The Coca Leaf is a food

I defend the coca leaf because it is a food. It is a food rich in vitamins A and C, and rich in calcium, iron, fiber, proteins and calories. The first evidence of the food use of the coca leaf in the Andean region dates back to 4.500 years ago. At that time, and in that area, the coca plant (Erytroxylon coca) was cultivated and human beings made healthy and sensible use of it, as is done today in the fields by chewing the leaves, often with a reagent such as ashes or baking soda.

Coca is an alkaloid plant, as are tea and coffee, which contain several alkaloids; one of them is cocaine (present in a minimal amount, between 0.5 and 1.1% in coca leaves) which during chewing, by the action of saliva, combines with the rest of the alkaline elements, decomposing, to transform into ecgonine. : This substance helps burn fat accumulated in the liver, generating glucose and, therefore, energy.

Without having known such chemical processes in detail, the incas, and before them the Aymaras and Quechuas, knew that chewing the coca leaf provided well-being and strength. The simple act of "pijchar" or "chajtar" coca leaves, that is, chewing them and keeping them in the mouth in a compact and fibrous ball, means a source of energy and nutrition for the body.

The coca leaf turned into a drug

The reputation of the coca leaf, however, suffered a negative appreciation in 1860 when a German chemist, Albert Neimann, managed to isolate the cocaine alkaloid. It is the beginning of the spread of this as a devastating drug. It is a tertiary amino acid that could have been a good anesthetic if its strong toxicity and the psychological dependence it causes had not guided researchers to solutions obtained by modifying the cocaine molecule in the laboratory.

In this way the novocaine and many other synthetic anesthetics, while cocaine, since the 150th century, has become increasingly successful as a narcotic. XNUMX years have been enough to put millennia of culture, identity and well-being at risk.

There has been no shortage of food uses for the coca leaf in the last century. At the beginning of the 20th century, a Corsican chemist, Angelo Mariani, invented an alcoholic preparation based on coca leaves, Vin Mariani, which was immediately successful as a tonic and remedy for a sore throat.

Another drug is born, Coca Cola

In the United States, this recipe is used to achieve, with successive adaptations, removing the alcohol and adding cola, a type of African nut that contains caffeine and caramel-syrup, the formula of Coca Cola: and this is the most striking case of food use of coca leaves that have been decocainized before use.

But not even this has prevented the United States from including the coca leaf, and not cocaine, as one of the most harmful narcotics in 1961, at the UN Convention in New York. Producing cocaine from coca is not simple. Dozens of chemical elements and specialized laboratories are necessary.

Currently, those coca growers in the Andes, Chapare and Yungas who do not want to give in to the flattery of drug trafficking must make arrangements with the heavy interventions of the American DEA (Drug Enforcement Administration), which offers them ridiculous compensation for the destruction of coca crops with vague promises of crop conversion. A reconversion that never comes, thus, when the DEA money runs out, the coca growers become a labor force for drug trafficking.

* RODOLFO FAGGIONI is a journalist. Bolivian by birth, he lives and works in Italy carrying out intense activity as a correspondent for Latin American media.