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Coca is a sacred plant to the people of Bolivia and Peru, as well as a traditional medicine and a source of income. For the US government, it is evil, to be eradicated at any cost.

Contrary to popular belief, the burst of energy it gives comes not from the 0.5 cocaine content - this is in fact destroyed by saliva in the digestive tract, which is why cocaine users must snort or inject - but from its conversion of carbohydrates into glucose, and its stimulation of the respiratory system.

In one of the howling ironies of the coca war, the Stepan company legally imports 175,000 kilos of Chapare coca each year to manufacture, among other things, a de-cocainised flavouring for Coca-Cola.[1]

"The coca leaf represents, to the producers and to the consumers, a national flower of many uses - medical nutritional and ritual. It is consumed as a tea, or directly chewed during the pijceo. The leaf is used as a natural stimulant to support the many long hours of work, provide energy in extreme weather and to cure problems of the stomach, bones and circulatory system. In the poorest sectors, the coca leaf is mixed with ashes and is often the only regular food which guarantees basics calories and proteins for survival.Of the dozens of applications of the coca leaf, the drug cocaine is just one derivative, and is not the one to which the Bolivian campesinos are dedicated."[2]


A Harvard University study found that 100g of Bolivian coca contains 305 calories, 19.9g protein, 3.3g fat, and more than satisfied the recommended daily allowances of calcium, iron, vitamin A and riboflavin.[3] 100 grams of coca contains:

  • Calcium: 1749 mg (The current Dietary Reference Intake is 1300 mg/day.[4])
  • Phosphorus: 637 mg (The highest current DRI for any age is 1200 mg, but only 750 mg for adults.)
  • Iron: 26.8 mg (DRI: 18 mg)
  • Vitamin A: 10,000 IU (DRI: 3000 IU[5])
  • Vitamin B1 (Thiamin): 0.58 mg (DRI: 1.2 mg)
  • Vitamin B2 (Riboflavin): 1.73 mg (DRI: 1.3 mg)
  • Vitamin C: 1.4 mg (DRI: 90 mg)

Coca Production in Bolivia

Coca has been produced since Pre-Columbian times in the Andean nation of Bolivia. Traditionally, it was grown in the Yungas region, but in recent decades, it has also come from the Chapare region of Cochabamba.


Coca in the 1970s

The 1970s saw an increase in coca production in Bolivia and an increase in cocaine use abroad. For example, cocaine seizures in the U.S. increased by 700 percent between 1969 and 1975.[6] Between 1973 and 1975, the price of a bale of coca leaves rose from $4 to $60.[6] In 1974, Bolivian dictator Hugo Banzer passed laws to limit coca production and crack down on cocaine trafficking.[6] In 1972, Bolivia produced an estimated 4200 metric tons of coca, of which one-third (1400 metric tons) went to the drug trade. By 1978, the numbers climbed to 30,000 to 35,000 metric tons, with 80 percent (24,000 to 28,000) going to the illicit market.

Coca in the 1980s

The 1980s saw more growth in the Bolivian coca sector, particularly in the middle of the decade when the rest of the Bolivian economy collapsed. The Bolivian government estimates that coca cultivation grew from 11,285 ha (27,886 acres) in 1950 to 60,956 ha (150,626 acres) by 1987. It then declined to 50,450 ha (124,665 acres) in 1989 and 47,644 (117,730 acres) in 1990. While estimates for the amount and value of cocaine produced and its share of the Bolivian economy, it appears that coca reached its high point in 1987 and declined thereafter as the price fell. By 1990, prices to growers were only one-third of what they were in 1987.[7]

In 1987, coca and cocaine brought in an estimated $1.4 to $1.5 billion, or 24 percent of Boivia's GNP. Coca growing alone (not processing or other aspects of the cocaine trade) accounted for more than 6 percent of GNP that year. At that point, coca exports were worth three to four times that of legal exports. Both the value of coca and cocaine in Bolivia and its share in the economy decreased in the early 1990s.[7]

Coca as a Drug

Classification of Coca as a Narcotic

The UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs of 1961 called for the abolition of coca leaf chewing within 25 years and classified coca leaf as a Schedule I drug.[8][9] The Bolivian government, under President Victor Paz Estenssoro, ratified it in 1961. In 2011, under president Evo Morales, Bolivia withdrew from the Single Convention.[10]

Coca and Cocaine

Converting coca to cocaine (cocaine hydrochloride) takes place in three different steps. The first step produces cocaine paste (impure cocaine sulfate), also known as pasta basica. The second step purifies the cocaine sulfate to produce cocaine base (base in Spanish). The third step produces cocaine itself (cristal in Spanish).[7]

Typically, the first stage takes place in coca growing areas to minimize the need for transporting bulky coca leaves. According to one estimation, it takes 246 pounds of coca to produce one kilo of dry cocaine paste with a concentration of 45 percent. To produce this, the coca leaves are placed in a plastic-lined pit and mixed with water and sulfuric acid. There, pisacocas stomp on them for several hours. A liquid that rises to the top is transferred to a second pit and mixed with kerosene, diesel, and calcium oxide (cement). Then the kerosene is drawn off and calcium carbonate is added.[7]

The next step, purifying the paste from 40-50 percent cocaine alkaloid to 85-90 percent, is not carried out by coca-growing peasants. It is not a necessary step in cocaine production, but the final product sells for much more than cocaine paste.[7]

The third step requires more complex equipment and more difficult to obtain chemicals. It is also more dangerous due to the flammability of the chemicals. This can be done in small batches, but economies of scale favor larger ones. For Bolivian coca, this third step is either performed in Columbia or in factories hidden in the Bolivian departments of Santa Cruz and Beni (neither of which are coca-growing regions).[7]

Articles and Resources

Related SourceWatch Articles


  1. Nick Thorpe, "Leaves on the Line," The Guardian, August 25, 2000.
  2. Sebastian Hacher, "Bolivia: Eradicate Coca-Cola," February 5, 2003.
  3. Coca Leaf: Nutritional Value, Accessed April 23, 2012.
  4. Historical Comparison of RDA to DRI, Accessed April 23,2012.
  5. Historical Comparison of RDA to DRI, Accessed April 23,2012.
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 Nicholas Gage, “Latins Now Leaders of Hard-Drug Trade,” New York Times,Apr. 21, 1975, pg. 1.
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 7.3 7.4 7.5 Madeleine Barbara Leons and Harry Sanabria, Coca, Cocaine and the Bolivian Reality (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1997).
  8. Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs.
  9. Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, UNODC.
  10. Bolivia Withdraws from UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, accessed April 26, 2012.

External Resources

  • Madeleine Barbara Leons and Harry Sanabria, Coca, Cocaine and the Bolivian Reality (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1997).
  • Catherine Allen, The Hold Life Has: Coca and Cultural Identity in an Andean Community, 2nd Edition (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2002).

External Articles


  • Malcolm Coad, "Snorting down the Bolivian cocaine trail / Background report on the cocaine industry of Bolivia," The Guardian (London), July 18, 1984.
  • Kevin Healy, “The Cocaine Industry in Bolivia-Its Impact on the Peasantry,” Cultural Survival Quarterly, Dec. 31, 1985, pg. 24


  • Juan de Onis, “Cocaine a Way of Life For Many In Bolivia,” New York Times, Feb. 22, 1972, pg. 2.