Present state of the coca-leaf habit in Colombia


Over ten years have elapsed since action was first taken against coca-leaf chewing. The coca habit occurs locally among a few indigenous groups; geographically, it is found in the areas of Colombia where the coca bush has been cultivated. It is the leaves of this bush which are chewed.


Author: Professor Jorge Bejarano,
Pages: 1 to 5
Creation Date: 1961/01/01

Present state of the coca-leaf habit in Colombia

Professor Jorge Bejarano,
Faculty of Medicine, Bogotá University.

Over ten years have elapsed since action was first taken against coca-leaf chewing. The coca habit occurs locally among a few indigenous groups; geographically, it is found in the areas of Colombia where the coca bush has been cultivated. It is the leaves of this bush which are chewed.

It is not necessary to revert in this report to the history of the coca habit, which dates back to the period of Manco Capac, the founder of the powerful Inca tribe which carved out a vast empire. There exists a sufficient body of literature and research on the subject, the chief interest of which resides in its sociological and human aspects. For us, it is evidence of the great ingenuity of man in discovering plants and substances which can provide him with abnormal sensations and in grasping the secret of the chemical processes for the extraction of the necessary elements by which he could produce that state of factitious happiness and euphoria that is generated by drunkenness or the effects of alkaloids.

This absence of a reference to the historical background will, however, be more than compensated if we note the serious concern now being shown by the governments and international organizations which are studying the necessary measures to eradicate a habit that has a demonstrably adverse effect on physical and mental health.

Nor is it necessary for the purposes of this report on the present state of the problem of coca addiction in Colombia to describe once again the mental, psychological, economic, social and pathological phenomena produced by coca addiction, for they have been described so often before with an abundance of detail. The fact that, after centuries, these phenomena are still present is the reason for the campaigns carried out both in Peru and in Colombia by health experts, sociologists and chemists.

What must, however, be repeated whenever the problem of coca addiction is mentioned is that this problem has persisted throughout the centuries, sometimes because of the neglect of governments and sometimes because of the interests of groups which use it as a means of gaining an economic stranglehold over the indigenous population. There is abundant historical evidence of the immoral use made by man of natural vices, or of vices fostered by civilization, to control the work, land and economy of peoples or tribes who are slaves of opium, alcohol, chicha or the coca leaf. The Indians first made use of the coca leaf because of its medicinal properties or of its mythological significance but, having come under the influence of its narcotic effects, they sold themselves into slavery for a period of years which has not yet expired; as has been shrewdly observed by Dr. Luis N. Saenz, neither the independence of the American peoples nor the laws enacted in favour of the Indians to this date have freed them from this slavery.

In my socio-historic monograph, Nuevos Capítulos sobre el Cocaísmo en Colombia * (New Chapters on Coca Addiction in Colombia), I pointed out that there would appear to be some justification for the cultivation of the coca bush in Bolivia and Peru, where it has become a source of dollar or foreign exchange earnings because there is a foreign market for the coca leaf, which is used in the preparation of cocaine. The same, however, has never been true of Colombia, where the only purpose of this cultivation is to exploit the indigenous labour and economy in the areas where the coca bush survives, and with it the habit of chewing the coca leaf. Coca addiction has made it possible to subject the indigenous populations to exhausting tasks at miserable wages paid in part in rations of coca leaf. Accordingly, in Colombia there are no economic grounds to justify the cultivation of the coca bush, and still less any of the pseudo-scientific grounds which have been put forward in other countries as an apologia for a habit fraught with serious social, pathological and economic consequences.

Moreover, Colombia has no experience of living conditions such as those found in the areas of Peru and Bolivia where the aridity of the soil and the prevailing cold winds have resulted in a lack of vegetation and appear to have led inevitably to coca addiction because of the very narrow range of food. Housing in those areas of Colombia where the coca bush is cultivated and where the habit of chewing the coca leaf exists is not as primitive as that of the Peruvian and Bolivian areas where coca addiction is prevalent.

There is, however, one respect in which the situation in Bolivia or Peru resembles that in Colombia: in all three there is a food deficiency in the zones or areas where coca addiction is common. Whether the explanation is that the chewing of coca leaf induces an insensitivity of the stomach, or that the people simply do not know how to obtain an adequate diet, the fact remains that all these people - and of course the entire family, for the low wages and the coca habit affect every member of the family - suffer from chronic undernourishment.

With regard to the present position of the problem in Colombia and the results of the measures enacted by the Government from 1946 to 1948, it is interesting to note that whereas results are not very encouraging in the department of Cauca - where the bush is principally cultivated and where the coca habit is most strongly entrenched - the campaign has been a complete success in the department of Huila. The poor results obtained in the department of Cauca are perhaps attributable to the political conditions prevailing for ten years, which demoralized constituted authority and prevented the implementation of the above-mentioned measures.

In January 1960, the Legal Department of the Ministry of Public Health addressed an inquiry to the sixteen departmental secretaries of public health. Thirteen replied that the coca bush was not cultivated, and the chewing habit did not exist in their territory. One did not reply, and only the two departments of Cauca and Huila reported coca bush cultivation, said to be almost negligible in the latter.

* See Bulletin on Narcotics, Vol. IV, No. 3.




Full size image: 76 kB, MAP OF THE DEPARTMENT OF CAUCA

The department of Cauca

Present population
475,510 inhabitants
Hectares under cultivation
Productive trees
Yearly production
143,650 kg;
Value of the crop
642,000 pesos

Districts where coca is cultivated and consumed


Number of inhabitants

Percentage of coca consumers

1. Bolívar
40,000 20
2. Almaguer
24,500 50
3. San Sebastián
9,300 40
4. La Vega
15,100 35
5. El Tambo
28,500 15
6. Santa Rosa
3,500 20
7. Inza
12,000 15
8. Patia
17,000 5
9. Caldono
13,400 15

It should be noted that, of the various measures suggested in my study published in 1952, those intended to raise educational, economic, agricultural and housing standards have not been implemented in the campaign against coca addiction.

The Government's measures have now been in force for twelve years; by now, addiction ought to have been completely eradicated, and Colombia ought to be reaping the fruits of a campaign meant to benefit the community and the national economy.

It may be claimed that the chewing habit is now limited to nine municipalities of the department of Cauca, the names of which are given in the attached map together with particulars of the population of each and an estimate (in percentages) of the extent of the coca consumption.

The habit essentially affects the indigenous population; it also affects a very small number of non-indigenous peasants.

The indigenous inhabitants are initiated to the chewing habit at the age of twelve, and maintain it throughout life. Only the indigenous families who are educated and protected by missionaries are free from the habit.

The entire population group affected by the habit works in agriculture, as small-holders or sharecroppers.

Economic conditions for this population group are precarious. Wages vary between 3 and 4 Colombian pesos per day - i.e., 50 or 60 U.S. cents. Housing conditions are deplorable; the inhabitants live in primitive huts with neither drinking water nor sanitation. Those who succeed in becoming coca growers live better, for they can sell the leaf at 2 Colombian pesos per pound - i.e., half a day's wage. In some districts of the department of Cauca, the coca leaf has virtually become currency for the payment of wages; the indigenous inhabitants receive part of their weekly wages in coca leaves, a social malpractice which has been repeatedly reported to the Ministry of Labour.

These wretched conditions perhaps explain the irresistible inclination of the indigenous inhabitants to coca-leaf chewing, by means of which they find, through intoxication, an escape from their loneliness and misery.

In all the municipalities affected by the chewing habit, with the exception of two or three, the health centres suffer from a shortage of personnel and material. One gathers the impression that they ignore the problem of coca addiction.

According to one census, there are 936 coca-bush growers, who cultivate about 617 hectares consisting of 500,000 bushes; the annual production is approximately 143,650 kg, representing a value (at the rate of about 4 pesos per kg) of approximately 600,000 Colombian pesos.

The coca leaf is sold clandestinely in the markets of the growing areas. In addition, there is a clandestine traffic into other municipalities, and even into departments where the habit was thought to have disappeared because the bushes have been destroyed and the sale of the leaf has been brought under control. The departments in question are those of Huila and Narino, bordering on the department of Cauca.

I consider it right to repeat in this report some of the suggestions I have made elsewhere, and to make some additional ones on points which I consider essential to the success of the campaign in Colombia.

  1. The Government of Colombia should ask for expert technical assistance to bring about the necessary changes in agriculture and education in the areas where coca chewing still exists.

  2. The Government should enlist in the campaign the participation of the Ministries of Public Health, Education, Agriculture and Public Works, the Agrarian Bank and the Agricultural Society of Cauca.

  3. By legislation or otherwise, land on which coca is now grown should be exempted from all taxation for five years, on condition that within a period of not more than six months coca must be replaced by fruit, vegetables, leguminous plants, flowers, nursery plants, coffee, sugar cane, soya beans, grass for fodder, or by some other crop which can be used as food for man or beast, or one which enhances the quality of the land (afforestation). It is of course an implication of the benefit of this tax exemption that the public-health, police or civil authorities will have power to destroy plantations which have not been replaced by other crops within six months of the date of the enactment.

  4. The bishops of Popayan and Neiva should be asked to lend the strong support of the clergy to make the campaign a success. In addition, the missionaries who are concerned with the education of the indigenous inhabitants or who employ them in agriculture or cattle breeding should be invited to co-operate.

  5. The Ministry of Labour should station in the coca-growing areas a sufficient number of labour inspectors to discover and punish severely those farmers and employers who pay the weekly wages of their labourers partly in cash and partly in coca leaves. These inspectors should examine the contracts of employment and verify whether they conform with the provisions of the labour legislation.

  6. Pending the replacement of coca by the other crops mentioned above, the Ministry of Public Health, with the co-operation of UNICEF, should carry out an intensive nutrition campaign, issuing milk to children and mothers, and establishing school canteens in the areas in question.

  7. Health centres should be set up in order to carry out an intensive tuberculosis and smallpox vaccination campaign. These centres should instruct the midwives and practitioners whom the indigenous inhabitants consult in the elements of child health and midwifery.

  1. The Rehabilitation Office should be associated with this campaign for the eradication of coca-leaf chewing, and should deal with rural housing in the areas concerned, either by improving existing housing, which fulfils some but not all public health conditions, or by building new houses by any of the methods which have been employed for similar purposes in the areas affected by civil violence.

  1. The co-operation of UNESCO should be enlisted to carry out a programme of education by means of films, pamphlets and booklets in order to cure the present state of ignorance.