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Coca tea.

In 1794, Dr. Joseph Hipolitico Unanue, the father of Peruvian medicine, wrote a treatise praising the Andean coca leaf as an energy restorer, pain reliever, and "arch-tonic of the vegetable kingdom." Two hundred years later, Peru--the world's largest coca-leaf producer--wants to cash in on this ancient tradition and develop a major coca-tea export industry. The only thing that's standing in its way is the U.S. anti-drug policy.

Since 1906, the United States has prohibited the importation of Peruvian coca leaf in any form, except as a flavoring in Coca-Cola (minus the cocaine). Washington's rationale is that allowing imports of legitimate coca leaf would lead to uncontrolled cocaine use, even though dry leaves of cultivated coca contain less than 1% of the alkaloid cocaine. Until the United States changes its legislation, say experts, few other countries are likely to do so either.

"Of course we're against this policy," complained Baldomero Caceres, an adviser to Peru's state-owned ENACO (Empresa Nacional de la Coca), which exists solely to buy domestic production of coca leaf and sell it on the local market. "There's always been a prejudice against coca," he said. "Forty years ago, Peru went to the United Nations to ask for an international commission to decide whether coca had harmful effects on health. They found that it did. But the report was an injustice. It was written by psychiatrists."

The 61-year-old Caceres, who munched happily on coca leaves during an interview in his Lima office, said he wouldn't have the stamina to climb the ruins of Machu Picchu at his age without the energizing effects of coca. In fact, Machu Picchu itself --located 11,000 feet above sea level--could never have been built if it weren't for the coca leaf, some experts claim. Even today, tourists arriving at nearby Cuzco airport are urged to drink a glass of hot mate de coca to alleviate the symptoms of altitude sickness.

"I have lobbied a longtime for the re-evaluation of the coca leaf," said Caceres, who visited Washington last November to present a paper at the Seventh International Conference on Drug Policy Reform. "Today, with scientific interest turning toward medicinal herbs, only the psychiatric establishment maintains this systematic prohibition."

Dr. Andrew Weill, a professor at the University of Arizona's College of Medicine, says there's no reason coca leaves should be prohibited from entering the United States. "I think the whole cocaine situation would improve if there were legal markets for Peru's coca crop," the well-known botanist, author, and coca expert said in a phone interview from Tucson. "It could also save the Peruvian economy."

Weill, who's studied coca for more than 25 years, said that in the early 1980's, Peruvian coca tea was widely available through mail-order catalogs and health-food stores. The tea was packaged in Peru and exported under ENACO supervision; its ingredients were listed as "de-cocainized coca leaves." Annual sales hit an estimated 1.5 million tea bags before U.S. authorities finally cracked down on its importation. In one incident, recalls Caceres, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration destroyed an entire cargo of Peruvian coca tea sitting in the port of Miami. The shipment contained thousands of two-ounce green boxes labeled "Medicinal Tea -- Ancient Tea of the Incas."

Weill says that while tea is only the mildest and most innocuous coca product, "I'd like to see some stronger extracts of the leaf become available for prescription for stomach disorders, motion sickness, and possibly diabetes."

In his 1993 best-selling book "For God, Country, and Coca-Cola," author Mark Pendergrast points out that native Peruvians and Bolivians have chewed coca leaves and drunk coca tea for more than 2,000 years, with no ill effects. "Coca leaves acted as a stimulant, an aid to digestion, an aphrodisiac, and a life-extender, giving the mountain-dwelling Andeans remarkable endurance during long treks with little food," he wrote. "The Incas called it their divine plant, and it was central to every aspect of their political, religious, and commercial life. The coquero was never without his chuspa, or coca pouch."

In the early 20th century, coca leaves constituted Peru's biggest export; nearly 5,200 metric tons were shipped between 1900 and 1905. After the U.S. ban went into effect in 1906, exports dropped off sharply. Last year, said Caceres, Peru exported only 69 tons of coca leaf worth $200,000, all of it to Stepan Co. of Maywood, N.J., which extracts the cocaine from the dry leaves and uses what's left as flavoring for its chief customer, Coca-Cola. Of course, even the $9 million in annual legal production is just a fraction of illegal coca production, destined for Colombia's cocaine labs and worth anywhere from $600 million to $1 billion.

According to a recent Agriculture Ministry report, some 300,000 hectares of Peruvian highlands are now planted with coca. "This increase in planted areas, combined with a lower demand of cocaine in the United States, has caused a strong drop in prices of dry leaf, currently around 90 cents to $1.70 per kilogram," the report says. "Nevertheless, coca continues to be an important crop for small producers and campesinos in spite of the drop in prices and difficulties in selling the legal crop."

At the moment, Peru's most important legal coca-leaf production centers are Quillabamba and Lares in the department of Cuzco, which accounts for 80% of production. Two other departments, Trujillo and Huanaco, produce the remainder of Peru's coca leaf. Legal coca production keeps about 14,000 families employed. Under Peru's Law No. 22095, ENACO is the country's only authorized buyer for legitimate coca production. But that agency could be privatized soon, according to Salomon Diaz Perez, president of ADEX, Peru's most important exporters' association.

"They haven't said this specifically yet," hinted Diaz, "but this is part of President Fujimori's overall policy." If Peru were free to export coca leaves legitimately, Weill and others argue, this could reduce the coca supply for cocaine production.

A report entitled "Alternative Coca Reduction Strategies in the Andean Region" and commissioned by the U.S. Congress suggests that "developing new products from coca may have some merit." Besides coca tea, which could find a ready consumer market, potential uses for coca include treatment for spasmodic conditions of the gastrointestinal tract, motion sickness, toothache, and other mouth sores, and its use as a caffeine substitute and antidepressant. Other by-products of coca include soaps, tonic, and chewing gum.

"This market doesn't exist, so it's difficult to say what the potential is," said Caceres. "But I think it would be explosive if the virtues of the coca leaf were better-known. The real problem is that our governments are too scared to confront the United States with the issue." He adds, "The origin of the war against drugs is the U.S. What they say is fundamental. If they change their legislation, the world's will change too."
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Title Annotation:Peruvian coca leaf
Author:Luxner, Larry
Publication:Tea & Coffee Trade Journal
Date:Aug 1, 1994
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