Get to Grips with Mother Earth
Just what is so important about coca leaves to its 8 million Aymara and Quechua Indian consumers? Attempting to get to grips with Pachamama (Mother Earth) involves investigation into the natives’ heritage, rituals and traditions. Is coca eradication cultural genocide?
The exchange of coca promotes fraternity, solidarity and trust. Coca has reconciled communities during disputes and inspired native hospitality. ‘El quinto’ can be compared to a coffee break without the mugs. It is taken socially with friends or at work when four leaves are selected. If blown towards, say, Pachamama, who symbolises weather, fertility and health, then she is saluted and advice sought.
According to Sdenka Silva, co-owner of the Coca Museum, coca unites relationships. Under ‘ayni’, commitment is established to a collective project and bound by coca to demonstrate intentions to construct a bridge or school. “Coca acts like a bible or a judge in a courtroom: it swears the truth before man and God”, Sdenka informed me.
Barter still exists in rural areas: farmers exchange meat and other products in exchange for a small quantity of coca. There is not one party, business meeting or celebration where the coca leaf is not present. Even when asking for a woman’s hand in marriage, relatives of the groom offer a handful of coca to be (hopefully) accepted.
During harvest time, the Yungas region transforms into festival mode. The women dress elegantly in blue skirts, contrasting with the green coca fields and reddish brown earth. While they cut coca leaves and sing cheerfully, single men surround them and flirt.
People in the Yungas correlate coca cultivation with the human life cycle. First, newlyweds buy a house and then a coca field. Characterised by a 30-50 year lifespan, coca grows with the family. The plants start young, reaching the pinnacle of production 20 years later. Their children will now be grown up, and probably married. They then leave home, leaving the couple and their coca field. ageing
Coca is primarily consumed among the indigenous, mostly Aymara and Quechua farmers, miners or market sellers. Sdenka believes that coca use is growing because, “coca eradication has exerted more pressure to continue and is now almost considered a luxury”. City youngsters especially choose to chew more coca.
In its mystical sense, coca crosses all time and space. Ancestors can be reached via coca in a state similar to a trance.
Offerings are common during natural disasters. To request more rain, for example, holy water from eight sacred sites in Bolivia must be brought together. The coca leaves are consulted to locate the ceremony with shaman (priests) and yatiri (medicine man). Silver metals signifying economic help, white flowers and wool symbolising good intentions, and the coca leaves carrying messages are all laid down on a white table representing the universe.
For a native to invite a foreigner is virtually impossible. Coca signifies identity and endurance against historic abuse and exploitation. Sdenka concludes, “Coca cannot be substituted. Coca is at the centre of indigenous society and culture and far more than a nutritious food”.