Further considerations on the coca habit in Colombia




Author: Jorge Bejarano, M.D.
Pages: 3 to 18
Creation Date: 1952/01/01

Further considerations on the coca habit in Colombia

Professor Jorge Bejarano, M.D. Former Minister of Health, former Vice-President of the Pan-American Sanitary Bureau, Professor at the National University, Member of the National Academy of Medicine and of the New York Academy of Medicine, President of the National Red Cross Society of Colombia

The Bulletin takes pleasure in publishing the authoritative article of Professor Bejarano on the problem of the coca leaf chewing in Colombia, on which he is also preparing a book This study- which unfortunately could not be included in the special Number on Coca (Vol IV, No 2) - goes back to the origins of the habit and examines all the aspects of thc problem - although more particularly in Colombia - which years of experience and active research have made familiar to Professor Bejarano, both as a Minister and as a Professor

"As everywhere in the Indies, the natives were in the habit of having herbs or roots in their mouths, including the highly-prized herb known as coca, which is grown in many parts of this country"

"Wherever I have travelled in the Indies I have noticed that the native Indians are very fond of holding roots, twigs and herbs in their mouths In the district round the town of Antiocha some are in the habit of munching small coca plants, and in the provinces of Arma, other herbs; in the provinces of Uimbaya and Ancerma, they cut some twigs from small and tender trees, which are always very green, and chew these twigs unceasingly In the other villages which belong to the towns of Cah and Popayan they carry some small coca plants in their mouths, as already mentioned, and from some little gourds they add a certain mixture or concoction prepared by them and put the compound in their mouths, they do the same with a certain kind of earth which is like lime Throughout Peru it was and is the custom to carry this coca in the mouth, and from the morning till they lie down to sleep they carry it, without (discarding it When I asked some Indians why they, always had their mouths full of the herb (which they do not eat or use in any other way except to chew it), they said that they hardly felt the pangs of hunger, but were full of strength and energy. I think that it must in some way produce this effect, although it appears to me a vicious habit, and only fit for people like these Indians This coca is planted in the Andes, from Guamanga to the town of Plata, it grows into small shrubs, and they cultivate it and treat it with great care and order that it may produce leaves, which they call coca, and which are like myrtle. The leaves are dried in the sun, and then put into long and narrow baskets, holding a little more than one arroba each, and in theyears 1548, 1549 and 1551, such a value was set on this herb or coca in Peru that it is most unlikely that there can be any annual herb or root or fruit so highly prized as this, with the exception of spices, which are a different matter. The taxes for those years - mostly the proceeds of Cuzco, the town of La Paz and the town of Plata - yielded 80,000, 60,000 and 40,000 and 20,000 pesos, largely on account of this coca. And anyone who received a village of Indians for taxation, took as the principal sum taxable the number of baskets of coca harvested Indeed, they judged property by the quantity of "Trujillo herb" (as it is known) owned. This coca was sold in the mines of Potosi, and they took a great deal more trouble in planting and harvesting the coca leaf than it is worth. But it will never cease to be esteemed There are men in Spain who have grown wealthy through buying and selling this coca and trading in the Indian markets"

From Crónicas de la Conquista By Pedro Cieza de León, chapter XCVI

"I have always held that in the forest region coca is a homicidal drug because it engenders malnutrition through the suppression of that protective urge which is called hunger"

Maxine Kuczynsky-Godard Report of the Commission of Enquiry, E/1666, p. 138

"And the Indians paid for his labour and goods in coca The magnanimous gentry do not want the poor to be aware of their own tragedy. Let them die without understanding their pain or their ignorance. Let them have in their mouths the bitter taste of the leaf which paralyses the urge to rebellion. Give them a little artificial happiness. It is better for them to sleep than to behold the infinite melancholy of that countryside which is like a reflexion of their own age-long racial tragedy."

Anibal Prado

"The Indians have... at least contributed to the establishment of the famous estates."

Salvador Camacho Roldán

In 1943, I submitted a study on the problem of the coca habit in Colombia to the National Academy of Medicine, at Bogotá.

In this second study I shall revert to the same theme and consider the problem from different angles; I shall also discuss the causes of the coca habit and the misleading arguments apparently relied upon by the opponents of the measures which, as Minister of Health, I enacted in 1947 and 1948 but which, I believe, have not been properly enforced since I relinquished my functions with the Ministry. By contrast with the intention underlying the two decrees (which are reproduced in the appropriate section of this article), the social and public health problem of the coca habit, described in all its gravity in my earlier study, still remains, and it is my intention to raise the matter again and to put it in the hands of those who, in Colombia as throughout the continent, are the guardians of the people's physical and mental health.

The following are suitable headings under which to discuss the coca habit:

  1. Antiquity of the use of coca.

  2. Botanical study of the varieties of the plant which occur in Colombia; geographical distribution of the plant.

  3. Physiological effects of coca.

  4. Causes of the spread and continuance of the coca habit in Colombia; its present economic consequences.

  5. Measures enacted in Colombia and their results.

  6. Map of the Cauca regions where coca is cultivated and chewed, with a rough estimate of the population using it.

  7. Co-ordination of agencies in the campaign against the coca habit.


Antiquity of the use of coca in Colombia

Although we are told in a beautiful legend that Manco Capac, the ancestor of the powerful Inca tribe, whose vast empire, with its laws and structure, has remained a marvel to this day, and his wife Mama Ocllo, introduced agriculture into their vast dominions and that they made a present of the coca plant to the Indians, who describe it as "driving away hunger and weariness and dispelling sadness", there is evidence suggesting that before the time of the Incas, coca was known to the Arhuacos, whose country is thought to have been in the north-west of South America, possiblyin Guiana or perhaps in what is now Colombia. Coca occurred widely in this region of America, particularly in the areas dominated by the Chibchas. From a good many circumstances it is assumed that the Chibchas, when they drove out the Arhuacos, learnt the use of coca from them, and that the Arhuacos, in their flight to the uplands of Bolivia and Peru, introduced the plant and the habit of chewing the leaf in these parts, for the oldest tribe there, that of the Urus, spoke a language which had many affinities with that of the Arhuacos. It is certain that the Aymaras, the Quechuas and the Chibchas, as they expanded, carried coca to the south and the north. Beyond any doubt, the tribes as far north as Panama, and the Caribes, contracted the vice from the Chibchas.

In the countless legends which explain the appearance of coca on earth a divine origin is claimed for coca. One relates that the gods revealed to Manco Capac the existence and magical properties of coca. Another legend avers that coca sprang from the dead body of a courtesan- clear evidence of its original use as an aphrodisiac. There are still some tribes in Colombia which, like the Kogi or Cágaba, a small Indian community living in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, preserve the tradition that coca promotes fertility, at least during the early years of the habit, when the sexual instinct is stimulated, although later it declines and impotence supervenes, as is proved by the physiological action of cocaine.

The rationalization of the effect of coca on sexual activity has certain exceptional characteristics in this tribe, according to Dr. Gerardo Reichel-Dolmatoff, Director of the Magdalena Ethnological Institute. These characteristics would offer ample scope for the observation and theories of psycho-analysts. The ideal of life, in the Kogi culture, is to eat nothing but coca, to abstain from sexual intercourse, never to sleep, and to speak of the "ancients", i.e., to sing, dance and recite. The coca is the miraculous plant which helps man to achieve this ideal. The ceremony at which young men are initiated in the coca habit is marked by a complex symbolism. The young man receives the small gourd of lime with which the coca he chews will be mixed, and he is made to understand that the small receptacle represents a woman. The young man is married to this woman during the ceremony, and perforates the gourd in imitation of the ritual deflowering, The small twig with which he does this symbolizes the penis The introduction of the twig into the small gourd or receptacle and the gesture of rubbing round the opening, are interpreted as the symbolizing of the sexual act, and in their culture this means that all sexual intercourse is to be abandoned, its only manifestation or expression being the symbolic use of coca. Thus, the whole life of the Kogi, their entire immense frustration, is concentrated on this small object, which represents the reduction of their mortified desires into the elementary trilogy "woman", "food" and "memory" ( Los Kogi, una tribu de la Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, by G. Reichel-Dolmatoff; pub. Iqueima, 1951).

In the remains of the civilization of San Agustin, as represented by its statues, there is unmistakable evidence of the use of coca, as revealed by the innumerable statues which have been studied by Colombian and foreign ethnologists and anthropologists. Preuss, José Pérez de Barrada, Sergio Elías Ortíz, have all suggested that the clearly marked circular protuberances which are observable in the cheeks of many of the statues from San Agustin, are without doubt intended to represent the quid of coca which was being chewed and held in the mouth.

Other sculptures dating from the heyday of the Agustinian culture, about the third century A.D., and representing warriors or tutelary deities, depict figures in the act of ejecting something which is assumed by these authorities to be a wad of coca leaf. They think that these statues probably represent a deity to whom the use of coca was consecrated.

Professor K. Th Preuss, who has written some very fine studies of the statues and monuments of San Agustín in the department of Huila, reports that many of those studied by him were marked by bulges or protuberances in the cheeks, which he could only interpret as depictions of the coca-leaf chewing habit.

The San Agustín culture has been proved to antedate the great migration of the Chibcha peoples, which originated in the Isthmus of Panama not before the seventh century A.D. Hence, says Pérez de Barrada, the idea that the coca habit spread from the north to south is not tenable.

But the true origin of the coca leaf chewing habit is apparently lost in the mists of time. Even the etymology of the name "coca"- or the other names by which it is known, "ipada" in the department of Amazonas, "cuca" in Quechua, "hayo" in Brazil and Venezuela-is obscure. Vinelli and Nuñez del Prado trace it to the Aymara term for "tree" which, they say, means anything in the vegetable kingdom. Nuñez del Prado thinks it is a proper name symbolizing the benign properties ascribed to the leaf from time immemorial Some think that the word "coca" means "food", which would be in accordance with the belief that it was a foodstuff.

As Dr. Ramón Pardal observes in his Medicina aborigen Americana, the Indians of America, like some other native peoples, had and still have the habit of ingesting or absorbing vegetable substances of an alkaloid character and intoxicating effect.

No research can ascertain how it came about that each region was endowed by nature with the plant which was to be put to such uses. Clearly, however, the method of use, or the similarity in the technique employed to produce the best results, is a vestige of the habits of other peoples, so that even a person who is not an ethnologist is led inevitably to conclude that this is an imported custom spread by the migration of peoples The chewing of coca, mixed with other substances to release the alkaloid content of the leaves, is exactly similar to the custom of the ancient Malays, Polynesians and Indonesians, who chewed betel leaves (betel being a creeper of the genus Piperaceae), also with the addition of an alkali. From the ethnological point of view, this fact is of inestimable value in establishing certain basic points concerning the origins of the peoples of South America.

Nor is it possible to determine precisely when coca made its appearance in South America. There is evidence that it existed in pre-Inca days, but it has hitherto been impossible to establish how long before the Inca period this plant, which was to exercise so great and so harmful an effect on the original inhabitants of South America, began to enjoy its vogue. Historians are, however, unanimously agreed that the great Inca Empire was built up and attained its magnificent pre-Hispanic cultural apogee some time before coca addiction had begun to produce its now familiar ravages. Something similar occurred in the case of chicha, which certainly accounts largely for the decadence of the Chibcha culture.

According to many chroniclers of the period, Amerigo Vespucci was the first to bring reports of the use of coca back to Europe. In a letter attributed to him, he writes to Duke René II, of Lorraine, that "at the mouth of the River Para or Amazon I found that all the Indians had their mouths filled with a certain green herb which they munched, almost like animals, so that they could hardly utter a word". The famous navigator goes on to describe in this letter the little gourds in which the Indians carried the lime, which, according to him, was like "ground chalk". According to other sources it was the monk Tomás Ortíz who, on his return from America, first brought reports of the coca back to Europe.

Actually, the old world did not see the leaf itself until 1750, when it was brought to Europe by the naturalist Joseph de Jussieu, and it was not until a century later (1859) that Nieman, in the course of his research leading to the discovery of cocaine, demonstrated how the coca leaf acted, a chemical process which had been used, empirically, from far distant times by the peoples of the Andes. It appears clearly proved that the coca plant originated in South America. Maier states, though no source of information is given, that the coca was cultivated only in the gardens of the Inca, and the seeds would presumably have been carried to distant places by the birds. Nowadays coca occurs in the West Indies, Ceylon and Java

I have not been able to trace through any document the historical or other source from which the Indians learnt that the chewing of the coca leaf with the addition of an alkali released the alkaloid which Nieman only succeeded in isolating in 1859, in connexion with his discovery of cocaine. This is something which ought to be verified, because, from a scientific and impartial point of view, the significance of the phenomenon is this: a chemical process which was not discovered by civilized man until a century ago had for long been known to these primitive peoples - a circumstance, surely, that bespeaks a high level of culture. Further, it is a fact that coca was used in the Inca Empire not only for chewing, but as an important element in therapy among the Indians. In his fine medical and social study on the coca in Inca Peru, Luis N. Sáenz states that there is conclusive evidence that cocaine was used as a local anaesthetic in operations such as trepanning. It is well known - and it is still remembered in the medical profession - that in the Colonial and Republican periods coca was put to many medicinal uses. The supposed aphrodisiac properties of coca are still in demand among the highlanders of Peru, who believe that coca preserves virility until late in life. Coca is still used as an ingredient in magic philtres and potions, and as a dentifrice.


Geographical distribution of the coca plant in Colombia

We know that the habitat of Erythroxylon coca (red wood) is in the valleys of the Andes, in the uplands of warm countries and in latitudes where the days are short. The botanist Sauer, in his Cultivated Plants of South and Central America, noted that its oecology appears to be similar to that of the cocoa tree, although, in their value to man, the two plants are quite distinct. According to this author, coca seems to have been grown exclusively in a large area in the west and northwest of South America, bounded on the north by the coca-tree belt and on the south and east by the tobacco belt. Suitable temperatures range from 16°to 24°C, with a humid atmosphere and a sandy soil which is not damp or swampy.

Coca is not now cultivated outside the departments of Cauca, Huila, Boyacá and Santander del Sur, being grown chiefly in the first two, for in Santander it is confined to the municipalities of Capitanejo, San Miguel and Macaravita, and in Boyacá to those of Boavita, San Mateo and Soatá, whereas, in Cauca it is grown in the following twenty municipalities:

Of course, neither the cultivation of Erythroxylon coca nor the habit of chewing the. leaves is limited strictly to the departments mentioned. The Amazonian region of Colombia has also been invaded by the vice, as we know in detail from the publications of many research workers and missionaries, including Fr. Marcelino Castellvi, who was unfortunately lost to science a short time ago.

From such reports it may be gathered that coca is used in the following old or modern coca areas in Colombia, so far as these are now known: Goajira, Costa Atlantica, Magdalena, Norte de Santander (amongst the motilones), Santander del Sur, Bovaca and Cundinamarca (old area), Cauca, Huila, Nariño. Amongst the tribes of the department of Amazonas, mention should be made of the Ross?garo, the Yukuna, and the Mirañas; and in the department of Putumayo there are the Huitotos and also the Kofan


Hectares under cultivation

No. of trees

Production in kg.

100 3,000 29,800
20 2,500 10,800
60 2,000 1,200
Buenos Aires
2 1,200 800
2 1,240 900
2 1,260 1,000
15 2,300 1,500
15 3,000 8,400
El Tambo
10 1,300 1,500
30 2,500 15,600
17 2,000
La Sierra
1 500 180
San Sebastin
20 2,000 10,800
Santa Rosa
1 1,500 720
10 2,500 5,820
4 2,000 2,400
25 2,600 12,000
367 39,425 103,560
San Agustín
400 60,000 30,500
42,000 47,000
5,000 4,200
Salado Blanco
3,000 1,500
400 110,100 83,200
San Miguel
San José Miranda
800 60
San Mateo
1,000 90
700 50
2,500 200
367 39,425 103,560
400 110,100 83,200
2,500 200
767 277,025 186,960
Full size image: 14 kB

So much for the geography of the plant The fact which cannot be ignored is that the coca habit originated in the Inca Empire, from which it spread after the Inca conquest to the peoples who lived in the areas which later became Greater Colombia. However, Dr Luis A León, in his interesting study E1 cocaísmo en cl Ecuador, puts forward the theory that the vice was native to the sister country, basing his view on archaeological finds in the Carchi area, where statues were discovered which represent human figures in whose cheeks can be seen the swellings reminiscent of the leaves held in that position

Golden Mortimer, the United States archaeologist, in his book Peru, History of Coca, the Divine Plant of the Incas, indicates the following possible route for cocaism on its journey northward. The Kingdom of Quito after its conquest by Tupac Inca Yupangui, became part of the great Inca Empire. On the death of this monarch, he was succeeded on the throne by Huai-macapac, who was succeeded in his turn as lord and master of the Kingdom of Quito by his son Atahualpa The wealth and culture of the Kingdom rivalled that of Peru. The author concludes, '"it therefore seems quite probable that as the interests of the government extended northward the customs of the people of the lower Andes should follow, and be propagated among a people where similar conditions called for whatever beneficial influence might be derived from the use of coca. From Quito travel northward, aided by the canoe navigation of the Cauca and Magdalena rivers, would rapidly carry the customs of the people of the south to the northern coast, where, as shown by early historical facts, commerce was so extensive as to favour the adoption of the habits of the interior".

But the small areas where coca was grown were to be extended after the discovery of America and the Conquest, since all who have studied the historical and sociological aspects of the coca are agreed in admitting that, under Spanish rule, the vice or habit increased on a gigantic scale as the result of efforts to dominate the Indian economy. Furthermore, the trade in coca was a highly profitable business venture and yielded fabulous profits, as all, from the Inca Garcilaso de la Vega to the chroniclers and monks who came to America after its discovery, have testified.

We have yet to find out the obscure reasons why the vice should have remained confined to the areas where the cultivation of the plant was originally known, for at least in Colombia the plant can be grown in regions much lower and warmer than those where it is traditionally known. Besides, man shows remarkable ingenuity and resourcefulness in spreading in all environments anything relating to vice or the depravation of morals. Some authors incline to the explanation that precisely because coca was reputed to relieve fatigue and to invigorate, the inhabitants or workers who had to earn their livelihood in high altitudes like the páramos contracted the habit. But this does not, in my opinion, explain why the vice failed to spread to regions where geographical and working conditions were such as to favour the spread of the coca habit.


The physiological effects of coca

A social hygiene campaign must be based entirely upon scientific and sociological evidence of the perils of addiction or habituation to substances injurious to the human organism. It is, for instance, impossible to accept the mere statement formerly made in Colombia by laymen, and even by doctors, that chicha was a healthy drink and a food substitute essential to the worker in the regions where it was traditionally consumed, when that conclusion was not supported by any clinical or analytical study and did not take into account the simple objective observation that addicts who gave up the habit, so far from showing signs of under-nourishment or other deficiency, made impressive recoveries ranging from psychological rehabilitation to improved nourishment; this is all the more true in the case of a campaign which involves problems that medicine and hygiene have to solve, since both rely on the scientific and experimental method.

In the case of the coca and other deleterious habits, traditional empirical assumptions have always predominated. The fact that the vice was confined to certain regions in which the worker manifestly performs a day's work or climbs great heights without needing any sustenance other than two or three handfuls of coca leaves to chew convinced both the indigenous inhabitants and the Conquistadors that coca was a food, a tome for the heart and endowed with marvellous restorative powers.

This physiological effect has always struck me as the most plausible justification for the use of coca; this is the effect which has invariably impressed laymen and scientists alike, as well as business men and soldiers who, like Miller, a participant in the struggle for South American independence, believed that their troops' stamina was due to the fact that they chewed coca. The scientific explanation for the phenomenon is that, in dispelling fatigue, coca affects the sensory perceptive centres and blurs the sense of time, so that the person under its influence believes that time passes more rapidly than it does. These factors increase the efficiency of muscular work and disguise the feeling of fatigue.

Sáenz and his collaborators ascribe the artificial energy and stimulation due to coca chewing to the changes it produces in the metabolism. He and other authors have demonstrated that the clinical measurement of coca chewers' metabolism shows striking differences, according to whether the test was made when the subject was under the influence of coca or was made long before or after. If Pretti and Sáenz are correct in their observation that the metabolic rate of chewers who have given up the habit is appreciably slower, this would account for the intellectual impairment, under-nourishment and other abnormalities found in addicts. The reduction in the metabolism which occurs with the withdrawal of coca, they state, would be analogous to the paralysis of all the functions stimulated by coca, due either to prolonged addiction or to deprivation

However, perhaps coca owes most of the esteem in which it has been held since the earliest times to its reputed powers of sexual stimulation. There are hints and glimpses of the aphrodisiac effect of coca in the legends explaining the plant's appearance on earth which were current among the indigenous inhabitants. This effect is as clearly established as that of cocaine, which was formerly mistakenly thought to possess anaphrodisiac properties. All addicts attest this; many elderly coca chewers attribute to coca the fact that their sexual prowess is as great as it was in their youth.

The influence of coca on the sexual activity of the indigenous inhabitants is also noted by Dr. Hermilio Valdizán in his interesting studies of mental disease among the Peruvian primitives, whose hyper-erotism he ascribes to the influence of coca Seminario Helguera links the abnormal and perverted sexuality of the inmates of the Lima gaols to the high rate of coca consumption among prisoners.

These and other aberrations of the sexual instinct resulting from the use of coca, such as homosexuality and bestiality, have been so common and obvious that they have been noticed even by persons without medical knowledge or specialized acquaintance with these matters. The vivid narratives of the chroniclers of the Conquest are full of accounts of sodomitic, homosexual and bestial perversion. In the description of historians of three or four centuries ago we find accounts of the same abnormalities which today are part of the classic depiction drawn by authors who have studied the symptoms of cocaine addiction. Coca owes this magical effect, perhaps the most attractive of all to primitive man, to the action of the cocaine alkaloid, a stimulant to all the vegetative functions; but ultimately it degenerates into the most degrading manifestations.

Is coca a food? Like other green leaves, vegetables and fruits, the coca leaf has been found to contain a considerable quantity of the vitamins best known hitherto, particularly B1, B2 and C. What, then, accounts for its apparent quality as a substitute for the need for food? Possibly its high vitamin content offers a clue. If so, ought we not to conclude that the coca habit would be sufficiently vindicated ?

Many factors contribute to the misconception that coca is a substitute for food.

The first is, perhaps, the anorexia of addicts. Anorexia is a symptom common to all drug addiction. The only difference is that in the case of coca this deleterious effect has usually been singled out for admiration and praise among all the "marvellous effects of the divine plant". The loss of appetite due to drug addiction has even suggested a method of silencing revolt and popular disturbances caused by the hunger of great masses: recourse to the ignoble expedient of making them addicts to such drugs as opium.

Anaesthesia of the mouth, however, also plays a part in coca-induced anorexia; the sense of taste disappears, which explains only too well the rudimentary cookery-of addicts. To this must be added the lesions, such as the burns on the mucous membrane caused by the lime, so commonly observed among chewers, ulceration and subsequent scarring leave congestions of the mucous membrane which dull the sensitivity and cause the "toad-mouth" of addicts observed and described by López Albújar. The anaesthetic action of coca, or rather of the alkaloid released in this chemical process, thus fully explains the suppression of the sensations of hunger and thirst.

Accordingly, there is no real evidence that coca has any nutritive value, and, even if it had, there would be no justification whatever for authorizing the use or habit of coca chewing, since countless other sources of vitamins, in no way dangerous to man, are readily available, such as fruit, many varieties of which are to be found and are easily grown precisely m the climates and regions in which the vice is prevalent.

The impairment of sensitivity affects not only the mucous membrane of the mouth, tongue and stomach but also, apparently, the eye and the pharynx Medical experts both in Peru and in Bolivia note the disappearance of the pharyngal reflex in coca chewers and the stoicism with which they bear such painful afflictions as corneal ulcers and iritis.

Medical practitioners in centres and regions where there is coca addiction note the general dulling of sensitivity in addicts. Many claim that this hypoaesthesia is characteristic of the indigenous inhabitant, and many, like Valdizán, go so far as to advance this as an explanation of the stoicism with which that race bears painful afflictions or such physiological acts as giving birth, which persons of other races make an occasion for highly emotional displays Professor Edmundo Escomel has even stated that this deadening of the general sensitivity is not merely personal, but may well be hereditary. Yet, I am inclined to agree with Luis M. Sáenz that not enough information is as yet available for any definitive conclusions to be drawn with regard to racial characteristics.

Once the empirical notion and the legend that coca is a food or an antidote to fatigue are refuted, those who want to justify the use of coca fall back upon the contention that the coca leaf is useful or necessary for the life of the Andean man. The great authority of Professor Carlos Monge has been instrumental in inventing and popularizing this thesis, obviously incorrect though it is. The belief has grown that coca contains some element-cocaine or something else-which either helps man to adapt himself to great heights, adds something to the deficient nutritive value of food or increases the efficiency of muscular activity at heights above 2,500 metres

Pages could be filled with the arguments and examples which disprove this theory. One need only observe that very active workers, who are thoroughly adapted to their enviromnent but do not have the coca habit, are to be found at great heights. The white immigrant and the mestizo born in the region do not need to chew coca in order to work or stand the height They are superior in weight and strength to the Indian chewer. Finally-and this argument is irrefutable- there are regions in Colombia no more than 800 metres in altitude where coca is chewed, and very many other regions much higher than 2,500 metres where coca addiction has never been known, either among the indigenous inhabitants or among immigrants. Observation of the Peruvian and Bolivian armies, both, and especially the latter, composed largely of Indians, shows that the suppression and prohibition of coca chewing does not reduce physical capacity one whit On the contrary, all military observers point out that deprivation of the leaf improves the men physically and mentally

Hence there is no scientific evidence for the contention that the Indian differs physiologically from other men, that he needs a pseudo-stimulant in order to adapt himself to living in the highlands, or that he has any special racial attributes that enable him to tolerate cocaine, a substance which is invariably harmful to the human organism. The true explanation is, I think, that it is the wretched life and environment of the coca addict that lead him instinctively to coca for the alleviation of his woes, and that there is no connexion whatever between the vice, the race and great height No one can dispute or deny the fact that the coca habit has been and still is a phenomenon due to the economic and social circumstances of large sections of the population of Colombia, Bolivia, Peru and Argentina. César Uribe Piedrahita states in his Esquema para un estudio de la patología indígena en Colombia:

"The reason why the habit of chewing the coca leaf is so widespread among the natives m the south of Colombia can be easily explained In reality this vice is promoted by the landholders; a great part of the daily wage is paid in coca... It is also easy to explain the route taken by coca along the mountain ranges and great rivers where the autochthonous races received from their brothers from the south and from foreign masters this deplorable custom so destructive of ambition and life".

The reaction of coca addiction on the subject's psychological state closely follows the changes it makes in his feeding and in such organs as the ductless glands. Many of these reactions are clearly reflected on the subject's features at the moment when the cocaine is liberated and absorbed. I described them in the first study I made some years ago, and the relevant passages may profitably be quoted in this context.

As soon as the cocaine is released and begins to invade the organism, the subject has an agreeable feeling of euphoria and joy. The breathing becomes deeper; the nerves and heart are stimulated; the muscles seem to be invigorated; the eye brightens; and everything about the subject seems to indicate a greater propensity to work. That is why the Indian feels very restless; he gets up and walks about, seizes his tools, especially the machete, and sets about his work with an enthusiasm which might almost be said to verge on frenzy. All who have witnessed the foregoing scene agree that this unaccustomed activity is carried to such extremes that the subject in this state may be a danger to his mates working beside him, for he fells trees or wields his machete without the slightest regard for his fellow-workers. This may well be the cause of the accidents which so frequently befall subjects and those working with them. This display of muscular energy is the result of the euphoria and optimism which flood the intoxicated subject's entire organism and border on megalomania, since he believes himself to be the owner of the land he is working, of the flocks and herds around him and of the countryside as far as the eye can see. Two hours later, the pleasurable intoxication has evaporated and the Indian once again becomes aware of his true condition; he realizes once more how utterly wretched he is; the spectre of apathy and ancestral woe once more overshadows his feckless existence. Another chew, and the the same joyous sensation that began the long day fills him again, and so the vice goes on indefinitely

Many of the most striking psychological symptoms and impairments observed in the native coca addict are also common to most forms of drug addiction; indifference to economic problems, for example, and lack of ambition and aspirations.

Sáenz states that the part played by coca m the etiology of mental diseases among descendants of addicts has not been clearly established Valdizán accepted it, basing himself on the character deterioration and the oligophreny which he and Krumdieck claim to have observed in the descendants of coca addicts. Knowledge of these matters is even more scanty in Colombia than in Peru, for despite the prevalence of the vice, the authors are silent about this aspect.

On the basis of these effects on the subject's psychology, the abnormalities in behaviour, the reluctance in acquiring education and the low level of intelligence observed in coca addicts, physiological inferiority has sometimes been identified with the incurable racial inferiority, which, I think, may be compared with that formerly ascribed to those whose indulgence in chicha went back for centuries. All of us recall how contemptuously the rural inhabitants and workers of Boyacá and Cundinamarca were treated, who used to be regarded as inferior beings, almost as intermediate between man and beast.

But there is no such thing as this racial inferiority. The real truth is that various factors-which can be eliminated-cause ethnic groups to appear inferior, particularly when compared with racially similar groups.

But. disregarding such factors as drug addiction, similar or kindred ethnic groups differ widely in mentality and psychology according to whether they do or do not adjust themselves to the influence of their environment. Compare the negroes scattered throughout the world, those, for example in Colombia or in Africa, with those born and brought up in the United States. Their innumerable banks, loan corporations, insurance companies, co-operative societies, their thousands of schools, several universities, many scientists, including more than two thousand physicians and surgeons, their uncounted artists and men of letters attest to the mental and cultural capacity of those who were once slaves and beasts of burden. Thus, there is no such thing as an inferior man or race; the assertion of German philosophers is untrue.

If there is one form of drug addiction which could have caused final bankruptcy of a race's spiritual and cultural values and which not only has prevented any attempt at regeneration, such as the search for means of improving its condition, but rather has plunged it yet further into servitude and completely eradicated any urge to rebellion, it is addiction to cocaine; for it leads to malnutrition, to unhealthy and rudimentary housing, to a dulling of the emotions, to mistrust, to irascibility and to that propensity to lying and slander which is so typical of vice-ridden groups.

Although no study has as yet been made of the character of the groups in Colombia which have consumed coca from time immemorial, there can be no doubt that lingering drug addiction, affecting the vegetative and endocrinal systems and influencing the sensory and motor systems must inevitably affect what Bowen, in his magnificent work on character, calls "dispositions". If coca addiction, like all drug addiction, reacts on the intelligence, sociability and personality - three attributes of character - it is bound also to alter the traits and lineaments of the character. The Ministry of Health or the Ministry of Education should order some such study to be prepared, for it would, besides, be invaluable from the purely ethnic and social point of view.

Similarly, no research has been done into the relationship between delinquency and coca addiction. We know nothing whatever about the life of the coca addict nor about the drug's influence as manifested in anti-social behaviour. But the studies and observations made by the Peruvian physicians definitely suggest that coca addiction predisposes to crime, a fact which is not only shown by the greater prevalence of crime in the highlands than in the coastal region of Peru, but is also amply borne out by the physiological effects of cocaine, which tends to aggravate existing psychopathic disorders and to precipitate criminal outbursts. If we add the action of aguardiente or rum, intoxicants which the State itself popularizes, we have ample evidence for regarding the rural coca addict as a potential or actual criminal. The Ministries of Health and Education might well supplement the study on character suggested above by one on the incidence of crime among coca addicts.


Causes of the spread and continuance of the coca habit in Colombia, and its present economic consequences

No serious student of the coca habit has failed to recognize that the vice has been extended and maintained by interested parties. In the case of coca, we inherit from the Conquest and colonial era the desire for mastery over the indigenous economy, by any methods, a circumstance which affected employment and the remuneration in money or in kind which was paid for it.

This is not a groundless statement. Like chicha, a drink reserved for the nobility and the priests, coca was also a privilege of the upper classes and the priesthood. This is amply supported by evidence and borne out by the most trustworthy and authentic historic documents, which show the extent to which the Indian was down-trodden, exploited and oppressed, by the plundering of his land and the system of servitude, disguised under such names as encomiendas, obrajes, pun- gucaje, mitanaje, and servicio personal. All this, it is only fair to recognize, in spite of the legislation passed by the Spanish Crown, which vainly endeavoured to pursue a humanitarian colonization policy and also in spite of the spirit of priests such as Fray Bartolomé de las Casas, who, with many others, fought for the recognition of the indigenous peoples-still in our own times contemptuously referred to as "savage peoples" or more briefly "Indians" ( indios)- as persons with an individuality and culture of their own.

Fray Bartolomé de las Casas, like many other priests imbued with Christian philosophy, fought not only against the abuses of the Conquistadors, but also against the "physical subjection of the indigenous peoples". The infamous application of the policy of force, which only served to destroy the very elements of colonization, as it was Indian labour which cultivated the land and worked the mines, did not entirely disappear with the Republic nor can it even now be said to have been entirely eradicated. There are still many countries in America where the indigenous communities are the victims of that anti-Christian system. Even if the evil policy of force is no longer applied, there still remains the policy of rule through coca, which in the last analysis is nothing more nor less than enslavement of the worker and his economic situation with a view to getting every ounce of physical energy out of him in return for very low wages.

With the aid of drug addiction, men have sought to achieve not only the economic servitude but also the total submission of the peoples they wished to govern. History is full of examples of this. Legrain relates that opium subjugated the Chinese and that a powerful nation made war upon them to impose its use; that, in America, settlers used alcohol to aid them in overcoming the redskins; that the Swedish people also used it to conquer the Laplanders and the French to subjugate the African negroes. Chicha was also an instrument in the domination of the Indian peoples by the Spaniards. In the opinion of Sáenz, coca was a valuable aid which the Spaniards knew how to utilize in their conquests. He further states that the Indian who used coca for its medicinal value and mythological significance, upon discovering its narcotic properties, surrendered himself to the vice, thus signing his own slavery sentence for a period which is not yet at an end, and from that sentence neither independence nor the laws which have been passed on his behalf have yet been able to free him. Authoritative historians state that drug addiction contributed to the final disappearance of the Inca .people, which once numbered eighteen millions and was later reduce to one million, and that it too played a part in the disintegration of the fascinating Inca culture.

As Sáenz states in his excellent work on the coca leaf in Peru, and as so many others have written, the hour of real independence has not yet come for the Indian coca-chewer. It is a fact that the mental and intellectual standard of these poor people, living in enslavement to the drug, not only makes them unfit to assimilate the manifold benefits which civilization and culture have brought to Colombia, but even prevents them from enjoying the very small advantages available to those Colombians and foreigners who, though living in the areas where the vice is prevalent, nevertheless keep free of it.

Colombia, more than any other country, provides evidence of the fact that the survival of the habit is due to the ambition to control the indigenous economy, which is characterized by extremely low wages and by excessively long hours of work. It is traditional, and forms part of our idea of the Indian, that as a worker it should be considered his lot to perform work which would not be expected of any other race.

But in view of the deep-rooted influence of coca among the indigenous peoples and the part it has played in Indian sociology, it seems likely that the supression of drug addiction would produce fundamental changes in them, which, in my opinion, would have striking results in the economic field, reflected in agriculture, stock-raising and industry generally. A similar phenomenon has been observed in Cundinamarca and Boyacá since the abolition of chicha and guarapo, and is readily understandable when it is realized that what is involved is the incorporation into the national economy of quite large groups or communities which, in the case of those who drank chicha, were almost non-consumers of food, clothing and other necessities, as they existed almost entirely without them. Obviously this transformation will not take place without involving substantial economic reforms or consequences, one of them being that the Indian, when he is aroused from his stupor and no longer views the world from the artificial paradise of the "miraculous drug", will cease to exhibit that indifference to money and that apathy which are the common marks of all drug addicts.

Finally there is one incontrovertible proof that coca addiction persists in Colombia for reasons which have nothing to do with the Indian. Whereas in Bolivia and Peru Erythroxylon is cultivated to supply a genuine agricultural industry connected with the export of coca, an industry which yields many thousands of pesos, in Colombia it is grown exclusively for local consumption. So we have land suitable for food crops for human beings or animals, devoted to the useless cultivation of a plant for which there is no justification whatsoever and which should have disappeared many years ago. It can therefore be concluded that with coca, as with chicha, economic reasons rather than myths and legends have provided the most solid foundation for its survival up to our own day and have been its best ally in the efforts to perpetuate a genuine form of drug addiction. The situation is all the more reprehensible in that the habit affects exclusively Colombia's small groups of Indians, humble ignorant people who should be looked after with the greatest care, as our best human reserves and the remains of a race which can trace its ancestry back to the origins of our country.

Colombian Coquero

In the two picture strips on the right and on the facing page, a coquero shows how he prepares and stores the lime that he will use in chewing the coca leaves.

The lime, mixed with the coca leaves, permits the release of the alkaloids of the plant and facilitates their absorption by the body. It is extremely interesting to note that without, of course, any theoretical knowledge of chemistry, these primitive people found out, centuries ago, a process which is perfectly efficient for bringing about the extraction of those alkaloids. This is one of the mysteries that ethnologists have not yet been able to solve. Since the hypothesis of trial and error must be considered unlikely and since the thesis of anybody arriving at that method purely at random is equally unlikely, the mystery remains.

First he gathers and splits wood for the fire. A few sticks generally suffice, and on these are placed the shells that will calcinate and thereby produce the lime.

The lime is then gathered from the fire and placed in a mortar, where it is ground to a fine powder. It is then put in a calabash gourd, which the coquero closes by means of a small sharp stick of hard wood. He uses the calabash gourd, such as displayed, as a container in which he carries the lime.

In the next photograph, he picks up a small lump which he pushes inside the ball of half-chewed coca leaves.

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THE OLD AND THE YOUNG. Above are two typical Indian women from the Sierra region of Colombia. Women do not habitually chew the coca leaf and, therefore, do not show the characteristic lesions caused by this habit.

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Typical landscape in the Colonbian sierra


Measures enacted in Colombia

In any historical account of the coca habit it has to be remembered that, from the Conquest up to the present day, rulers, writers, priests and chroniclers in every age have given warning of the danger of the habit. This explains why measures were adopted which, although not sufficient to eradicate the vice completely, at least led to an awareness - if only a faint one - on the part of the authorities of the coca habit and its dangers.

It must be confessed that, in Colombia at least, the uninspiring results of the measures to prevent the cultivation of coca and coca-chewing are exclusively due to the reluctance with which the civil authorities have enforced them. This, in my opinion, is one of the main reasons of the failure of many public health campaigns almost before they are begun; the sole result is a deep disillusionment for the health officials, who, for their part, had attached great importance to the work.

It is equally true that some international bodies whose duty it is to study, solve or keep a watch upon any social problems affecting the peoples of America, should be less passive in their approach to governments. This applies especially to the Commission on Narcotic Drugs of the United Nations, which surely cannot consider it logical that in countries where coca is cultivated and chewed, doctors should have to complete many formalities to prescribe some compound of it, whereas the plant is cultivated freely and the leaf sold publicly in the streets and squares under the indifferent eyes of the authorities.

I feel it is time that organizations such as the International Labour Office, the Commission on Narcotic Drugs, the World Health Organization and even the Pan-American Sanitary Bureau should take joint action to urge governments to comply with the international conventions relating to narcotic drugs and to the suppression of drug addiction. In my opinion, the remedies or measures proposed in Peru and Bolivia, recently visited by United Nations missions, will achieve nothing, because to wait, as they advise, until education and higher economic standards bring about the change in people who have habitually chewed coca for centuries, is as uncertain and slow a process as to expect alcoholism to disappear or diminish in this country so long as the State, as both manufacturer and seller, retains its permanent interest in alcohol.

Action is needed on the part of these bodies to prevent indigenous groups from being destroyed by an age-long vice and human labour from taking the form of veritable slavery; in addition, other bodies, like the Inter-American Indian Institute, should visit all the countries where the Indian is the victim of vices perpetuated solely and deliberately for the purpose of making him work more for lower wages. If there were joint action and a real understanding of these problems by all these bodies, the human rights recently affirmed in the United Nations instruments might become something more than a Utopian dream or a thorough deformation of those principles which are broken by the very people who proclaimed them.

Colombian legislation governing cultivation and consumption of coca dates back for barely fifteen years, which shows that this very important problem did not begin to preoccupy the health authorities until 1937.

In that year the National Department of Health, a body which disappeared with the establishment of the Ministry of Labour, Health and Social Welfare in 1938, by Act 95 of 1936, promulgated in 1937, had passed a resolution regulating the traffic in narcotic drugs, but not mentioning the cultivation of and trade in the coca leaf.

In the following year (1938) this resolution was supplemented by Resolution No. 25 of 11 February which provided:

"Whereas the Republic is pledged, under international conventions, to supervise the trade in coca leaf

"Now therefore the Directorate of the National Health Department in the exercise of its statutory powers, hereby resolves:

"Article 1. As from the entry into force of this resolution coca leaf may not be sold except in drug dispensaries and pharmacies, authorized in accordance with the provisions of article 7 of Resolution No. 313 of 1937 issued by this Directorate.

"Article 2. Such establishments may not offer coca leaf for sale except on receipt of a medical prescription fulfilling the requirements of article 2 of the annexed Resolution.

"Article 3. If any person contravenes the provisions of this Resolution, he shall be liable to a fine of ten (10) to fifty (50) pesos, to be levied by the authorities referred to in article 10 of Resolution 313 of 1937.

"Article 4. The present Resolution shall come into effect as from the date of its publication in the Diario Oficial."

Three years later, under the Ministry of Labour, Health and Social Welfare, the above two regulations were supplemented by Resolution No. 578 of September 1941 which stated:

"Article 1. As from the date of the entry into force of the present Resolution, all Mayors and Magistrates ( Corregidores) shall be required to take a census of the plantations of coca ( Erythroxylon coca and varieties thereof) existing in their respective municipalities and districts.

"This census shall record the number of plants, the area of the plantations, the names of the owners and the annual yield and shall state whether those cultivating the plant sell the leaves thereof.

"Article 2. A period of four months is allowed for carrying out the census, the results of which shall, immediately after completion thereof, be transmitted to this Ministry.

"Article 3. On the expiration of the above-mentioned period, the sale of coca leaves by wholesale shall be prohibited unless it has been previously authorized by the competent Municipal Health Inspector or, in areas where there is no such official, by the Mayor or Magistrate. Any official who grants such authorizations shall each month transmit a detailed list of the authorizations granted.

"Article 4. As from the expiration of a period of thirty days after the publication of the present Resolution no new plantations of Erythroxylon coca or varieties thereof may be established in the country. If any are established, they shall be destroyed and the owners thereof shall be punished by fines of not less than 10 pesos and not more than 50 pesos, which shall be imposed by the authorities mentioned in the preceding article.

"Article 5. Any plantation existing in national or communal lands shall be destroyed by the competent authorities, who shall duly draw up a report thereon and shall transmit a copy thereof to this Ministry.

"Article 6. The sale of coca leaves by retail shall continue to be governed by the provisions of Resolution No. 95 of 1938 of the National Health Department.

"Article 7. The present resolution shall come into force immediately on its publication in the Diario Oficial."

When the Ministry of Health was established on 7 January 1947, one of the first measures which I, as Minister of Health, enacted to eradicate coca-chewing was Decree No. 896 of 11 March 1947 (reproduced below) which, as will be noted, refers to the conventions to which Colombia was a party and by which the country was therefore committed to adopt measures such as those contained in the decree in question:

"Whereas in accordance with the Conventions signed in Geneva in 1925 and 1931 the Republic is pledged to supervise the production, manufacture, distribution and sale of narcotic drugs; and

"Whereas article 1 of Law No. 45 of 1946 prohibits the cultivation and preservation of plants from which the said substances may be extracted; and

"Whereas in accordance with article 27, section 1, of Decree No. 2127 of 1945, employers are forbidden to pay wages in kind, vouchers, tokens or by any other means replacing the legal currency of the country,

"It is decreed that:

"Article 1. The payment of wages or of any kind of emoluments wholly or partly in alcoholic beverages or in coca leaf is prohibited, and agreements or contracts of employment containing any such stipulations shall be null and void.

"Article 2. All persons contravening this regulation shall be punished by fines ranging from one hundred (100.00) to five hundred (500.00) pesos, or by imprisonment in lieu of such part thereof as may be provided for by law, such penalties to be imposed by labour inspectors, justices of the peace and other health or police authorities.

"Paragraph. In cases of repetition of the offence, the penalties shall be those prescribed in article 270 of the Penal Code.

"Article 3. In accordance with the provisions of article 1 of Law No. 45 of 1946, the cultivation of coca trees ( Erythroxylon coca) and varieties thereof and of cannabis sativa (marihuana) and the distribution and sale of the leaves of these plants, are prohibited in the territory of the Republic.

"Article 4. Justices of the peace, corregidores and other health and police authorities shall destroy plantations of such trees and confiscate leaves found in the market, other than coca leaves belonging to duly authorized pharmacies, provided that those establishments duly declare them within a period of forty days from the entry into force of this Decree.

"Article 5. Any person on whom morphine, cocaine, heroin or any other narcotic drug is found and who has no legal permission to possess them, shall be considered as an illicit trafficker and shall be liable to the penalties prescribed by article 1 of Law No. 45 of 1946.

"Article 6. Justices of the peace, corregidores and other health or police authorities failing, in any such case, to lay any information before the criminal courts against persons violating this regulation, shall be fined from fifty (50.00) to two hundred (200.00) pesos by their respective superiors, for the first offence, and by removal from office on a second offence.

"For communication and publication "Done at Bogotá, 11 March 1947 "Mariano Ospina Pérez "Blas Herrera Anzoategui, Minister of Labour "Jorge Bejarano Minister of Health"

As soon as the above decree has been promulgated, undertakings and individuals interested in the cultivation of and trade in coca promptly organized a virtual conspiracy in the form of a series of complaints and protests, which were more influential than the many expressions of appreciation received by the Government from the Indians.

Other problems, such as the serious strike then affecting the country’s largest petroleum-producing area, compelled the Government to enact Decree No. 1472 of April 1947, postponing for one year the order contained in Decree No. 896 to destroy the coca plantations, a postponement which in my opinion was fatal to the campaign. For whenever a radical health measure is subjected to the severe strain of postponement, its complete failure is a foregone conclusion.

That was, in fact, what happened in the case of Decree No. 1472, the text of which read as follows:

"The President of the Republic of Colombia, in the exercise of his statutory powers,

"Hereby decrees: "Article 1. The application of article 4 of Decree No. 896 of 11 March 1947 shall be postponed for one year.

"Article 2. The alcaldes, corregidores and other health and police authorities shall prepare a census of the coca plantations as directed in Resolution No. 578 of 1941 promulgated by the Ministry of Labour, Health and Social Welfare; the census shall record the number of plants, the area of the plantations, the names of the owners, the approximate value of the plantations and the annual yield in kilogrammes.

"Article 3. Upon completion of the census, the responsible authorities shall send the results to the Ministry of Health, through the competent alcaldes, not later than 1 December of this year.

"Any official who fails to comply with this requirement shall be liable to a fine of fifty (50) pesos, to be imposed by his superior officer.

"Article 4. As from the entry into force of this decree, it shall be unlawful to establish any new plantations of Erythroxylon coca or of varieties thereof, in the country. If any are established, they shall be destroyed and the owners thereof shall be liable to fines of fifty (50) to one hundred (100) pesos or to imprisonment in lieu thereof as provided by law. These penalties shall be imposed by alcaldes, each in so far as he is competent, and shall be proportionate to the number of trees planted.

"Article 5. It is the duty of every citizen to report to the competent authorities any coca plantations owned by him and any new plantations which to his knowledge have been planted since the entry into force of this decree."

Very recent reports from Dr. Gerardo Bonilla Iragorri, Director of Health of the Department of Cauca, indicate that coca-chewing and the trade in and growing of coca have again become very extensive in that Department, one of the few still possessing groups of Indians who have relapsed into the baneful coca habit.

In the Department of Cauca, the main production centre, the area of coca plantation covers rather more than one-third of a district that would have acquired great wealth and prosperity if the land had not been devoted to a crop which saps and undermines the fine qualities of the local population. But if we add the ravages of alcoholism to those of the coca habit, we can imagine how dark a future is reserved for that privileged district, which in addition to its incomparable landscape and excellent soil, also has the good fortune to contain the last vestiges of our indigenous race.

The number of people in Colombia who habitually chew coca can be said to be not more than 100,000. Far from lessening the gravity of the problem, this, in my view, increases it, as it shows our complete inability to check in time an evil or vice which is not very extensive at present but which may grow to unforeseeable proportions. Moreover, if the coca chewing were not confined to rural areas and rural peoples, whose physical and mental health ought to receive more care even than of town dwellers, perhaps our continued indifference to so acute a problem would not be so reprehensible. How serious is the damage caused by the coca habit to the economy of the home and of the department is amply illustrated by the comments of visitors to the areas where the vice is prevalent who compared them with areas adjacent to the Department of Cauca, where there is no coca. The difference between them is impressive; the unaffected areas enjoy better health, which is reflected in the whole aspect of the individual, and in the atmosphere of well-being and better living which surrounds him.

To underestimate the problem of coca-chewing in Colombia because the habit as yet is limited to Indian areas - but already shared to an appreciable extent by white and mixed peoples in areas outside the strictly Andean region - is neither humane nor politic.

This would simply mean that Latin America is still under the spell of the hispanizing policy which prevents us from integrating into our social life indigenous peoples or groups whom we accordingly still treat with irritating disdain and even with inhuman cruelty. While it is true that the policy of extermination and destruction of the indigenous population is no longer in effect, it is no less true that we have left the indigenous population to its traditional vices for even our scanty scientific and sociological researches concerning the indigenous population contain abundant and reproachful evidence to show that we have idly witnessed its total disintegration under the effects of age-old vices.

Nor has the problem of coca-leaf chewing, viewed from that angle, received more than superficial attention from our health authorities, for it is commonly believed that the habit, which, as we have seen, has been indulged in by the indigenous population since time immemorial, is harmless since it has not occurred to us to compare it to cocaine addiction to which it is really equivalent.

It was left to Bolivian and Peruvian physicians, who are thoroughly familiar with the coca habit and its manifestations, to show that the chewing of fifty grammes of coca leaf per day releases a quantity of at least 39 centigrammes of cocaine, a strongly toxic dose, particularly when taken every day for life.

As Professor Emilio Fernández of Bolivia has said: "Whereas cocaine addiction is a vice connected with cabarets and practised by women of ill repute and their associates, the coca habit by contrast occurs among the indigenous population, the rural population and miners."

The comments on the coca habit in Bolivia by Professor Juan Manuel Balcázar who, with Professor Fernández, is the leading research worker investigating this serious Bolivian problem, are most impressive. He says: "The annual production of coca is 3 million kilogrammes, all of which is consumed in Bolivia. This quantity of coca is sufficient to produce 20,000 kilogrammes of cocaine per year which is used to intoxicate the rural population. That intoxication costs the country 400 million bolivianos which represents a loss to the country’s economy and which is expended in keeping one-third of the Bolivian population in a state of intellectual abjectness and physical prostration".

Professor Balcázar’s analysis is applicable to our problem in Colombia, though in our case, as mentioned before, the situation deserves even greater censure because our problem, being on a smaller scale, ought to have been remedied by drastic action long ago.


Co-ordination of agencies in the campaign against the coca habit

When Decree No. 896 of 1947 was promulgated, I, as Minister of Health, wished the campaign to be co-ordinated with the Ministries of Labour and Agriculture, the Agrarian Fund, the Land Credit Institute and the banking institutions.

The co-ordination was not achieved at that time, but it is essential if success is to be won against all the influences adverse to action which ought to be drastic.

The Ministry of Labour is the agency responsible for posting an adequate number of labour inspectors in the areas where coca is cultivated in order to keep watch and punish those who pay part of their workers’ wages in coca leaves. The Ministry of Labour could easily order the inspectors to examine the amount actually received. If there is one duty which the Ministry in question ought to perform at this time, it is to ensure compliance with the legislation relating to labour, public health and industry.

In my opinion, the Ministry of Agriculture is the proper agency to encourage many of the public health campaigns. The replacement of crops, like coca, which contribute nothing to the nation’s food, by others which are economically more useful and profitable, is one of the most appropriate functions of that Ministry in Colombia as well as in other countries of Latin America. Rational feeding and the control of many infectious and social diseases and of avitaminosis present problems which cannot be resolved by public health alone, even with vast resources. Perhaps the most important mission of Ministries of Agriculture today is to encourage the production of food, to open up new areas and centres of production, and to introduce technical knowledge in agriculture.

The Agrarian Fund jointly with the Ministry of Agriculture should help in solving the problem by supplying tools and seeds to encourage new crops as substitutes for coca.

The Land Credit Institute, a Colombian agency concerned with improving rural housing, should also participate in this campaign. Unhealthy and wretched living conditions are notorious sources of infections and social diseases and of avitaminosis. The indigenous inhabitants in Latin America continue to live in the same primitive conditions as their earliest forefathers. All we have done to civilize them was to impose religion on them, but their environment of poverty, ignorance and unwholesome conditions is far inferior to anything that the men who destroyed the indigenous culture can possibly have found.

Housing also materially influences human behaviour. The wretched hovel which is the Indian's shelter can fill the family with nothing but disgust and hatred; it cannot ennoble the personality, or breed anything but vice and crime.

The indigenous inhabitants have not as yet been touched by the benefits of hygiene in the form of wholesome dwellings. If standards based on the technique and spirit of prophylaxis had been adopted in the construction of rural housing in Colombia, the last fifteen years would have witnessed a transformation in rural housing in keeping with the objective of controlling endemic diseases and counteracting social maladjustment, which are the accompanying features of insanitary housing.

Finally, it is my opinion that the country’s banking institutions should co-operate in the solution of many social and health problems by offering financial facilities on special terms to persons who are to replace coca by other crops more useful to the community. A system whereby these loans would be insured by the Agrarian Fund itself might be one of the ways of enlisting the support of some growers and of impressing them with the noble function which tilling the soil ought to be.


  1. It is an accepted and scientifically proven fact that coca-leaf chewing as practised by the indigenous inhabitants of Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru is a form of drug addiction with effects analogous to those produced by cocaine, which is the alkaloid of coca.

  2. At the invitation of the Governments of Peru and Bolivia, the United Nations Economic and Social Council sent a Commission of Enquiry to these countries in 1949 to determine the effects of coca-leaf chewing and to consider the possibility of limiting coca production and distribution.

  3. After careful study in the coca-chewing areas of both countries and after exchanging views with the scientists in Bolivia and Peru who had thoroughly studied the effects of the coca habit that Commission concluded by recognizing the harmful nature of the habit of coca-leaf chewing which is detrimental to the individual and to society.

  4. In the light of science and experience, none of the arguments to justify the harmful coca habit can now be accepted. Accordingly, the consumption of coca is not necessary to support life at great altitudes because life at these altitudes depends only on general living conditions, the diet and the individual’s ability to obtain sustenance.

  5. The pseudo-scientific thesis that the inhabitant of the Andes is a climato-physiological species of the human race who needs coca to adjust himself to the environment in which it is his lot to live, is an artful fallacy refuted by such incontrovertible facts as that other races, entirely alien to the environment, have not needed coca in order to adjust themselves perfectly to the environment of the Andes. How is it (we might ask) that individuals accustomed to coca can perform their military service in Bolivia and Peru and do not suffer any ill effects owing to maladjustment to the environment when they are abruptly deprived of the drug which is believed to be the adjusting agent?

  6. It has been demonstrated in countries with long experience in observing the coca habit that coca is not necessary and rather highly detrimental to the performance of the worker.

  7. The coca habit in Colombia is such that the Government is under a duty to resume, without faltering, the campaign contemplated in Decrees Nos. 896 and 1432 of the Ministry of Public Health.

  8. The fact that coca cultivation is fortunately still confined to a few areas makes it even more imperative to take steps without delay to prevent the evil from spreading and assuming greater proportions.

  9. Though Colombia is a party to international conventions to suppress drug addiction, it is failing to comply with treaties requiring it to combat drug addiction within its own borders. It is illogical that the cultivation of Indian hemp or marihuana, for example, should be regarded as unlawful, while the cultivation of coca, which is equally harmful and dangerous, is tolerated.

  10. The campaign against the cultivation of coca should be followed by effective assistance from the agencies mentioned in chapter VII of this study.


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