Pages: 20 to 41
Creation Date: 1949/01/01


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Victor W. von Hagen

At the beginning of September this year the United Nations dispatched a Commission of Enquiry to South America to study certain aspects of two uses to which the leaf of the coca bush is put.

The coca bush is an evergreen shrub which belongs to the genus Erythroxylum and is native to western South America. There are a considerable number of wild species of the genus but the species that provide the coca leaves of commerce - Erythroxylum coca Lamarck and Erythroxylum novogranatense (Morris) Hieronymus - are cultivated over a wide area in that part of the world. These species are grown successfully in tropical regions, sometimes in the lowlands but more often in sheltered places in the mountains, up to a height of about 2,000 metres. The leaves can he harvested from two to four times annually depending on climatic and other conditions and in certain areas of Peru, for instance, the crop is usually gathered in March, at the end of June and in October or November.

Coca leaves are put to four principal uses: for the manufacture of flavouring extracts, in medicine, for chewing and for the manufacture of cocaine; and it is a study of some of the results of the last two of these uses which the Commission of Enquiry has been charged to make.

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Vase from the ruins of Chan chan, Peru (approximately 13th century). The sculptured figure is chewing coca and hurrying the flow of the alkaloid by using lime.

Victor W. von Hagen

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Hillside terrace cultivation of coca, near Paucartambo, Cusco, Peru.

Victor W. von Hagen


Nobody knows for certain for how many hundreds of years the leaves of the coca bush have been chewed in South America. It is probable that the practice was well established before the beginning of the eleventh century and it is certain that coca leaves were chewed during the lifetime of the Inca Empire. Precise explanations for the origin of this age-long habit have not yet been made but it is possible that it owes its beginnings to conditions of life that were always severe, especially in so far as the difficulties of producing enough food were concerned, and that it was used from the start to ameloriate the bodily distress caused ]by the hard conditions endured by the inhabitants of that part of the world. Even today man in those regions is often engaged in a life-long struggle with the forceps of nature for a hare existence, and it is where such conditions continue even in the twentieth century to exist that the habit of chewing the coca leaf is now most widely practised. Such is the most generally admitted explanation of the origin of the custom, but it is emphasized that the possibility of the practice having originally had a considerable sacred or religious aspect, which may indeed still continue to exist in modified forms, should by no means he excluded.

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Harvesting coca near Cusco, Peru

Victor W. von Hagen

One of the Commission's tasks will therefore be to try to assemble a body of evidence, of strictly scientific validity, to prove or disprove this theory that the chewing of the coca leaf helps man in his fight against an inimical environment, whether that environment results from entirely natural conditions or from natural conditions partly modified by economic and social factors. In the accomplishment of this task the Commission can hardly fail to collect considerable data on the physiological effects which the habitual chewing of coca leaves have on the individuals concerned. - It will not, however, be prejudging the results of the Commission's work to state now that some of the effects which the leaf has on coqueros - as the habitual chewers of it are known-are due to the presence of cocaine. The similarity between the effects which the coqueros themselves say result from their chewing and those observed from clinical studies of the results of repeated doses of cocaine on the human body would seem to leave very little doubt on this score.

The amount of cocaine present in coca leaves varies with different species and with the conditions under which they are grown;. but for those cultivated in South America analyses of the cocaine content give figures usually ranging from 0.25 per cent to 0.90 per cent. The amount of cocaine which a coquero will absorb in a day also varies very greatly but it is quite common for an habitual chewer to ingest some 20 or 30 times more than the usual dose given for medical purposes.

In comparison with the age-old problems connected with the chewing of coca leaves, those raised by the manufacture of cocaine must be regarded as very recent, since it was only in 1860 that this drug was isolated in a pure form. For the manufacture of cocaine, itself an ecgonine alkaloid, the quantity of cocaine present in the coca leaf is not as import- ant as the total amount of all ecgonine alkaloids which can he extracted from it. South American coca leaves contain from 0.5 to 1.0 per cent of these alkaloids and the international estimates of the world requirements of cocaine for medical and scientific needs amount at the present to some four tons annually, for the manufacture of which 500 to 700 tons of coca leaves are required.

Comprehensive figures for the annual coca leaf harvest are not available, but apart from those chewed and put to the other uses referred to above, it is known for certain that a great many ton's of leaves are used to make cocaine that is used illicitly and not for medical and scientific needs. This cocaine is distributed in the highly lucrative illicit traffic which in turn is the main source from which addicts to this drug obtain their supplies. It is extremely difficult to make even an approximate estimate of the amount of cocaine which is disposed of in this way, but that it is a matter of growing concern to the national administrations in a number of countries was brought out forcibly in the debates of the Commission of Narcotic Drugs on the general question of drug addiction during the session which the Commission held in the spring of the present year.

Since the primary purpose of the international control of narcotic drugs is to prevent the illicit traffic in narcotics and to stamp out addiction to these drugs, many of the Governments that are parties to the international drug conventions and protocols have a great interest in the abolition of the manufacture of cocaine for the illicit traffic, and it would accordingly seem highly desirable that the process of extracting this drug from coca leaves should be strictly controlled everywhere in the world that it is carried out. The investigation of the possibilities of instituting such measures of control on both the national and international levels, is, accordingly, the second of the tasks with which the Commission of Enquiry on the Coca Leaf bar, been entrusted.


In South America the coca leaf is chewed to a greater or lesser extent by certain classes of the populations of Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Peru and Venezuela. The practice is, however, most widespread in Bolivia and Peru, and in these two countries the problems which the habit engenders are consequently pressing more urgently for solution. In order to appreciate the complexity of these problems and their fundamental relationship to the way of life of many of the inhabitants, it is necessary to give some consideration. to the historical geographic, economic and social conditions under which the habit has grown up and continues to persist.

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An Ica tribesman of Sierra Nevada, Colombia, using the lime stick which is put into his mouth with the mastication of coca leave.

Willard Z. Park

The 1,249,049 square kilometres of land surface which constitute Peru may be divided up into four areas, each having a different character and climate. The narrow coastal plain between the Pacific Ocean and the western Flanges of the Andes is largely desert but is crowed at several places by rivers. Vegetation grows along these rivers and in this area of the, country Peru grows most of her cotton and sugar. The Andean region is 300 to 400 kilometres wide and is composed of high mountains and plateaus, the latter varying in height from 1,200 to 6,000 metres above sea level The mountains descend, often precipitously, into valleys, some of which are of considerable width. The vegetation of these valleys, where the majority of the Andean population is concentrated, presents a sharp contrast to that of the high desert plateaus which surround them. The River Huallaga rises in the area and runs through a valley of the same name in which the coca leaf is both grown and consumed. The eastern foot-hills of the Andes comprise a third region known as La Montana or Sierra whose altitude varies between 200 and 300 metres, and where the adequate water supply gives much more vegetation and frequently soil that can be worked into rich arable land. The climate is midway between the humidity of the forests and the rigorous cold of the high plateaus. The fourth region, the Amazon Valley, is almost at sea level and lies abundant rain and a lush tropical vegetation.

According to Ferrero, the national revenue of Peru in 1942 amounted to 2,130 million sols, of which sum agriculture and cattle breeding accounted for 745 million, industry for 300 million and mining for 375 million (in July 1949 the sol was worth fifteen United States cents at the official rate of exchange and about five cents on the free market)

The inhabitants of Peru number something over 8,000,000, of which about half are either Indians or mestizos who live principally in the Sierra and in the valleys and on the plateaus of the Andean region. In 1940, forty per cent of the population could be considered as economically active and the distribution of this population in the occupations mentioned above was calculated as: agriculture, 52 per cent; cattle breeding, 10 per cent; industry, 15 per cent; and mining, nearly 2 per cent (R. A. Ferrero: La Política Fiscal y la Economía Nacional: Lima, 1946).

Among the indigenous population the land sys-tem extends from individual ownership to various modifications of the collective agrarianism of the Incas. As a general rule, the cultivation of the coca bush occurs under the individual property system, since the coca plantations do not usually belong to Indians although certain indigenous communities do cultivate the plant.

Bolivia, with a territory of 1,075,794 square kilo- metres, is bounded on the west by part of the Andes range in which there are several passes more than 3,000 metres high. Further east the peaks of the Cordillera Real rise to heights of more than 6,000 metres, and from this range two further chains of mountains containing numerous fertile valleys extend in south-easterly direction. The high plateau (altiplano) lacks water and agriculture is difficult, which is far from being the case in the valley areas and "yungas". It is in these latter regions that the production of coca leaves is centered. To the cast and north of the central range of mountains extend the low tropical areas which occupy a great part of Bolivia. Here the rains are plentiful and violent and the region is sparsely inhabited.

It is estimated that in 1940 the revenue of Bolivia was between 4,400 million and 7,350 million bolivianos, of which agriculture provided 3,550 millions (in May 1949 the boliviano was worth a little more than two United States cents).

The inhabitants number 3,922,000, of which some 500,000 are white, about 2,000,000 Indian and about 1,400,000 mestizo. About 80 per cent of the population is believed to be concentrated in the higher regions of the country, the valleys and "yungas" being the most densely populated. Some 35-40 per cent of the population is economically active, and on this basis and that of the foregoing figures it may he said that the productive population consists of about 1,500,000 persons, of whom some 85 per cent are engaged in agriculture and cattle raising.


. As has already been pointed out, the practice of chewing the coca leaf was already in existence before the time of the Incas. During the Inca period it would seem that the habit extended over a wider area than at present, embracing various parts of Central America (Nicaragua), part of Venezuela, certain regions of the Amazon and wide areas which now constitute Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and to some extent, the north of Argentina. The areas where the practice was prevalent seem to have varied greatly in extent, and in Ecuador, for example, it appears never to have been so widespread or important as elsewhere. At present it has disappeared from Nicaragua but continues to persist to some extent in Brazil and Venezuela.

It is generally believed that during the Inca Empire the chewing of the coca leaf war, reserved for the upper classes of the population, and it is thus likely that the habit, though widespread geographically, did not reach great proportions. The fall of the Empire was accompanied by an economic, political and social crisis which favoured the intensification of the habit. During the conquest and the colonial period, the Spaniards noted on several occasions the potential danger which the practice represented to the Indians and in 1560 and 1609 they issued restrictive edicts, in an attempt to control it. In spite of their efforts, the growing of coca leaves increased and with it the prevalence of chewing; and since these countries became independent of Spain the habit has continued. The number of habitual chewers has, however, considerably increased.

Since the early 19th century a body of literature has gradually been built up as a result of studies made on coca leaf chewing. This literature shows the existence - of two sharply divided schools of thought on the matter: one favourable to chewing and the other condemning it as a practice dangerous, to the bodily and mental health of the coquero. Research work on the coca leaf and its effects started in Peru in 1937 under the auspices of the Department of Pharmacology of the University of Lima and is still going on; and here again the tendency of authorities on the subject to take diametrically opposed views can be clearly seen. There is, however, a considerable measure of general agreement that has a complex nature of both cause and effect, and should not, therefore, be considered as an isolated fact in the life of a coquero, but as a practice intimately linked to the conditions under which he lives and the climatic, economic and social factors which produce those conditions.

It has been pointed out that the origin of the habit is lost in the past but that it probably began as a part of man's struggle for existence in inhospitable areas having a harsh climate. It is worthy of note that under the Incas, whose empire was essentially founded-upon agriculture, the relative abundance of food which then existed in areas where there is today a scarcity and where the chewing of coca leaves is now very prevalent was made possible only by a directed collective agricultural system; and that, at all events in the earlier years of the Empire, the habit was restricted to a few individuals. It may, however, he supposed that as the Empire decayed it was granted much more frequently, and that the later civil wars, with their consequent disruption of the central administration of the hierarchy, greatly facilitated the extension of use. In any case it is a known fact that from this time the chewing of the leaf became much more widespread and later under the Spanish colonial regime established itself firmly in those areas where it is largely found today.

It is not possible to delimit strictly precise geo- graphical regions where the habit of chewing exists, since in those regions where the habit is general there are areas where no coca is chewed; conversely, in regions where coca is not generally chewed there will he found groups more or less isolated, sometimes of a stable character and some times transitory, who regularly chew the leaf. In Peru the habit is found mostly on the high plateaus and in the mountains but it is also found at lower altitudes. In the south, the Departments of Cusco and Puno are the most important centres: in the centre, the Departments of Huancayo and Huan- cavelica; and in the north, the region of Chicama. In such towns as Lima, Callao, Trujollo, Ariquipa, the chewing of coca leaves, although more or less isolated, is none the less practised. It is also to be noted that in Peru there is a greater coincidence of the areas in which coca is grown and in which it is chewed than in Bolivia.


Some interesting facts emerge if the incidence of the habit is examined in connexion with the altitude at which the coquero lives, the food supplies which are available to him and the kind of work from which he gains his livelihood. In so far as the correlation with altitude is concerned the theory has been held for a considerable number of years that when an Indian lives at a high altitude he must take up the habit to enable him to live and work, since it is said that the chewing of coca leaves has the result of lessening fatigue and counteracts the physical stress of living at high altitudes. More recently also a suggestion has been made that the Andean Indian has a special physiological constitution which would explain the habit.

On the other hand, those authorities who deny any relationship between coca leaf chewing and altitude make the following points. In other parts of the world where men live and work at comparable altitudes and even higher ones, notably in Tibet, the coca leaf is not chewed nor is there recourse to any analogous stimulant. Again, although the habit is widespread in other parts of the Peruvian Sierras, it is not universal, and the case of the Tupe district in the Department of Lima has been cited, where at a height of 3,000 metres an ethnic group of Indians live who do not chew coca. In addition, examples have been found where as a result of education certain groups of Indians which at one time practised the habit have now given it up; and also, in the mountainous regions of Ecuador where the practice was formerly quite common it has now almost disappeared. A further point is that among the white inhabitants of Andean areas, or among those who live in the Sierras, the habit is rarely found, while among mestizos who live at high altitudes the habit is much less widespread proportionately than in Indian populations. As regards the theory that the Andean Indian has a particular physiological constitution which makes it necessary for him to chew coca, it is a fact that there are Indians of the same ethnic groups living in the same region or in regions having similar climates who do not chew coca leaves. It is also argued that if Andean Indians had developed a peculiar -physiological constitution it would be reasonable to suppose that this constitution would have become completely adapted to the conditions under which they live, and that consequently the chewing of coca leaves would not be necessary.

It would seem therefore that mere altitude can- not be held to lead directly to the habit of chewing. But as a general rule, as the altitude increases the economic poverty of the region increases also and consequently lessens the possibility of the inhabitants obtaining an adequate food supply. In the valley of Urubamba, for example, it has been shown that the frequency. of the habit increases as the altitude rises, that is to say as the agricultural fertility of the valley and with it the possibility of food production diminishes. Thus the correlative factor of food shortage should be inserted in any relationship between altitude and chewing.

It has, often been stated that the coca leaf is chewed to kill hunger. The general subsistence level is very low indeed in Peru and is noteworthy that the consumption of food per capita is least in the sierras, where the habit is most prevalent, while on the coast, while still very low, it is somewhat higher, and here coqueros are found less frequently. It has recently been stated that the Andean Indian does not on an average receive more than 2,000 calories per working day, and an official publication of the Peruvian Ministry of Agriculture shows that the calory deficiency per individual varies between 500 and 2,000 per working day. The theory that calory deficiency explains the recourse to alcohol and coca has been succintly put by Gutierrez-Noriega: "A man will start to chew coca to appease his hunger, and will eventually acquire an abnormal alimentary satisfaction produced by the beginning he chews because he has too little to eat; then he eats too little because he chews coca."

Certain writers have attempted to establish a relationship between chewing and the performance of certain types of work, and have stated that it is necessary for heavy manual work, especially that done by Indians in the mines. It has also been said that under the action of coca the indigenous worker works better and faster. These views are not, how- ever, generally accepted, and it may be mentioned that there are Indian miners who do not chew coca leaves, although they are not very numerous. That the use of coca improves the quantity and quality of the workers' output has also been denied by statements showing that the output is less and the incidence of accidents in greater among the workers who practice the habit. In this connexion three factories near Cusco way be mentioned. In that at Lucre 90 per cent of the workers chew coca leaves whilst of those at Huascar and Estrella only 5 to 10 per cent have the habit, and it is stated that the work is worse at the Lucre factory than at the two others.

In so far as Bolivia is concerned it may be said as a broad generalization that the social condition of the Indian in the Andean area of Bolivia is analogous to that of the Peruvian Indian. Both populations are composed largely of the ethnic groups Quechua and Aymara, and the historical development of the social and economic status in which the Indians of the two countries now find themselves has been approximately the same. It should perhaps be mentioned that legislation to protect the indigenous population is much more complete in Peru than in Bolivia but as far as the chewing of the coca leaf is concerned the elements of the problem do not differ greatly.

What has been said about Peru may therefore be considered to apply in general terms to Bolivia also. ln Bolivia the coca leaf is chewed over a very wide area and in general it may be said that the habit prevails everywhere in the Altiplano. The principal centres of consumption are in the Departments of La Paz, Orouro and Potosi. In the capitals of the last two, the habit is also prevalent and it should be noted that it is in these two departments that the large mining centres are to be found. ln 1948 the Government of Bolivia informed the Secretary-General of the United Nations that coca leaves were consumed in the Altiplano and the mines and that 99 per cent of the coqueros were Indians. During the period 1937-1946 the greatest quantity of coca leaves grown for chewing was 6.733.163 kgs. (1937) and the least 1,619,951 kgs.(1943).

The living conditions of the Indian workers in were Bolivia studied in 1931 by Roberto Capriles, an official of the Ministry of Labour, and Gaston Arduz, the Director-General of Social Enquiries. In their report they stated that the conditions of work in the mines, where the workers are almost exclusively Indian, "although being improved, are still very low, lower than in industry in ....agriculture the feeding of the indigenous worker is affected by the use of coca ... it is very poor".

These then, in brief outline, are the major factors which influence the two problems which the Commission of Enquiry is investigating, and it is clear that the eventual successful application of a joint solution to these two problems must depend in great measure oil the finding of solutions to a number of closely related economic and social questions. That a solution must he found will be readily appreciated if it is remembered that apart front its direct effect on the inhabitants of the countries where the practice is prevalent, the chewing of the coca leaf has also a world-wide significance. The leaves which go to satisfy the appetites of the coqueros form also the raw material from which the dangerous drug cocaine is produced; and all the experience in the international control of narcotics shows that the production of a drug cannot be effectively controlled throughout the world unless the production of the raw material from which it is made is also subject to some measure of control.


As a conclusion to this article it may be of interest to summarize the previous international concern over problems of long standing and to record briefly the circumstances in which the Commission of Enquiry has come into being.

The limitation of the production of the coca leaf, as well as that of opium and other raw materials for the manufacture of narcotics, was discussed during the International Opium Conference held at Geneva from November 1924 to February 1925. The Conference made no pronouncements as to the nature of the effects of chewing the coca leaf but considered that the limitation of its production could not at that time be achieved. Peru was not represented at this Conference but the representative of Bolivia informed it that Bolivia produced about 5,000,000 kgs. of coca leaf annually, that 342,606 kgs. had been exported in 1923, that the quantity of coca consumed by the Indians was restricted, that the consumption could not he considered harmful and that cocaine was not manufactured in Bolivia.

In 1931 the question of the limitation of the production of the coca leaf was again raised during the general discussion at the Conference for the Limitation of the Manufacture of Narcotic Drugs. It was, however, decided that such limitation could not be discussed in view of the Conference's terms of reference.

The Assembly of the League of Nations recognized the necessity for achieving a limitation of the production of the raw materials used in the manufacture of narcotics, and in September 1931 requested its Advisory Committee on the Traffic in Opium and Other Dangerous Drugs to prepare questionnaires on the problem for dispatch to Governments. The questionnaire concerned with the coca leaf was duly dispatched in December 1933 to the Governments of the countries concerned. As a result of the studies made by the Advisory. Committee on the information thus received it was decided in 1936 to continue the studies on the problem but to defer the question of the control of production until a later date. The studies on the problem were continued until 1940 when the Second World War made it necessary to discontinue them temporarily.

After the end of the war the Commission on Narcotic Drugs of the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations assumed the functions which had previously been exercised by the Advisory Committee on the Traffic in Opium and Other Dangerous Drugs of the League of Nations, and in November 1946 decided that it would be useful if a new questionnaire on the coca leaf were to be sent to Governments to enable the latest information and developments to be co-ordinated on an international level. This questionnaire was accordingly dispatched in 1947 and the Commission on Narcotic Drugs examined the information supplied by Governments during its session in May 1948.

Meanwhile, in April 1947, the, Government of Peru had requested that a United Nations Commission of Enquiry should be set up to study the effects of the use of the coca leaf on the population of certain regions in South America. The General Assembly of the United Nations considered this request in November 1947 and "without wishing to prejudge the issue in any way" invited the Economic and Social Council "to consider it with all the urgency that it deserves". In March 1948 the Council adopted a resolution approving in principle the dispatch of a Commission of Enquiry to Peru and requesting the Secretary-General of the United Nations to prepare the necessary organizational plans. The Council approved the plans in August,1948 and the General Assembly in November 1948 appropriated the sum of $17,000 for the use of the Commission of Enquiry. The Secretary- General's plane for the Commission provided for a membership of four international experts. In June 1949 the Commission on Narcotic Drugs accordingly elected a medical team consisting of Dr. M. A. Granier-Doyeux, Professor of Pharmacology at the Central University of Venezuela, and Dr. F. Verzar, Professor of Physiology at the Physiological Institute at Basle, and a non-medical team composed of Mr. H. B. Fonda, Senior Vice-President of the Burroughs-Wellcome Company, Incorporated, of New York, and Mr. Razet, Inspector-General of the Ministry of Agriculture, former Director of the French Narcotics Bureau. These experts are now at work in the field assisted by four members of the United Nations Secretariat.

In April 1949 the Secretary-General received a request from the Government of Bolivia that the Commission of Enquiry should extend its activities, to that country, a request duly considered by the Commission on Narcotic Drugs in June 1949. At that time the Commission also re-examined the Secretary-General's plans for the Commission of Enquiry in the light of the financial appropriation which the General Assembly had made for it in the previous November, and decided that the $17,000 provided would hardly he sufficient to allow the Commission of Enquiry to spend enough time in the field to make the thorough study for which its terms of reference provided. As a result of these two new factors in the situation, the matter was again referred to the Economic and Social Council and was considered by that organ in July during its ninth session this summer. The Council agreed with the views of the Commission on Narcotic Drugs as regards the desirability of extending the inquiry to Bolivia and the necessity for making more funds available, and on 23 July, accordingly, adopted a resolution to this effect, the text of which is to he found in the Official Section.(Page 52).