What Is The Coca Plant?
Coca (Erythroxylum coca plant) is any of the four cultivated plants in the family Erythroxylaceae, native to western South America and the leaves of which are the source of the drug cocaine. All four of the cultivated coca species were domesticated in pre-Columbian times and are more closely related to each other than to any other species.
The Coca plant is cultivated as a cash crop in Argentina, Northwest, Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru and other parts of South America, even in areas where its cultivation is unlawful. It also plays a role in many traditional Andean cultures as well as the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta.
Coca is known throughout the world for its psychoactive alkaloid, cocaine. The alkaloid content of coca leaves is relatively low, between 0.25% and 0.77%. The native people use it for a stimulant, like coffee, or an energy source or both.
Coca-Cola used coca leaf extract in its products from 1885 and until about 1903. The extraction of cocaine from coca requires several solvents and a chemical process known as an acid-base extraction, which can fairly easily extract the alkaloids from the plant.
Colombia is now the main producer of illegal cocaine with Peru, Bolivia, and Chile providing significant amounts of the drug. The coca plant grows best in the mountain and jungle areas of these countries.
Drug cartels based in Colombia control almost all cocaine trafficking. They process the coca from Peru, Bolivia, and Colombia. Various cocaine trafficking organizations then ship it to all corners of the globe.
In Bolivia bags of coca leaves are sold in local markets and by street vendors. The activity of chewing coca is called “Mambear”, “Chacchar” or “Acullicar”, borrowed from Quechua, “Coquear” (northern Argentina), or in Bolivia, “Picchar”, derived from the Aymara language.
The Origin Of The Coca Plant.
There are two main theories relating to the evolution of Coca cultivation. The first theory was put forth by Plowman and Bohm.
Coca is an ancestral plant, while Erythroxylum Novogranatense var. Truxillense is derived from it to be drought-tolerant, and Erythroxylum Novogranatense var. Novogranatense derived from Erythroxylum Novogranatense var. Truxillense.Research-based on genetic evidence does not support this linear evolution and instead suggests a second domestication event as the origin of the Erythroxylum Novogranatense varieties.
Traces of coca leaves found in northern Peru dates the communal chewing of coca with lime about 8000 years back. Other evidence of coca traces has been found in mummies dating 3000 years back in northern Chile.
Lime containers found on the north coast of Peru date around 2000 BC as evidenced by the findings at Huaca Prieta and the Jetetepeque river valley.
Extensive archaeological evidence for the chewing of coca leaves dates back to the 6th century AD, based on mummies found with a supply of coca leaves, pottery depicting the characteristic cheek bulge of a coca chewer, spatulas for extracting alkali and figured bags for coca leaves and lime made from precious metals, and gold representations of coca in special gardens of the Inca in Cuzco.
Coca chewing may originally have been limited to the eastern Andes before its introduction to the Inca. As the plant was viewed as having a divine origin, its cultivation became subject to a state monopoly. By the rule of the Topa Inca (1471–1493), its use restricted to nobles and a few favored classes.
As the Incan empire declined, the leaf became more widely available. After some deliberation, Philip II of Spain issued a decree recognizing the drug as essential to the well-being of the Andean Indians but urging missionaries to end its religious use.
The Spanish are believed to have effectively encouraged the use of coca by an increasing majority of the population to increase their labor output and tolerance for starvation.
In the early 20th century, the Dutch colony of Java became a leading exporter of coca leaf. By 1912 shipments to Amsterdam, where the leaves were processed into cocaine, reached 1000 tons, overtaking the Peruvian cocaine export market.
As from 2006, the governments of several South American countries, such as Peru, Bolivia, and Venezuela, have defended and championed the traditional use of coca, as well as the modern uses of the leaf and its extracts in household products such as teas and toothpaste. The coca plant was also the inspiration for Bolivia’s Coca Museum.
Description Of The Coca Plant.
The flowers are small and disposed of in little clusters on short stalks; the corolla is composed of five yellowish-white petals, the anthers are heart-shaped, and the pistil consists of three carpels united to form a three-chambered ovary. The flowers are succeeded by red berries.
Coca leaves are considered ready for plucking when they break on being bent. The green leaves (Matu) are spread in thin layers and dried in the sun; they are then packed in sacks, which, in order to preserve the quality, must be kept from damp.
Coca grows about 2.4 meters (8 feet) tall. The branches are straight, and the lively green leaves are thin, opaque, oval, and more or less tapering at the extremities. A marked characteristic of the leaf is an areolated portion bounded by two longitudinal curved lines, one on each side of the midrib, and more conspicuous on the under the face of the leaf.
Unlike “Erythroxylum Novogranatense”, Erythroxylum coca requires very acidic soil conditions. Soil acidity and water acidity need to be below pH 5.5, with the optimal value being pH 3.5, similar to that of Rhododendron potting soils. At pH 6.5 and above, chlorosis and leaf distortion occurs.
Coca is traditionally cultivated in the lower altitudes of the eastern slopes of the Andes or the highlands depending on the species grown. Coca cultivation begins in the valleys and upper jungle regions of the Andean region, where the countries of Colombia, Peru, and Bolivia are host to more than 98 percent of the global land area planted with coca.
The seeds are sown from December to January in small plots (Almacigas) sheltered from the sun, and the young plants when at 40 to 60 centimeters in height are placed in final planting holes (ASPI), or if the ground is level, in furrows (Uachos) in carefully weeded soil.
The first and most abundant harvest is in March after the rainy season, the second is at the end of June, and the third in October or November. The green leaves (Matu) are spread in thin layers on coarse woolen cloths and dried in the sun; they are then packed in sacks, which must be kept dry in order to preserve the quality of the leaves for further production of Coca-cola or Powder cocaine.
NB: Coca growing areas are often characterized by the following features.
Small cocaine brick and press.
Many small cocaine laboratories are scattered throughout the coca-growing areas of South America. The hand-picked coca leaves are soaked in gasoline and other chemicals to extract the coca base from the leaves in industrial-sized drums.
Then the base is poured into brick molds. The water is pressed out, leaving a hard, easy-to-handle brick containing about 50 percent cocaine. The bricks are sent to collection points where they are shipped to markets in the U.S. and other countries.
Cocaine Processing Labs.
In these coca-growing areas, cocaine laboratories never lack. They are set up to extract the coca from the leaves and then convert the coca into cocaine. There are mainly 2 types of processing labs: Pozo pit labs that use acidic solutions, and the more common lab that uses metal drums and gasoline.
Important Uses Of The Coca Plant.
1) Labor and Military Service.
To begin with, the most common uses of coca can be traced back during the reign of the Inca. Coca was used in the context of the “Mit’a” labor. This was a labor tax required of all able-bodied men in the Inca empire, and also in military service.
Pedro Cieza de León wrote that the indigenous people of the Andes always seemed to have coca in their mouths. “Mit’a” laborers, soldiers, and others chewed coca to alleviate hunger and thirst while they were working and fighting.
Some historians believe that coca and chicha (fermented corn beer) made it possible for the Incas to move large stones in order to create architectural masterpieces, especially ones of monolithic construction such as Sacsayhuaman.
2) Religious Rituals.
Also, The Incas would put coca leaves in the mouths of mummies, which were a sacred part of Inca culture. Mummies of Inca emperors were regarded for their wisdom and often consulted for important matters long after the body had deteriorated.
Not only did many Inca mummies have coca leaves in their mouths, but they also carried coca leaves in bags. These are believed to be Inca sacrifices, and like the Aztecs, the Inca participated in sacrifices as well. It is clear that the Incas had a strong belief in the divinity of the coca leaf as there is now evidence that both the living and the dead were subjected to coca use.
3) Medicinal Uses.
Traditional medical uses of coca are foremost as a stimulant to overcome fatigue, hunger, and thirst. It is considered particularly effective against altitude sickness.
Coca is also used as an anesthetic and analgesic to alleviate the pain of headache, rheumatism, wounds, and sores before stronger anesthetics were available. Coca was also used for broken bones, childbirth, and trepanning operations on the skull.
4) Nutritional Uses.
Moreover, raw coca leaves, chewed or consumed as a tea or mate de coca, are rich in nutritional properties. Specifically, the coca plant contains essential minerals (calcium, potassium, phosphorus), vitamins (B1, B2, C, and E) and nutrients such as protein and fiber.
Nowadays, coca is used in the production of modern-day beverages such as coca-cola, Pepsi and other popular vodkas.
5) NB: Last but not least, the coca plant is the main ingredient used in the production of a strong addictive stimulant drug called “Cocaine“. Cocaine is a drug responsible for several atrocities and crimes committed in some urban cities like California, Las Vegas, Miami, and other parts of America and the world.