The Disappearance of Cocaism in Ecuador


The Disappearance of Cocaism in Ecuador


Author: Luis A. León
Pages: 21 to 25
Creation Date: 1952/01/01

The Disappearance of Cocaism in Ecuador

Luis A. León

The Bulletin here presents, with the author's consent, some extensive extracts from an article published by Dr. Luis A León in the review América-Indígena, quarterly organ of the Inter American Institute of Indigenous Studies, vol. XII, no 1, January, I952

When necessary, these extracts have been linked together by brief summaries of the paragraphs omitted. 1

This article shows a totally different aspect of the over-all description of coca addiction in South America by revealing that the Ecuadorean Indians, who had been addicted to coca for centuries, have now completely abandoned the habit. The author concludes that the abolition of coca addiction has greatly contributed to the progress of the Ecuadorean Indian, both physically and mentally.

The interesting fact concerning Ecuador's position as regards the coca problem, is that this country, which was part of the Inca Empire and therefore was familiar for many centuries with the habit of coca-leaf chewing, has now completely abandoned it and might therefore serve as an example in the research now being carried on into the possible results of the habit's abolition.

Although the quantity of documentation on coca addiction in Ecuador is far smaller than that referring to Peru, there are indisputable archaeological proofs that the habit existed.


Medical archaeology and the works of the chroniclers reveal that in the days before the discovery of America by Columbus, the use of coca was widespread almost throughout the country. Our archaeological collections are rich in ceramic figures representing men chewing coca. they have in their mouths one or two rolls of coca revealed externally by a globular protuberance in one cheek.

1Passages in italics aresummeriesof those passage not not produced in full- Editor's note

There are archaeological proofs of the existence of coca addiction on the coast and in the mountains. Cocaleaf chewing was a part of the ritual of certain tribes

It would appear that coca addiction was a native vice amongst the early inhabitants of Ecuador It is, however, difficult to make any definite statement beyond saying that at the time of the Spanish Conquest the use of coca was widespread in the area which is now Ecuador The chroniclers give detailed descriptions of the coca-leaf chewing habit, and of the cultivation of the coca shrub and the effects of the plant Coca at that time grew in all parts of the present territory of Ecuador, including the eastern region, from which it disappeared many years ago

At the beginning of the seventeenth century, the cultivation and consumption of coca were practised on a large scale even by clerics, and Juan de Mañozca, a celebrated inquisitor, was greatly incensed by the practice.

The notion of the strengthening effects of coca-leaf chewing influenced even the thought of our famous historian Father Juan de Velasco. This disciple of Loyola wrote in 1789 concerning the characteristics and virtues of the plant:

"Coca is a small shrub, light green in colour, with leaves somewhat resembling those of the orange tree; they are extremely strengthening and provide a food of incredible virtues, since the Indians, with no other provisions beyond these leaves, make journeys lasting for weeks, and appear to grow stronger and more vigorous every day. There is trade in this plant in nearly all parts of the country."

Coca did indeed form the object of commercial transactions: according to Dr. Gualberto Arcos: "the trade in this plant reached fabulous proportions in colonial times, as exports are reported to have reached the value of 800,000 pesos per annum, which would be an immense quantity even today".

After the colonial period, the trade in and use of coca in Ecuador not only decreased but disappeared entirely, and there is accordingly very little mention of the plant in the period subsequent to the rise of the independent Republic; brief reference is made to the problem of the effects of coca in books of history, botany and pharmacology and these reveal the same differences of opinion as are observable in the writings of former times.


In 1911 the eminent Ecuadorean botanist Dr. Luis Cordero was already doubtful as to the existence of coca in Ecuador, as appears from his words:

"Erythroxylon coca: Some landowners in the Sanaguin area, in the western part of the province of Azuay, affirm that that very useful, plant known as coca is produced in this area; but, we cannot prove that it is so, and it may be that the persons who affirm it are mistaking some related plants, of which de Candolle lists more than twenty, most of them American, for the true coca plant. Be that as it may, the true species so highly valued by the Indians of Peru and Bolivia for purposes of chewing, and in modern times so useful in medicine for the anaesthetic properties derived from the cocaine content extracted from the leaves, might well be cultivated. As regards the first quality, it is well known that the Indians work long hours with no food only chewing a few dried leaves of this plant two or three times a day, flavouring them with powdered lime which they carry for the purpose. They say that this chewing induces a pleasant narcosis, comparable to that produced by opium although it is neither so serious nor so harmful. Lindley, however, says in his Treasury of Botany, in the article on coca, that persons who become addicted to coca-leaf chewing rarely attain old age."

In his Botánica Médica, Dr. Marco T. Varea says of this plant: "Erythroxylon coca: This is the coca which grows in the eastern regions of our territory, and is the same as that found in the hot regions of Peru and Bolivia and in Brazil. It is of considerable value in certain districts where the inhabitants use it on long journeys as it enables them to remain a long time without food, since it suffices for them to chew a few coca leaves mixed with the ashes of the same plant or of Cecropia peltata, known in the Amazon region as ambaubaand amongst us as guarumo."

Professor Bejarano, in his interesting work, El Cocaismo en Colombia states that "the habit of chewing coca has persisted for centuries amongst the aboriginal inhabitants of certain South American countries; the vice was particularly prevalent amongst the indigenous inhabitants of Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador and Colombia".

It is well that this distinguished health expert referred to Ecuador in the past tense. This statement by Professor Bejarano inspired Dr. V. Gabriel Garces to make a correction, and to point out that "The Ecuadorian Indian does not use coca and probably has no knowledge of it at the present time, or it may be that he knows of it and uses it in very small quantities and in purely exceptional cases." The psycho-analytic and sociological explanations given by Dr. Garcis for the use of coca are both original and important.

In 1946, Dr. Buhler, in a well-documented monograph, indicated that the use of this plant was still widespread, particularly amongst the Quechuas and Aymaras in Peru, Bolivia and the border regions of Chile and Argentina, and had spread beyond those limits to the nearer valleys of the Amazon, and went on to state: "In northern Peru and particularly in Ecuador, coca has now almost entirely disappeared, but in former times it was very well known."

Five years ago I myself also stated that coca-leaf chewing had almost died out in Ecuador. The million Indians composing the many communities of the Ecuadorean plateau have completely abandoned the custom of chewing coca leaf; the Cayapas and the Colorados who inhabit the forests of the west may possibly use it sporadically. The Indians of our Amazonian region, and particularly the Yumbos and Jivaros would seem still to use coca when on a journey, in moderate quantities and unknown to the white man; during my travels through the Napo-Pastaza province, I was unable to observe that the Indians accompanying us made use of coca; I did, however, find that on these journeys they consumed large quantities of mashato or masato, prepared on a basis of yucca, a drink to which they attribute a great strengthening power. No mention is made in the works of the explorers and scientists who have travelled in the eastern region of our country of coca-leaf chewing amongst the natives of eastern Ecuador.

The pharmacies of the country obtain coca leaf for medical purposes in the neighbouring countries; they also obtain very small quantities from the parish of Maldonado (Carchi province) and areas near Curaray (Napo-Pastaza province), where the plant is grown on a very small scale.

It can therefore be stated that coca-leaf chewing is practically non-existent in Ecuador; this custom of the aboriginal inhabitants of South America has become a thing of the past, and Ecuador is free of one of the social problems of gravest concern to Peru and Bolivia.


What are the reasons for the disappearance of coca-leaf chewing in Ecuador? Our sources of information do not enable us to indicate the most effective measures which have led to the total abolition of this vice. We shall, however, endeavour to discover what these were by following the course of history.

At a certain period of the Inca Empire, the use of coca by the common people was strictly prohibited; it was a mystic plant, reserved for the use of the Inca and for religious ceremonies; later the shaman used it in the treatment of sick people; it was only during the decadence of the Empire that the use of coca spread to the people as a whole, and it was for that reason that the Spanish conquerors found that the vice had become a daily habit with the aboriginal inhabitants of Ecuador.

Many chroniclers of the time of the Conquest refer, to this habit, of which the conquerors took advantage to exploit the Indians

The increase in coca addiction became a matter of concern to the civil and religious authorities of the Vice-Royalty of Peru, and in due course was brought to the attention of the King of Spain, who promulgated laws to restrict the cultivation and use of coca and to protect the health of the Indians The first law was promulgated in October 1569 and, as a protection to the Indians themselves, prohibited the use of coca, entrusting the Church with the task of ensuring the implementation of the law in all matters regarding superstitions, witchcraft, ceremonies and other evil and depraved purposes".

In another law, dated 11 June 1573, Philip II referred again to the matter, limiting the cultivation of coca to such an extent that, although allowed, it was strictly regulated: landowners cultivating coca were, given permission to gather no more than 500 baskets. No additional planting could be made without authorization from the Viceroy, who could not in any case authorize the production of more than 500 baskets as previously indicated under penalty of various fines The law continues by ordering that landowners must give sufficient food to the Indians in their employment and not keep them on any longer than the,time specified in their contract Finally, another law of April 1574, regulates the purchase and sale of coca There was therefore a body of very strict law the effect of which was to regulate the cultivation of coca and in the end to restrict it, particularly in the territory of the Real Audiencia de Quito, where the absence of mines forbade the trade in coca; this was allowed to a certain extent in mining areas under the law of 1574 by the following article:

"Any person purchasing coca from a landowner may neither sell it nor trade in it except to mining undertakings and the settlements where these are established."


In the seventeenth century and the early days of the eighteenth, the progress of agriculture had a considerable influence on the disappearance of coca plantations. An increasingly intensive cultivation of sugar-cane, bananas, sweet potatoes, yucca, carrots, beans, lentils and certain cereals and fruit trees in the Imbabura, Tungurahua, Canar, Azuay and Loja valleys replaced the coca plantations which had suffered from the restrictions, difficulties and prohibitions embodied in the laws promulgated by the Crown. On the high plateaux and the slopes of the Andes where coca was chiefly consumed, agriculture was similarly developed and the waste land gave place to fields of maize, sweet potatoes, wheat, barley, beans, lupin and quinua.

The Indian was the chief agent in this rebirth of agriculture and to a small extent he shared in the harvests. He was forced to cultivate his guasipungo (plot of ground adjacent to an Indian's hut and cultivated by him) to feed his family. In the country as a whole, the development of agriculture and stockbreeding resulted in an improvement in conditions for the native inhabitants, who began to carry to their work and on their long or short journeys fibre baskets containing sweet potatoes, cooked beans, maize, baked barley flour, peppers, etc. and to forget the llipta and the coca which daily became more expensive and difficult to obtain. The Ecuadorean Indians, particularly those in the hill regions, acquired the habit of quenching their thirst and satisfying their hunger not with expensive coca leaves which gave an illusion of satisfaction but with their baskets of food, their pilchi (gourd of water or chicha), an age-long eating habit of the Indian was thus changed and the coca leaf which in former times he had carried hanging from his belt, gave place to the basket of food without which he is today rarely seen.

Jorge Juan and Antonio de Ulloa, in a work entitled De la fertilidad del territorio de Quito; alimentos comunes de sus moradores; sus especies, y abundancia en todos tiempos give a detailed and laudatory description of the development of agriculture and the wealth of food products in the Real Audiencia de Quito. With reference to the properties of chicha, they make this interesting comment: "It is a valuable food and Indians who have no other foods but this drink, with baked maize flour., boiled maize and baked barley flour are vigorous, muscular and of sound constitution." Modern dietetic science has discovered the great food value of the quinua, lupin, beans and lentils, maize and other Indian food products, which explains the energy, vitality and longevity of the Ecuadorean Indian.

The use of coca was at first considered by the civil authorities, certain religious communities and particularly by the missionaries as a diabolical and pernicious custom; this consideration led the authorities to petition King Philip II to prohibit the cultivation and consumption of the plant, as is clear from the law of 1569. The combined activities of the civil and religious authorities and the campaign undertaken by the missionaries against the use of coca without doubt contributed to the disappearance of the coca-leaf chewing habit amongst the various indigenous groups of Ecuador. Proof of the work done in this connexion by the civil and religious authorities can be found in the account of Loja produced in 1571 and 1572, and sent to Ovando by Salinas Loyola. The original of this document is now in the Real Academia de Historia de Madrid This curious document, referring to the customs of the Paltas and Malacatos Indians of the province of Loja: "They also have guacas or idols to which they offer gold and silver and all their possessions, particularly a herb called coca, held by them in great esteem. They do this in secret because they have been told that it is an offence to God to worship such creatures and they are afraid of punishment."

This campaign, acting in conjunction with the various factors which helped to bring about the disappearance of the coca plantations and the elimination of the habit of chewing, must have been vigorous and systematic, since by the beginning of the eighteenth century, there were no longer any coca plantations in the Real Audiencia de Quito and the practice of coca-leaf chewing had died out.

Antonio de Ulloa, in a comparative study of the use of coca and betel nut, makes the following comment: "It is exactly similar to the betel-nut used by the people of India, the plant, the leaf, the manner of use and the properties are all the same and the people of India are no less strongly addicted to the betel-nut than the Indians of Peru to their coca, but in other parts of the province of Quito the plant is not used and is unknown." Antonio de Ulloa was one of the few Europeans of the eighteenth century with any knowledge of the customs and the economic and social condition of the Indians of Peru and of the Real Audiencia de Quito It is enough to read his interesting works, particularly his Noticias Americanas and his Noticias Secretas de América to realize the enthusiasm which this Spanish scholar displayed in acquiring his real and profound knowledge of this ethnic group, the most numerous and the most unfortunate in the Colony.

As Ulloa's authoritative words reveal, coca was neither known nor used by the Indians of Ecuador in the middle of the eighteenth century, although among the Indians of the neighbouring countries to north and south the cultivation and consumption of this plant persisted and was even on the increase. It is thus about two centuries and a half since the Indians of Ecuador, particularly those of the high plateaux, completely abandoned coca-leaf chewing.

The author goes on to deal with the harmful effects of coca addiction according to the Bolivian professor Dr. Juan Manuel Balcázar, and to Dr Carlos Gutiérrez Noriega and Dr Vicente Zapata Ortiz, of the Faculty of Medicine in Lima These authorities state that not only is there no proof that the use of coca strengthens the resistance of the organism, but on the contrary it appears that coca-leaf chewers are subject to chronic derangement of the intelligence, memory and personality The author also quotes Dr Jorge Bejarano of the University of Bogota, according to whom coca addiction causes physical and moral degeneration and at the same time, through heredity, affects the race as a whole.


It may be wondered whether the disappearance of coca addiction in Ecuador has produced better physical development amongst the Indians during these two and a half centuries. The results of the abolition of coca addiction should be studied from two angles, the biological and the social, although, scientifically speaking, the latter should be subordinate to the former. Anthropology is called to the task of establishing the differences in physical and spiritual development between the Indians of Ecuador and those of Colombia, Peru and Bolivia. In order to do so it must study the indigenous groups of the high plateaux in these countries, all of whom were addicted to coca before the eighteenth century, and who are subject to the same biological and geographical conditions. Williams Bollaert in 1860 made anthropological studies of certain indigenous groups in Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru; George Rouma made similar studies in Bolivia and Paul Topinard in 1879 made an anthropometric investigation of certain indigenous types in several countries of South America. Sporadic studies of the same type have been made in Peru by Ales Hrdlicka, Alberto Hurtado, Alberto Guzmán, Julio Pretto, Maximo Kuczinsky, etc. Paul Rivet, Antonio Santiana, Anibal Buitron, José Cruz and the author of this article have studied Ecuador. These studies provide an idea of the physical development of the Indians addicted to coca and those not so addicted; but it would be extremely interesting to make a study in accordance with the anthropometric principles proposed by R. Martin and the International Convention of Monaco, and recommended by the Second Inter-American Congress on Indigenous Studies, in order to reach conclusions permitting comparisons and approximating to the truth. It would very probably appear from such work that the physical development of Indians not addicted to the consumption of coca was better. As I have always realized, the Indians of Imbabura, Loja and other districts of the high Ecuadorean plateaux are better physically developed than those of the high Peruvian plateaux. The physical development of many indigenous groups in Ecuador is marked by a slender figure and a handsome face and it is not unusual to find Indian women, particularly in the province of Imbabura, who are extremely beautiful, although it is true that many of them have a considerable amount of Spanish blood.

The physical strength of the Ecuadorean Indian is undeniable; without the stimulus of coca, he works untiringly either in agriculture, the textile industry or in trade, makes journeys and energetically climbs the steep slopes of the Andes; he endures sleeplessness, rain, wind and the glacial cold of the high mountains without ill-effects to his health. Moisés Sáenz the distinguished expert in indigenous matters, was not exaggerating when he said that "the Ecuadorean Indian is physically strong, vigorous and well made and appears to suffer from fewer diseases than his brethren of other countries"; and it must not be imagined that his clothing helps him to endure the inclement conditions of his environment or that his diet is well-balanced.

Leonardo Chiriboga, referring to the strength of the Indian, makes this rather unfair criticism:"The Indian, despite his apparent muscular power of carrying loads has in reality very little physiological capacity particularly as regards the efficient functioning of the major organic systems of circulation and respiration", and adds: "The strongest proof of this statement is to be found in one of the most obvious characteristics of the Indian: he always works slowly, with frequent pauses and following a monotonous and unchanging routine. Seldom or never is he seen to run, to jump, to become excited, to make rapid, violent or energetic movements or to obey a nervous impulse. The influence of this physiological condition is seen in his music, his dances and his songs: hence the dreary monotony of all his cultural creations. The reciprocal effect of physiology on the spirit, and vice versa, is the final reason for the unhealthy indolence in which the Indian drags out his life."

Chiriboga also concludes that the Indian in all his actions seeks to save energy. I agree that the Indian is less active than the half-caste, and the white man, but I do not agree with the statement that he is less vigorous; in the long run the output of the Indian is as great as that of the white man, even with his saving of energy. The tempo at which he works is closely bound up with his character, his degree of culture and his economic aspirations. But we are not seeking here to compare him with the half-caste or with the white man, but with his congeners of Peru and Bolivia who are addicted to chewing coca.

As regards hygienic conditions, I sincerely believe that there are few groups of Indians in South America so progressive as the Indians of Imbabura and Loja in Ecuador. The cleanliness of their persons and clothing, their confidence in the preventive work of the health service, the changes in their dwellings, etc. show how concerned they are to preserve their health; their clean bright clothes make a favourable impression on tourists and scholars visiting these regions. In this respect, there is an enormous difference between them and the Indians of the high plateaux of Peru and Bolivia.

If the Indians of Ecuador were free from alcoholism and the toxic and degrading effect of their passion for chicha, which they have in common with the Indians of Bolivia and Peru, their biological and social progress would be still greater.

In the Ecuadorean hill regions infectious and parasitic diseases are more common than deficiency diseases and cause the highest death rate. The Indians of the eastern and western provinces are subject to tropical diseases which cause their, degeneration and decline. If the health authorities could extend their activities to all the Indians in the country, the rural areas of Ecuador would soon begin to be peopled again with the same indigenous inhabitants as in the days before Columbus.

The cultural standards attained by certain groups of Indians in Ecuador, the chief amongst them being those of Otavalo, is undoubtedly superior to those of similar groups in Peru, Colombia and Bolivia. A favourable view of the intellectual development of the Indians of Imbabura is inspired by their interest in the education of their children, the advancement of their customs, the improvement of their industries, the development of domestic and foreign trade, and their interest in sport and the legal and sociological improvement of their trade organization, and their efforts to absorb the white man's culture. Many entirely impartial sociologists who studied the indigenous groups of the high plateaux of Colombia, Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador would not hesitate to admit the cultural superiority of the Ecuadorean Indian. It is logical to suppose that the biological and spiritual development of the Ecuadorean Indian is the result of diverse factors which it would be interesting to study; there can be no doubt that the disappearance of coca addiction is one of those factors.