How is it that coca and Andean culture are so intertwined? There is somewhat of a complicated relationship between coca leaf chewing and the rest of the world but in Bolivia and many other South American countries, there is no complication. While the U.S. may take issue with the practice of coca leaf chewing and the coca leaf chewing effect, the reality is that it is an integral part of Andean culture and has helped shaped many South American countries.
To understand how coca leaf chewing has ingrained itself in Andean culture you must understand what the practice is and what it does.
Coca leaves release a mild stimulant similar to the buzz you get from caffeine. Placing the leaf on the inside of your cheek (you aren’t supposed to actually chew the leaf) and combining it with a bicarbonate powder activates this stimulating effect. The practice actually helps with the digestive process, acts as an appetite suppressant (which may or may not be a good thing) provides something of a boost of energy and even has anesthetic properties.
Because chewing coca leaves does so much it has been used in many different ways. First of all it has been used for many many centuries. The first evidence of coca leaf chewing in fact dates to prehistoric times. Back then the practice was more akin to religious rites and closely tied with tribal myths. The coca leaf became a sacred plant and symbol in ancient times and would often be used as a sacrifice to ancient gods.
Today however the uses of coca leaves are much broader. Workers use it to power them through the day and there are even coca breaks in the normal Bolivian work day similar to coffee breaks here in the U.S.
Coca leaf chewing has certainly made its way into the social culture of Bolivia where parties and gatherings often include coca leaves being passed around for members to share. Coca leaves are often given as gifts as well and it is very common practice for a young family to build a coca garden on their property where they can grow the plant.
Still there are many coca leaf myths and the plant is still very much associated with mystical rites and tribal religions. Coca leaves are chewed and predictions of the future are made. It is used to bless a person and to protect him or her from curses. It is also still offered up as a sacrifice to appease the gods.
Coca and Andean Culture – Varying Roles
Cocoa and Andean culture, which you can read more about in the article Festival Virgin de la Candalaria are inexorably tied but you also must understand that its usage varies a lot depending on where you go and who you interact with. For example in some small villages, the leaf is so important that it is actually used as currency.
By and large however, if you visit Bolivia you will more than likely see people on the streets with leaves in their mouths and these people are using the plant for its most popular purpose: a mild stimulant. In terms of usage it is no different than how we Americans order a cup of coffee or slam an energy drink to give us a boost.
The difference is that the coca leaf is a much more important aspect of Andean culture than coffee and energy drinks are for us. It represents their history, heritage and even acts as a symbol for the working class. There is no sordidness about chewing coca in Andean culture nor should there be anywhere else.