The Coca Question in Bolivia


The Coca Question in Bolivia


Author: Raúl Pérez Alcalá
Pages: 10 to 15
Creation Date: 1952/01/01

The Coca Question in Bolivia

Raúl Pérez Alcalá
Agricultural engineer, member of the NationalCommission on Coca Leaf


Cultivation of the coca plant in Bolivia today represents an important source of revenue, as a high percentage of the inhabitants are addicted to coca-leaf chewing.

As a medicinal herb, coca has a long history which goes back to the Incas and the colonial period, but the Bolivian native's habit of chewing coca leaf during working hours and using it as an essential item of diet originated during the colonial period when the conquistadores, convinced that there was wealth in the soil of Peru, used the Indians to mine gold and silver, keeping them supplied the while with coca leaves of which they had learned the anaesthetic properties from the Indians themselves.

The Indian or the half-breed, when employed on the particularly arduous work of minerals deep down in the mines, chews coca leaf in order to mitigate the pangs of hunger and thirst and to be able to make the muscular effort required of him. The effects of coca chewing, seemingly beneficial, are in reality harmful, mentally and physically, to its addicts. The coca chewer is an odd figure: he shuns society and is shunned in return because of the wad of coca in his mouth with its nauseating odour.

The Yungas region, which is where the coca plant is cultivated in Bolivia, lies in the departments of La Paz and Cochabamba and has a very special climate. There is an intensive trade in the coca leaf throughout the western part of the country, especially in Potosí, Oruro and La Paz, but its influence is felt more particularly in La Paz and among the population of the Yungas. The University of San Andrés collects special taxes, and the Society of Landowners of Yungas and the Coca Customs Office owe their existence to the economic value of the coca leaf. Thus this product has become an economic, social and political factor of considerable importance.

BOLIVIAN COCA CHEWER Photo: A. Posnansky Courtesy Mr. Raúl Pérez Alcalá

Full size image: 12 kB, BOLIVIAN COCA CHEWER Photo: A. PosnanskyCourtesy Mr. Raúl Pérez Alcalá

Although the theory that the coca leaf has a harmful effect on those who chew it is accepted, economically the opposite is true: greater consumption of coca means greater wealth. Economic laws govern the life of nations and still more the lives of individuals. It will be remembered, perhaps, that England imposed opium smoking in China by force. For the sake of money, man is apt to commit the most inhuman actions and to lose all conceptions of moral value. In Bolivia, whenever any suggestions have been made in connexion with the need to stamp out coca-leaf chewing and to replace the coca shrub by some other commonly used crop, other interests have always come before those of the nation as a whole. What coca chewing does to the Indian is of no account. What matters is increased business.

Thus, despite the report of the United Nations Commission which visited the country in November 1949 - a report, be it said, which clearly shows that coca-leaf chewing is harmful and should therefore be abolished - the parties engaged in the lucrative coca trade continue to claim that Bolivian coca has a low cocaine content - from .26 to .50 per cent - as compared with the Peruvian which varies from .80 to 1 per cent; that it is exceedingly rich in vitamins, containing as it does vitamins A, B and B 1, riboflavin, ascorbic acid, biotin, pirodoxin, and the like. The same parties assert that the use of coca is essential at high altitudes. However, although these qualities deserve to be taken into account, it is certain that they neither compensate for nor mitigate by one jot the harmful effects of the coca leaf. For who can deny that the Bolivian Indian suffers from malnutrition and that the coca leaf has made him a repulsive sight?

The traditional sobriety and endurance of the Andean labourer are a myth, as is the conviction which has been gradually fostered that these qualities are due to the beneficial effects of the coca plant. The Indian is neither temperate nor resistant. He does not eat enough because he cannot afford to do so; and on the rare occasions when he can afford to eat his fill, he does not take sufficient nourishment because cocaine debilitates the digestive organs. The wandering Indian of the Andes, who stoically covers hundreds of kilometres with a pack weighing several kilogrammes on his back without feeling real fatigue, is able to do so because of the coca leaf which stimulates his muscular activity. How can an ill-nourished body possibly have endurance? What happens is that for a few short years the Indian makes an effort which is out of all proportion with his real physical powers, and then becomes a human derelict until his death, which usually occurs at an early age.

The opinion of those familiar with the subject is divided. Some maintain, on the basis of scientific studies, that the coca leaf is harmful, while others, subservient to private interests, produce specious arguments to prove that the coca leaf is of incalculable benefit to mankind, both in medicine and in nutrition. Yet, whosoever seeks the real truth in this matter must admit that private economic interests must not take precedence over the health of an entire nation and that the time has come to redress a wrong suffered by the population for hundreds of years. Is it necessary to continue to discuss whether or not coca is harmful? What is necessary now is to find the means of replacing the coca plant by other crops of universal economic value. In a word, I believe that the country's social and economic bonds need strengthening, and the coca leaf seems to be the major obstacle.

The purpose of this article is to spread abroad the views on coca chewing held by Bolivian doctors and others who have studied the problem, and to suggest the substitution of other economically valuable crops for the coca plant.


Very little has been written in Bolivia on the subject of the coca leaf, and such works as exist do not bear the hallmark of patient and careful research.

In chronological order, the weekly La Epoca in its issue of 15 July 1945 contained an anonymous article suggesting the establishment of a coca-growers’ bank and observing that "coca might be termed the most important plant in Bolivia for domestic and foreign trade".1 On 18 September, the same periodical published an anonymous article entitled "Virtudes de la coca" which said, inter alia: "it would be ridiculously easy to show that of all the known plants, coca is outstandingly endowed with the powers to dispel sleepiness, maintain strength, preserve the teeth and safeguard those who use it from the adverse effects of long fasting".1 In September 1945, the same weekly carried, in its first, second and third columns, a comment opposing the idea of establishing a coca-growers' bank.1

According to Dr. Martín Cárdenas (1932), Professor Cornachea (1916) of the Villazón Agronomic Institute of Cochabamba, now closed, wrote a study on "La Estalla de la coca", a disease the causes of which have not yet been established, maintaining that "it is probably caused by changes in humidity affecting the plants".2

In 1933, Dr. Nicanor Fernández wrote a small pamphlet published by the Society of Landowners of Yungas, in which he sings the praises of coca in the following terms: "It is our sincere and humanitarian desire to spread the use of coca among all classes of society at home and abroad in the conviction that we would be doing a service to our fellow-men."3

In April of the same year, Humberto Palza published a four-page comment on Professor Claude Joseph's talks regarding the eradication of the Ulo pest (coca-leaf butterfly Eloria sp.) by the Odinero wasp.4

A brief study on the cultivation of the coca leaf by Sáenz Guerrero appeared in the review El Altiplano.5

1 Anonymous 1945. Weekly periodical La Epoca (103): 15-VII; 18-IX

2 Martín Cárdenas. 1944 "La Estalla de la coca", Revista de Agricultura (2): 45-51.

3Nicanor Fernandez T. 1932. La coca boliviana (Society of Landowners of Yungas): 47.

4Humberto Palza S 1932. La extirpación de la plaga del Ulo mediante la avispa Odinero (Talks by Prof. Claude Joseph) 4

5A Sáenz Guerrero. 1936. "El cultivo de la coca boliviana", El Altiplano 2 (13-14): 21-23.

In Colonización y Agricultura, Augusto Valdivia described the life-cycle of the Ulo and recommended methods of control. This work, like the preceding works dealing with coca in its agricultural aspects, indicates no desire on the part of the technicians to promote the cultivation of coca but merely represents a contribution to the study of problems associated with that plant.6

In September 1941, Dr. Gregorio Mendoza Catacora published a study entitled El empleo de la coca en Bolivia, which was presented to the First National Congress of Medicine, the First Oriental Conference of Rotarians of Bolivia and the Fourth Pan-American Conference of the Red Cross at Santiago, Chile. The author says that "when the Indian chews coca leaf he adds llujta (soda ash) producing an infusion in his mouth which brings about almost complete extraction of cocaine. When this juice is swallowed and reaches the stomach, it is mixed with the gastric juices which normally contain hydrochloric acid; this leads to the formation of cocaine hydrochloride which is exactly like the product manufactured in factories and laboratories".[7]

In 1944, the Revista de Agricultura published by the San Simón University in Cochabamba, carried an article by Dr. Martín Cárdenas on the Estalla, which suggests that this disease is caused by a virus, if the reactions of other plants infected by viruses can be taken as a criterion.

Perhaps the most interesting and valuable work on the coca plant by a Bolivian expert is one written by Dr. Emilio Fernández of the University of San Francisco Javier de Sucre. While it is not, strictly speaking, the result of scientific research, it is based on professional experience and observation. It has the further merit of furnishing a scientific basis for the campaign against the dangerous effects of coca chewing and of inspiring a number of other students to produce works of the same type and with the same viewpoint. Dr. Fernández’ article appeared in the Archivos Bolivianos de Higiene Mental. It contains some very pertinent observations, such as the following: "Whereas cocaine addiction is associated with night life, with loose women and their lovers seeking to stimulate sexual desire, the coca chewing habit is ingrained among the Indians, the farmers and miners, who use it to arouse physical energy and to deaden pain, loneliness, hunger and thirst... The average quantity of coca chewed a day is 50 to 100 grammes or more, increasing with age and sex (men chew more than women), the type and duration of the work done, the maximum physical effort required and the mental make-up... The adult Indian consumes by chewing 50 grammes of coca a day, and Bolivian coca contains from .75 to .81 per cent cocaine. It might be deduced from these facts that the Bolivian Indian consumes on the average 39 centigrammes of cocaine a day through the digestive system; but if we make every possible allowance and assume that he absorbs only one-third of that amount, the resulting quantity of 13 centigrammes is still a toxic dose. It should be added that the medicinal dosage in, for example, the British pharmacopoeia is 2 to 8 grammes of coca and 1 to 3 centigrammes of cocaine. Consequently, the 50 grammes of coca leaf or 39 centigrammes of cocaine consumed by our indigenous inhabitants represent highly toxic doses, particularly when taken daily all one's life. " 8

6Augusto Valdivia A. 1937. "El Ulo", Colonización y Agricultura (11).

7Gregorio Mendoza Catacora. 1941. El empleo de la coca en Bolivia (La Paz): 8

The same review reprinted a chapter from Dr. Juan Manuel Balcázar's book Epidemiologia Boliviana, entitled "Coca y cocamania". Taking the same position as Dr. Fernández, the author states: "The average annual production amounts to 3 million kilogrammes; in 1944 it was slightly less. The quantity consumed, at the average price of 60 bolivianos per kilogramme, amounts to 153 million bolivianos. Assuming that a kilogramme of coca leaf contains 7.8 grammes of cocaine, 19,890 kilogrammes of cocaine are consumed each year. In round numbers, 20,000 kilogrammes of cocaine are used annually for the intoxication of our working classes. As a gramme of cocaine sells for 20 bolivianos, this intoxication represents 400 million bolivianos which are paid, at the expense of the country's economy, to maintain at least two-thirds of the national population in a state of mental impoverishment and physical prostration."9

The Archivos Bolivianos de Higiene Mental also published the one technical study available, a study which was the result of patient research conducted on a group of delinquent coca addicts in a prison at Lima, Peru. The author, who rationally planned the course of his inquiry in advance, carefully noted all the relevant data in this work and there can be no doubt that his conclusions are valid. Some of them are as follows:

  1. Disturbances of perception found in cases of slight or medium intoxication included changes of visual and auditory acuity and paraeidola, auditory, visual and kinesthetic illusions and changes of temporal perception. In more serious states of intoxication, fantastic visions, macropsia, micropsia, dysmorphopsia, disturbances of spatial perception and in a few cases pseudo-hallucinations and true auditory and visual hallucinations were experienced.

  2. Among disturbances of thought, the most frequent are tachypsychism, eidetic representations and obsessions. In states of great intoxication, there are interceptions, ebullition of ideas, confused thought and automatism of thought.

  3. States of autism, full of wish fantasies with an impression of vivid reality, are frequent. This is probably one of the most characteristic disturbances of coca addiction.

  4. In some cases perceptive delusions and exaggerated self-importance are present and only in rare cases of great intoxication are there true delusions.

  5. Disturbances of the instinctive tendencies (sexual, self-assertive and hunger) are frequent.

  6. The symptoms of abstinence are always slighter and less prolonged than those observed in other drug addictions.

  7. The symptoms of coca addiction or coca mania are similar to those of cocaine addiction, from which they differ only in that they develop more slowly and the principal symptoms disappear during periods of abstinence.10

8 Emilio Fernández M 1945. "La cocamania en Bolivia", Archivos Bolivianos de Higiene Mental (1). 61-84.

9 Juan M. P Balcazar. 1945. "Coca y cocamania", Archivos Bolivianos de Higiene Mental (2): 45-51.

Lastly, mention should be made of a small work which represents a digest of facts noted by chroniclers and writers of the last century, and which sets out to prove that coca is of benefit as a nutritive element in the Indian's diet. The pamphlet also contains a petition from the Chairman of the Society of Landowners of Yungas to the Minister of Foreign Relations, analysing the position of coca as regards international trade and urging the Bolivian Government to present a formal request that Bolivian coca leaf should be removed from the list of narcotic drugs drawn up by the Second International Opium Conference.

It was impossible to procure publications on the subject by Franz Tamayo, Jaime Mendoza, Alcidez Arguedas, José Agustín Morales and others.


Coca was originally cultivated by the Incas, although not on as large a scale as today. The legend is that it was considered sacred and that the nobles burned or chewed its leaves in sign of religious worship.

According to some chroniclers, "the origin of the coca plant as explained in mythology is that a woman who came down from the sky was turned into a coca plant by supernatural powers; the reason for her coming was that men would have something with which to calm and prolong sleep".11

In other words, the antiquity of the coca plant, or the period when it was first cultivated in South America, cannot be definitely established. There is proof that it existed before the Incas; this is borne out by discoveries in ancient tombs.12

10Carlos Gutiérrez N.1946 "Acción de la coca sobre la actividad mental de sujetos habituados", Archivos Bolivianos de Higiene Mental (3): 67-90.

11Melc?ades Ch?ves Ch. 1947. "Mitología Cagaba", Boletín de Arqueología (Bogotá) (5-6): 437.

Nevertheless, it has been proved that, as Sáenz says, "the greatness of the Inca empire and the peak of the prehistoric period date back to a time when coca poisoning had not yet begun its ravages".12

Enough has been said about the cultivation of coca in the Yungas, but it should be added that trade in the coca leaf has grown to the same extent as the work performed by peasants and miners. In other words, the consumption of and trade in coca have increased in the same ratio as the output of minerals. This means that the country people who habitually chewed coca, but in small quantities, must have increased their rations when they turned to mining, perhaps in the belief that coca was a sure means of sustenance.


As previously noted, coca has become an important political, economic and social factor in Bolivia.

In the field of politics, the Society of Landowners of Yungas and the Coca Customs Office make their views heard and wield considerable influence in the national Government. Many members of these institutions hold office in the public administration.

Economically speaking, coca is the most important vegetable export and is consumed in the country itself in large quantities. More than a million and a half inhabitants consume about 4 million kilogrammes of coca leaf a year. The place taken by the coca leaf as an article of national consumption is shown below.




According to the 1948 figures, taxes on coca for that year amounted to 28,963,280.35 bolivianos, the proceeds of the tax being allocated to various institutions in the department of La Paz.

But most important of all is the social aspect of the question. A huge section of the Bolivian population, comprising the ignorant masses (peasants and miners) full of superstitions and prejudices, is addicted to coca-leaf chewing. In the large agricultural section of western Bolivia, the owners pay the miserabe wages earned by the peasants in coca, and the latter will not work without an adequate ration of coca leaves. In the mines, coca leaf is the worker's most important article of consumption. It is impossible to say what would happen if the consumption of coca were to be prohibited from one day to the next Most likely, there would be domestic disturbances with nation-wide repercussions..

Luis N. Sáenz. 1938. La Coca. Lima, Peru. 434 pp.

For the reasons given above, I believe that cultivation of the coca plant should be abolished, but in such a way as to avoid economic upheavals and social disturbances. In other words, a substitute crop must be sought for coca. and, at the same time, a campaign should be carried on to convince coca addicts that the chewing habit is bad for the health and that the living standard of the workers must be substantially raised.

If it is really desired to eliminate coca consumption, the proper method is to substitute other economically valuable crops for the coca plant. A few ideas on the subject are given below.

In the Yungas the coca plant (Erythroxylon coca) is cultivated by primitive methods, which represent no advance over those used in the Inca and colonial periods.

A coca plantation in the Yungas is merely a series of narrow terraces with low sustaining walls built of mud; even so, coca is cultivated with outstanding care if we compare it with the plantations of coffee, citrus fruit trees, bananas, etc., which come next to it in importance. Citrus fruit trees are planted in small irregular groves, coffee bushes are grown as a live fence, and banana trees are planted on steep slopes and are given no care.

When the time comes to replace coca by other economically profitable crops, an analysis will have to be made of all the crops commonly grown in the Yungas, account being taken of the agricultural, economic and social factors involved.

A few pertinent facts are given below.

Coca. According to statistical data, there are about 6,000 hectares under coca in the Yungas region of La Paz, and about 600 in Cochabamba. The yield per hectare is approximately 700 kilogrammes, giving an annual income of some 20,000 bolivianos.

The national production of coca is estimated at 4,500,000 kilogrammes of which over 450,000 kilogrammes are exported to Argentina yearly.

Coffee Coffee production in the country amounts to about 1,800,000 kilogrammes with an average yield of 2,000 kilogrammes per hectare, the area under coffee being estimated at a little over 900 hectares ( tables 1 and 2 below).

In 1947 and 1948, 100,000 kilogrammes of coffee were imported, to a value of over a million and a half bolivianos (table 3).

Table I




Production in kg

La Paz
Santa Cruz


Table 2



Area in hectares

Yield per hectare in kg

Production in tons

900 2,000 1,800

Note: Data supplied by the Directorate General of Rural Economy.

Table 3






Type of coffee





Coffee in the bean
77,434 1,389,853 52,916 907,416
Roasted and ground coffee
9,201 216,814 3,907 282,102
Coffee made from barley, malt, chicory etc.
1,389 63,366 351 15,864

Note: The rate of exchange is 170 85 bolivianos to the dollar.

From the above figures it will be seen that coffee, with an average yield of 2,000 kilogrammes per hectare, can give an income of 15,000 to 20,000 bolivianos. Coffee has the added advantage that it may be exported to other countries in unlimited quantities.

Tea. The cultivation of this plant is quite new in South America. With the exception of Peru and Brazil, no country has as yet tested it adequately. In Bolivia attempts to grow tea are being made in the Yungas and in Larecaja. The tea produced in those regions is reported to be of good quality and to give a high yield.

Imports of tea to Bolivia between 1944 and 1948 were as follows:



Bolivianos (at current rate of exchange)

1944 137,120 3,978,178
1945 205,860 6,067,329
1946 243,158 7,946,891
1947 178,832 8,063,830
1948 308,469 16,557,150

As shown by the above figures, the consumption of tea in Bolivia has doubled from one year to the next, indicating probable further increases in the future. Moreover, the yields of this product, estimated at 50 grammes per plant, are as high as or higher than those of coca. since it too gives several crops a year.

Both tea and coffee can be exported to the neighbouring countries. The taste as well as the yield of the tea could be greatly improved by, say, importing from the Dutch Indies and other producing countries plants of a high-yield variety, as that stock will give better results than the seedliwngs which are now used.

Other products Apart from the crops mentioned above, citrus fruit trees, bananas, avocados, etc. could be grown in the Yungas, probably under favourable conditions. It may be noted that the Yungas regions, which are the largest producers of citrus fruits and bananas in Bolivia, are barely able to supply the local needs of La Paz, and that there is a large domestic market for those products.

Perhaps one of the most difficult aspects of the coca problem is to find a substitute crop. When it is considered, however, that citrus fruits, coffee, tea, etc., which grow in the Yungas under ideal conditions, are articles of international trade and are urgently needed by the country for its own consumption, and when the idea is accepted that such a replacement of crops would have a beneficial biological effect on a major portion of Bolivia's population, it becomes apparent that action will have to be taken, slowly but surely. Generally speaking, there will be need for a comprehensive campaign through the press and by means of lectures, posters, etc. in all cultural centres and country schools.

To repeat the words of Dr. Saravia: "We must take away from the Indian the vice of coca so that he will feed himself better, or feed him better so that he will forget the vice of coca."13

13 Hugo Saravia B. 1945. Alumentación racional (La Paz).


  1. Ninety per cent of the coca produced in Bolivia is consumed by the indigenous population and the rest is exported.

  2. No clinical or laboratory studies have been made so far on the biological effects of coca chewing in Bolivia, but several Peruvian studies, based on research. prove that coca has a pernicious effect on the human organism.

  3. The time has come to initiate measures for the substitution of the coca plant in the Yungas by other economically profitable crops. This problem should be studied and the possibility explored of raising tea, coffee and various kinds of fruit, account being taken of the social aspects affecting the consumer and the economic effects likely to be felt by the producer.

  4. From a human standpoint and even more so from a national point of view, the obligation to initiate a campaign against the use of coca can no longer be evaded.

WORKS CONSULTED (other than those indicated in footnotes)

Acosta, Joseph 1590. Historia natural y moral de las Indias.633.

Fossati, Humberto. 1948. Monografía de Nor y Sud Yungas. La Paz, 179 pp.

Guamán Poma de Ayala, Phelipe 1584-1614. El Primer Nueva Crónica y Buen Gobierno Annotated by A. Posnansky, 1944. 179 pp.

Menesas. Raúl. 1948 "Provincia Nor Yungas; Provincia Sud Yungas", La Paz en su Cuarto Centenario, pp. 159-183, 185-217.