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The International Writers Magazine:

Sacred Coca
• Josef Clifford
The perilous route of the sacred coca leaf from Andean slopes to the cocaine market


The Cuzco bus pulls wearily into Chontachaka - a scruffy row of neglected shacks at the edge of the Peruvian jungle - a couple of hours late. After the past week’s storms and landslides I am glad it turns up at all. My bag is carelessly thrown on top and I climb on to find my seat.

Andes Bus It’s night as the bus chugs up towards the snowy heights of the Andes. We follow an unpaved track clinging to a mountain slope that plunges near-vertically into the tangled forests below. I am in a cramped window-seat next to a large Andean woman, who is leaning liberally into my personal space. I try to recline my seat, but the person behind me cries ‘no!’ as her knees are crushed.
The bus bounces and jolts; the relentless growl of the engine meaning sleep is out of the question.

Late into the night, in the final stretches of cloud-forest we pull up behind two police cars. Three policemen scurry through the bus looking under seats and through the luggage racks. I can hear the other two on top of the bus, rummaging quickly through each bag.

They are looking for coca leaves. Produced in the Eastern forested slopes of the Andes, the leaves are perfectly legal in Peru (and some other Andean countries); products such as coca leaf cereal bars are common and coca leaf tea is offered in hotels and cafes as a remedy for the effects of altitude sickness. Iconic to Peruvian culture, they are often chewed by peasants to relieve hunger and to boost energy. The leaves also play a key part in some indigenous religious ceremonies, as they are considered sacred.

But coca is best known as the principle ingredient of cocaine. And many of the passengers on my bus carrying the leaves probably plan to sell them to the cocaine market. There is a small package-sized limit to the amount that can be transported out of the Jungle, but this is not routinely obeyed, with most passengers carrying huge quantities of the contraband disguised in potato sacks above the bus.

Coca is the main crop produced in the Yungas - the zone of rainforest on the Eastern slopes of the Andes, including the valleys around Chontachaka on the Cuzco-Shintuya road - the one that I am travelling. This means many locals play a part in the harvesting and transporting of the leaves.As passengers disembark in Cuzco, I see young girls and old traditionally-dressed women rejoicing as they find their leaves still intact in their bags. Most however are caught out, and on the final police check in the outskirts, police were much more vicious.
Andean women

They stormed onboard like an ambush of scavengers while others retrieved all bags from above the bus, confiscating huge sacks of leaves to passengers’ dismay. Heated arguments brewed; the guardians of the leaves sprang off the bus to confront the policemen, while many shouted and raged from their seats. The fact we were being held up for another half hour didn’t seem to bother anyone though. They were obviously used to such events.

The sun eventually meets the 14000-foot summits of the surrounding brown hills as we reach the tiny terminal for jungle-bound buses. The engine grinds to a halt and the door swings open. I retrieve my bag from the conductor to find it enveloped in dirt and dust. it’s a steep and breathless walk to my hostel, but I’m glad to finally arrive and rest up.

The transportation of coca from the Amazon is only the beginning of cocaine production. The leaves are chopped up, soaked in acid, refined and mixed with various chemicals in secret factories in Peru and Bolivia; the resultant drug usually trafficked through Brazil. From the Atlantic coast, it is estimated that 50 tonnes are smuggled annually across to West Africa and Europe; a route known as the 10th Latitude Corridor or Interstate 10.

With 45% of the world’s coca originating on the Eastern slopes of the Peruvian Andes (119,000 metric tonnes were produced in 2009), it is easy to see how coca harvesting is a problem that cannot easily be solved. Often it provides the only feasible income for many rural families in these areas. US-funded Alternative Crop Programs have been opposed by farmers in the Yungas, Bolivia, who argue that coca can be sold for higher prices than other crops, there are up to four harvests a year and it is light and therefore easy to transport.

The principle problem however is who coca farmers sell the crop to - usually this is the cocaine market, ‘they just pay more than other buyers’ said the cook at the jungle reserve where I was staying. She often transports coca when travelling back up to Cuzco to see relatives ‘I don’t earn much as a cook, selling my coca illegally helps subsidise my income’. Without this extra cash, many farmers would be unable to maintain their homes and families.

Drug trafficking engenders more than 16% of Peru’s Gross National Product. This fact along with the cultural significance of coca in Peru makes it easy to see how the government aren’t exactly eager to eradicate or even minimise coca production here in the Yungas.

On arriving at my hostel, I enjoy a coca tea and can’t help but admit it has lessened the effects of altitude sickness!
© Josef Clifford August 2012

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