Ana Maria Rey Martinez is currently on a year-long journey through South America and Southeast Asia, courtesy of a Thomas J. Watson Fellowship. Born and raised in Colombia, having seen the impact of drugs on her own nation, she is seeking to understand the role and culture of coca in the countries that produce it by listening to the stories of former coca growers. This edited excerpt comes from a report sent to the Watson committee, which she prefaced with this caveat: “The following are immediate thoughts, emotions, sentiments, feelings, idealism … put into somewhat inadequate words.”  – Donna Gold, COA magazine editor

Peru: Last November, I was on the bluest lake I have seen—Lake Titicaca. At an altitude of two and a half miles above sea level, male Taquileños (from Taquile one of Titicaca’s islands) still carry on their waist a traditional handmade purse. Detached from both the Bolivian and Peruvian mainland, disconnected from typical technology (no TVs, radios, cell phones) and getting just enough energy from solar panels—given by the dearly remembered President Fujimori—Taquileños are probably unaware of the stigma attached to what they carry in their purses: their daily intake of coca leaves.

Their relationship with coca is special. It is kept wrapped around their waist, close to their very bodies, inside finely made chuspas or purses. Coca is their source of corporal energy, an intermediary for the communication with the gods of the pre-Inca civilizations of twenty thousand years ago and of the Incas themselves. Chewing coca may not be a conscious political act, but it is a constant reification of Taquileño identity, heritage, needs and beliefs. It is also a power source to climb up the very steep hill—820 feet high—from the pier to their houses.

The Taquileño use of coca led me to imagine the way Incas interacted with the plant. Today’s evil leaf used to be a considered the daughter of the deity Pachamama. It was so pure that it was given as an offering to the Inca pantheon: Sun, Mother Earth and the Huacas, or sacred sites. Coca was also offered to the Inca themselves. During the empire, the chasquis, or messengers, chewed coca so as to walk for miles through the rough and high Andean mountains to deliver important messages. Coca was believed to improve memory and relieve human suffering by providing vigor. “Because God put it in this land more than in other lands, it might have been necessary for the locals. God did not create things without a reason and without a particular purpose,” says Juan de Matienzo, a historian of the sixteenth century.

Many self-styled Peruvian cocaleros (former or current coca growers) whom I met before my visit to Lake Titicaca loved sharing passages from chronicles of the conquest and colonial times. Francisco Pizarro, Pedro Cieza de Leon and Huaman Poma de Ayala—the most revered chroniclers—write that during colonial times Spaniards decided to prohibit the chewing of coca by indigenous people. As coca consumption declined, productivity decreased. The Spaniards withdrew the law. This interest in gathering early accounts proves the need by cocaleros and their supporters to defend coca through cultural and historical arguments. The Taquileños may not be as actively political as some cocaleros I met in the Peruvian Andean and Amazonian regions, yet they too celebrate and defend the very nature of coca every time they create a purse and wear it around their bodies; every time they chew coca.

This coca—the pure, the sacred—has been turned into an evil. Coca is like any other capitalist commodity but illegal, making it more desirable and more profitable. It is produced in Bolivia, Peru and Colombia by laborers who do not—and never will—enjoy the high prices their product brings in the international market. Like coffee, bananas, asparagus and cacao, coca is produced for export in the most fertile areas, satisfying the cravings of the Western capitalist world who want it all, at any social, cultural and economic cost.

My friend Dr. Linterna, a former Colombian narco-trafficker—and a poet, journalist, activist, father of seven and founder of a Christian children’s school in the deepest part of the humid Peruvian Amazon—told me that by growing marijuana and coca, former Colombian coffee producers take revenge for their historic exploitation. According to Linterna, farmers were demoralized by the low cost of coffee and so turned to marijuana in the seventies and coca in the eighties. “Coca for cocaine production was like a social revolution in itself,” he said to me.

I cannot stop thinking about this unconventional analysis. I see a lot of honesty in it. Perhaps it is not just the consumers, growers and traffickers, but also the very unjust, capitalist, profit-oriented global economy that is perpetuating this illegal parallel market. The rules that define product commercialization and the abstract forces that control prices ought to be held accountable for the existence of this illegal and harmful market. Is the global economy truly interested in giving better options to farmers to substitute for their illegal crops?

The commodification of the sacred coca and its subsequent demonization has created a negative stigma for those who defend it. Sadly, cocaleros in Peru are not only not respected, they’re viewed as narco-traffickers, as terrorists, revolutionaries, insurgents, remainders of the Shining Path guerrilla group, people who destabilize the country and delay its development. Don Orvil Matta, a journalist, technical agronomist and sociologist who was the principal advisor of the municipal government of the Ucayali in 1990 and recent advisor to Nancy Obregon (a cocalero congressmember), believes that there is a campaign to weaken and disrupt the cocalero movement in Peru.

In 2003 and 2004, some fifteen thousand people from several coca regions walked to Lima on Marchas de Sacrificio, or Marches of Sacrifice. By giving up work, spending days away from their families and walking long distances through challenging routes, the marchers hoped to peacefully pressure the government to consider their struggle for land and rural development, to oppose forced eradication practices and aerial fumigations and to defend the traditional and cultural importance of coca leaves.

Taquileños appeared unaware of this struggle. Their silent way of living and gentle interactions with each other and with nature reveal how removed they are from this much louder, political and troublesome reality that cocaleros from the Andean and Amazon regions are facing. My experience in Taquile was a reflective one. Overtaken by silence and a sense of reverence for nature and humanity, I was able to reconsider past experiences and emotions and my perception of silence and loudness as opposite environments.

Unexpectedly, without having chased it, I came across an effervescent, dignified and passionate social movement. Although not fully formed and organized, lacking consolidated ideas, strategies and goals, and evidently demoralized by high politics and media, I found people devoting their lives to defending coca in rural and urban Peru.

Some work at influencing public policy, others research coca’s nutritional benefits, others want to commercialize coca in legal, healthy ways. Some in the cocalero movement organize events to celebrate the existence of coca and so create awareness. Others simply grow and sell coca in the market. Still others buy it. Some are more radical, some more diplomatic, some live a better life than others. Many times they have been divided by external and internal forces, but coca unites them and they network when necessary. They all chew coca after all.