of Venice. The circumnavigation of the earth from April 1857 through August 1859 by the Novara was one of the most important journeys for what became the Naturhistorisches Museum in Vienna. A number of eminent natural scientists joined the voyage, including Georg Ritter von Frauenfeld, curator in the invertebrate department of the Imperial museums. The material collected during the expedition was voluminous and continues to be examined and published by prominent scientists up until the present time.

The expedition was accomplished under the command of Kommodore Bernhard von Wüllerstorf-Urbair, with 345 officers and crew, plus 7 scientists aboard. Preparation for the research journey was made by the “Imperial Academy of Sciences in Vienna” and by specialized scholars under direction of the geologist Ferdinand von Hochstetter and the zoologist Georg von Frauenfeld. The collections of botanical, zoological (26,000 preparations), and cultural material brought back enriched the Austrian museums (especially the natural-history museum). They were also studied by Johann Natterer, a scientist who collected Vienna museum specimens during 18 years in South America. The oceanographic research, in particular in the South Pacific, revolutionized oceanography and hydrography.

The Novara-Expedition report included a drawing of the frigate SMS Novara surrounded by an oval border with the names of locations visited: Gibraltar, Madeira, Rio de Janeiro, Cape Town, St. Paul island, Ceylon, Madras, Nicobar Islands, Singapore, Batavia, Manila, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Puynipet island, Stuarts, Sydney (5 November 1858), Auckland, Tahiti, Valparaíso, Gravosa, and Triest (returning on 26 August 1859).

Approximately 30.000 copies of Karl von Scherzer’s book on the circumnavigation of the world of the frigate “Novara” were sold, a huge number in that era. It is considered the second most successful popular scientific work in the German language in the 19th century; second only to Alexander von Humbold’s 5-volumes ‘Kosmos’. An English edition was published shortly after, printed by Saunders, Otley and Co. in London in three volumes 1861-1863, containing more than 1200 pages. The complete title of the book is: Karl von Scherzer: “Narrative of the Circumnavigation of the Globe by the Austrian Frigate “Novara” (B. von Wullersdorf-Urbair,) Undertaken by Order of the Imperial Government, Under the Immediate Auspices of His I. and R. Highness the Archduke Ferdinand Maximilian, Commander in-Chief of the Austrian Navy.”

Sigmund Freud's Scientific and Medical Research

In 1879 cocaine began to be used to treat morphine addiction. Cocaine was introduced into clinical use as a local anesthetic in Germany in 1884, about the same time as Sigmund Freud published his work Über Coca, in which he wrote that cocaine causes: “Exhilaration and lasting euphoria, which in no way differs from the normal euphoria of the healthy person. You perceive an increase of self-control and possess more vitality and capacity for work. In other words, you are simply normal, and it is soon hard to believe you are under the influence of any drug. Long intensive physical work is performed without any fatigue. This result is enjoyed without any of the unpleasant after-effects that follow exhilaration brought about by alcohol. Absolutely no craving for the further use of cocaine appears after the first, or even after repeated taking of the drug.”


In 1863 the chemist Angelo Mariani inspired by the work of Paolo De Mantezaga “The hygienic and medicinal virtue of coca,” managed to create a drink made with coca leaves and wine. This drink called “Mariani Wine”,  was used as “a medicinal tonic and uplifted the morale of the depressed, could cure almost any physical disorder; it was recommended for impotence, fever, gout, insomnia and almost all infectious and neurological diseases.”

Mariani brought it to light in 1891, and it came to have a mass appeal. Various personalities such as Jules Verne, Thomas Alva Edison, the Tsar of Russia and Alexander Dumas, used it and recommended it. Pope Leo XIII granted Mariani a gold medal in recognition of his work for humanity.

In 1885 the U.S. manufacturer Parke-Davis sold cocaine in various forms, including cigarettes, powder, and even a cocaine mixture that could be injected directly into the user’s veins with the included needle. The company promised that its cocaine products would “supply the place of food, make the coward brave, the silent eloquent and render the sufferer insensitive to pain.” By the late Victorian era, cocaine use had appeared as a vice in literature. For example, it was injected by Arthur Conan Doyle’s fictional Sherlock Holmes.

In 1886 a ‘valuable brain-tonic and cure for all nervous afflictions’ was introduced. The new beverage ‘offering the virtues of coca without the vices of alcohol’ contained 60mg of cocaine per serving until 1903. It was a popular drink then, and it remains so today, although the drug is now removed from the coca leaves which are still used for flavouring Coca-Cola.

Prohibition: 1906 Pure food and drug act 

A “pinch of coca leaves” was included in John Styth Pemberton’s original 1886 recipe for Coca-Cola, though the company began using decocainized leaves in 1906 when the Pure Food and Drug Act was passed, with cocaine being completely eliminated from the products in or around 1929. The actual amount of cocaine that Coca-Cola contained during the first twenty years of its production is impossible to determine. The secret formula still calls for a cocaine-free coca extract produced at a Stepan Co. factory in Maywood, N.J. Stepan buys about 100 metric tons of dried Peruvian coca leaves each year, said Marco Castillo, spokesman for Peru’s state-owned National Coca Co.”

In early 20th-century Memphis, Tennessee, cocaine was sold in neighborhood drugstores on Beale Street, costing five or ten cents for a small boxful. Stevedores along the Mississippi River used the drug as a stimulant, and white employers encouraged its use by black laborers.
In 1903, the American Journal of Pharmacy stressed that most cocaine abusers were “bohemians, gamblers, high- and low-class prostitutes, night porters, bell boys, burglars, racketeers, pimps, and casual laborers.” In 1909, Ernest Shackleton took “Forced March” brand cocaine tablets to Antarctica, as did Captain Scott a year later on his ill-fated journey to the South Pole. 

Prohibition: 1914 Harrison Narcotics Tax Act

In 1914, Dr. Christopher Koch of Pennsylvania’s State Pharmacy Board made the racial innuendo explicit, testifying that, “Most of the attacks upon the white women of the South are the direct result of a cocaine-crazed Negro brain.” Mass media manufactured an epidemic of cocaine use among African Americans in the Southern United States to play upon racial prejudices of the era, though there is little evidence that such an epidemic actually took place. In the same year, the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act outlawed the sale and distribution of cocaine in the United States. This law incorrectly referred to cocaine as a narcotic, and the misclassification passed into popular culture. As stated above, cocaine is a stimulant, not a narcotic. Although technically illegal for purposes of distribution and use, the distribution, sale and use of cocaine was still legal for registered companies and individuals. Because of the misclassification of cocaine as a narcotic, the debate is still open on whether the government actually enforced these laws strictly.

In the early 20th century, the Dutch colony of Java became a leading exporter of coca leaf. By 1912 shipments to Amsterdam, where the leaves were processed into cocaine, reached 1 million kg, overtaking the Peruvian export market. Apart from the years of the First World War, Java remained a greater exporter of coca than Peru until the end of the 1920s. Other colonial powers also tried to grow coca (including the British in India), but with the exception of the Japanese in Formosa, these were relatively unsuccessful.

Coca is by now well established in the United Statean consciousness. Journalist William Allen White calls Coca-Cola “a sublimated essence of all that America stands for, a decent thing honestly made, universally distributed, conscientiously improved with the years.” During the mid-1940s, amidst WWII, cocaine was considered for inclusion as an ingredient of a future generation of ‘pep pills’ for the German military code named D-IX.

In 1950, the UN Commission study on coca led by Howard Fonda, a banker and President of the US Pharmaceutical Association. His study of Aymara and Quechua people (with one translator) concluded that coca chewing was the cause of poverty in the Andean countries because it lowered the capacity to work. Apart from its denigration of two cultures he described as backwards, Fonda’s report was clearly unscientific. Regardless it was ratified by the World Health Authority in 1952, and the power of this self-interested prejudice became ever clearer with a refreshed version of the Truman rhetoric, namely President John F. Kennedy’s Alliance for Progress. Its existence was proclaimed in 1961, and in the same year the United Nations’ Geneva Convention on Drugs outlawed coca "except as a flavouring agent".

Prohibition: 1961 Single convention on narcotic drugs

The prohibition of the use of the coca leaf except for medical or scientific purposes was established by the United Nations in the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs. The coca leaf is listed on Schedule I of the 1961 Single Convention together with cocaine and heroin. The Convention determined that “The Parties shall so far as possible enforce the uprooting of all coca bushes which grow wild. They shall destroy the coca bushes if illegally cultivated” (Article 26), and that, “Coca leaf chewing must be abolished within twenty-five years from the coming into force of this Convention” (Article 49, 2.e).

In 1961 the coca leaf was listed on Schedule I of the UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs together with cocaine and heroin. The inclusion of coca has caused much harm to the Andean region and a historical correction is long overdue out of respect for the Andean culture, as well as for the sake of further conflict prevention. The rationale for including the coca leaf in the 1961 Single Convention is mainly rooted in the Report of the Commission of Inquiry on the Coca Leaf from May 1950. The report was requested of the United Nations by the permanent representative of Peru that was prepared by a commission that visited Bolivia and Peru briefly in 1949.

The 1961 Geneva Convention On Drugs (which proclaimed that the total prohibition, and therefore eradication, of chewing coca should be completed in 25 years and made cocaine Public Enemy Number One), had a get out clause. According to Article 27 ‘it is allowed to plant, transport, market and possess coca leaf in the quantity necessary for the production of flavouring agents.’ This, as Jorge Hurtado describes, was solely in the interests of the Coca Cola Corporation.
Prohibition: 1988 Vienna Conference

The Vienna Conference of 1988 prohibited the production and commercialization of coca leaves except for its traditional use.

“Yet how galling that a drug that is illegal is such an important bio-tool for the ‘cutting-edge’ economy. Its productive use cannot be admitted. There is, for example, not a single reference to it in Richard Florida’s once-iconic book The Rise of the Creative Class. Similarly there has been no reference made to its use in the ‘financial sector’ in this period, when unrestrained, over-confident risk-taking caused an unprecedented financial crisis which we, the non-bankers of the world, are now paying for. It has not even been mentioned as a possible causative factor, though in the 1990s there were frequent newspaper articles on City of London cocaine use. In coded language they warned that its confidence-boosting quality might become dysfunctional when combined with a ‘masters of the universe’ view of the world.”

A new chapter for Coca

As part of its new constitution, Bolivia drafted a whole article dedicated to the coca plant:

Artículo 384.- El Estado protege a la coca originaria y ancestral como patrimonio cultural, recurso natural renovable de la biodiversidad de Bolivia, y como factor de cohesión social; en su estado natural no es estupefaciente. La revalorización, producción, comercialización e industrialización se regirá mediante la ley. Cuarta Parte, Título II, Capítulo Séptimo, Sección II: Coca, Nueva Constitución Política del Estado (p. 89)

Article 384.- The State shall protect the native and ancestral coca as cultural patrimony, a renewable natural resource of Bolivia's biodiversity, and as a factor of social cohesion; in its natural state it is not a drug. Its revaluing, production, commercialization, and industrialization shall be regulated by law.Fourth Part, Title II, Chapter VII, Section II: Coca, New Political Constitution of the State (p.89)

In the words of the decolonial sociologist Silvia Rivera Cusicanqui:

"Why is coca so underground, so unknown, so mistreated, so stigmatized? Why do people believe all these lies. Why can you get any drug but not coca. It is because if coca was a drug, you could get it. And I'm finding a big conspiracy against coca in the late 19th century by the pharmaceutical industry. And it is a conspiracy against people's health in general. But the conspiracy against coca was particularly mean and ill because it was a conspiracy against a people. The Indians who had been in touch with coca for millennia and have been able to use it in a variety of ways; as a mild stimulant for work, as a ritual item, as a recreational commodity that you chew in parties, in wakes, in weddings, or even as a symbol of identity and of struggle." "This has involved a misleading construction of coca as linked to subsistence, reciprocity, ritual, and tradition. 
According to Itty Abraham and Willem Van Schendel, Rivera shows how coca leaf "has long been important mercantile commodity whose production and circulation has contributed to the refashioning of social hierarchies, labor relations, and cultural connections in the Andean world. These transformations worked out differently over time and space, leading to remarkable variations in how coca was and is used and perceived. By looking at coca and its changing il/licitness, a complex history of subaltern agency and recolonization can be reconstructed."

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Barker, John. From Coca to Capital: Free Trade Cocaine. 2010
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Transnational Institute - Coca Myths