Friday, November 18, 2011

Coca Plantation

Did you know that Coca-Cola used to contain cocaine? And that it takes its name after the coca leaf, extract of which is still its key component?

After the criminalization of cocaine by most countries in the early 20th century, Coca-Cola started using a de-cocainized extract of coca leaf. But before the criminalization of cocaine, Coca-Cola's original formula did in fact include cocaine.

Today, the cultivation, sale, and possession of unprocessed coca leaf is legal only in several South American countries–such as Bolivia, Venezuela, Peru, Chile, and Argentina–where traditional use has been established. In most of these countries, however, the size of the field on which the coca can be cultivated is restricted in an attempt to prevent the production of cocaine. (Fresh coca leaves contain about 0.3 to 1.5% of cocaine, as well as a number of other alkaloids.)

Traditionally, coca leaves have been used as stimulants, and help to overcome fatigue, hunger, thirst, and pain. They are also effective against altitude sickness, so many tourists to Peru eventually make friends with them as well. Contrary to pure cocaine, the coca leaf–even when consumed daily and in large quantities–does not seem to lead to addiction, and does not have any other side effects. In the light of that I would like to see the governments of European and Northern American countries revoke their earlier decision to criminalize coca leaf usage.

In Peru, you can buy coca leaves everywhere, even in supermarkets. Of course, their price varies dramatically depending on where you buy them. In Cuzco, a small, maybe 2 oz., bag of the dried leaves costs around $3. For this money, in the Amazon Jungle you could get a bag at least 20 times bigger. In a typical Peruvian family, the bigger bag would last a week or two.

Most locals like to chew the coca leaves, and when consumed in this way, the effect is strongest. It is, however, also possible to make a tea from the leaves, or to buy tea sachets with pre-packaged leaves. (The coca tea is almost indistinguishable in taste from green tea.)

When chewed, the coca leaves produce a pleasurable tingling and numbness in the mouth, and have a pleasant, pungent taste. Typically, one would take a few leaves at once, and stick them between the cheek and gums. After maybe 30 minutes, when most of the taste is gone, the remnants of the leaves are spit out. All of that and more, we learned at the coca plantation that we visited with our guide in the Amazon Jungle.

At the coca plantation:

The coca plant:

Coca leaves being dried:

The coca tea made from dried leaves: