To Chew or Not to Chew?

You’ve got to admire the efforts of the papacy to keep things “young” in recent years. The Vatican now has an official Facebook page, and Pope Francis made his first appearance to the public on Twitter nearly four years ago, currently providing his 8.92 million followers with regular inspirational tweets of divine wisdom and biblical extracts (if you don’t already, follow him: @Pontifex). Just a few weeks ago, on the 19th March, a particularly awe-inspiring tweet heralded the addition of yet another string to His Holiness’ social media bow: “I am beginning a new journey, on Instagram, to walk with you along the path of mercy and the tenderness of God” it proclaimed. It seems that in addition to more liberal views on homosexuality and divorcees drinking red wine at church, Francis is also a pretty tech-savvy guy.


Evo Morales presents a gift to Pope Francis, April 2016

So it may not have come as a surprise to many that ahead of his trip to Bolivia in July 2015 (for business not pleasure) reports emerged of the pontiff’s intentions to sample the controversial coca leaf. Subject to much debate, the hallowed herb has been lauded on the one hand by Bolivian president, Evo Morales, for its central role in the national culture and as a cure for the effects of “soroche” (altitude sickness), but chastised on the other for its involvement in the production of cocaine by the UN, who classed it as an illegal substance under its Convention on Narcotic Drugs in 1961. Speculation began to mount: was His Holiness about to further disseminate his liberal views into the field of South American narcotics? The Bolivian culture minister announced that they would “be awaiting the Holy Father with the sacred coca leaf”. The Vatican refused to comment.

So why all the fuss over a plant? Coca leaves have been used in their natural form as a mild stimulant and for medicinal purposes in Andean culture since the times of the Incas. Today they form a key part of indigenous religious festivals, and 30% of Bolivians chomp on or drink them in tea on a regular basis. As for its remedial role in combatting altitude sickness, I can testify that the acrid taste and bizarre sensation that accompanies masticating a pocket of damp, scratchy twigs in your cheek, suffices to distract anyone from any nausea felt due to adverse heights. 12,000 hectares of the stuff are grown to feed the Bolivian domestic market each year; coca is used in toothpaste, sweets, jam, wine and as of 2011 even a new energy drink, Coca Brynco. Contrary to the failed attempts of many indigenous communities across Latin America to maintain their traditional agricultural lifestyle in the face of modern global markets, rural coca growers in Bolivia continue to supply a trade which in 2014 generated 50% of the national GDP. Thus far it would appear that the face of God smiles down upon the cultivation of the crop.


Coca leaf cultivation in Chicaloma, Bolivia

Yet there is a darker side to the coca leaf which has not been left unturned by the UN. Roughly 0.6% of the leaf’s content is the alkaloid cocaine, which can be extracted using chemicals to form the pure white substance so craved by addicts. Outside South America, most countries have banned the consumption of coca leaves in accordance with the 1961 UN Drug Convention, but Evo Morales, a former leaf grower himself, has continued to fight for their decriminalisation. He successfully negotiated Bolivia’s exclusion from the clause banning their use in 2012 following audacious campaigning, including a particularly sassy speech given at the 52nd meeting of the convention in March 2009. He produced from behind the lectern a few illegal specimens and popped them into his mouth, chewing nonchalantly. In response applause from the assembly he merely shrugged. For Evo, like many other Bolivians, coca is a simple fact of life. In almost all countries in South America, coca is a long established tradition, and leaf usage remains licit. Nevertheless, the international community maintain their hard line on the substance, enforcing strict limits on its production.


It seems there is only so far that Evo Morales’ coca diplomacy can go, however. His mantra of “Coca sí, cocaína no” (Yes to coca, no to cocaine) is a reasonable one, but the entanglement of the plant in the slander of the international cocaine industry has tarnished its reputation. Recent figures published are not flattering: an estimated 200 tonnes of Peruvian cocaine are transported via Bolivia every year, which is a key link in the air bridge created for the drug’s clandestine transport to Columbia. In November 2015 Bolivian officials despaired over how to destroy 3 million pounds of confiscated leaves (burning of such a venerable plant was not deemed appropriate), which was the maximum capacity they could keep in storage. The environmental scene also seems pretty bleak one: 38,000 tonnes of toxic waste from the cocaine manufacturing pollute Bolivia’s rivers every year and even Morales was forced to admit that illicit cultivation of the crop had begun to spread into Bolivia’s national parks by 2016. For all his endeavours to promote the use of natural coca in domestic products and its innocent inclusion in traditional culture, the ensnarement with cocaine seems unavoidable. A holy nod of approval could have provided the moral backing the leaf desperately needed.

But whatever the fate of the coca industry is to be, this time the Pope was to maintain the church’s traditional view on questionable substances. “I haven’t tried coca, I want to make that clear” he said on his flight home from Paraguay. It seems that for all his liberalism on other topics, biological stimulants is not one on which he seeks to comment. God won’t be giving his blessing to coca leaf growers just yet, nor advocating the use of coca toothpaste on Twitter. Divine usage of exotic herbs would certainly have caused a social media sensation.


Published in Exetera Magazine, The Illegal Edition, pages 34-35. May 2016 


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