L A P A Z, Bolivia, Oct. 13, 2000 -- Only in Bolivia can one find a museum dedicated to the much-maligned and misunderstood coca leaf, holy of holies in ancient Andean religions but also the reviled raw material used to make cocaine.
Much like the hidden coca patches dotting South America’s subtropical lowlands, the International Coca Institute’s museum is nestled in a barely noticeable backyard of a busy La Paz open market in the San Sebastian district. Finding its Web site (www.coca-museum.magicplace.com) might prove to be easier.
“Our main objective is to differentiate between coca and cocaine without resorting to demagoguery like calling it the ‘holy leaf,’” sociologist and museum guide Javier Castro said.
The three-year-old museum is mainly funded by foreign visitors who pay $1.15 to browse the extensive chronology, anthropology and criminology that Castro and three doctors have gathered over 15 years in their drive to demystify the tiny, bitter leaf.
“The foundation also produces a distilled coca liquor we sell in 375 ml bottles for about $3.25. We use organic coca to make liquor and pills, neither of which have cocaine, to help with stomach pains or altitude sickness,” Castro said.
“We believe the best way to combat the drug trade is to commercialize the medical applications of coca and its byproducts,” he added.
The Bolivian and U.S. governments, however, have another idea of how to combat the drug trade: Root the sturdy plants right out of the ground. Plantings in the Chapare region, a key supplier of illegal coca, have fallen to 5,000 acres (1,950 hectares) from 93,000 acres (37,000 hectares) three years ago.
The eradication program has undercut the livelihoods of 40,000 families over the same period of time, leading to riots, roadblocks and 10 deaths in recent weeks.
Coca Loaded With Nutrients
“Another vocation of the museum is to prevent the use of cocaine, but not as part of a government campaign telling people drugs are bad. We show people how coca leaves are good but also the harm cocaine and the chemicals used to make it can have on drug users,” Castro said.
First cultivated in what is now Huanca Prieto in northern Peru around 2,500 B.C., coca was processed into cocaine by Albert Niemman of Goettingen, Germany, in 1859. Then Karl Koller used it as an eye anaesthetic in 1884 and told his friend, Sigmund Freud, about the wondrous natural drug and the word was out.
Three years later, Dr. John Styth Pemberton of Atlanta combined Andean coca leaves with African cola nut extract to create a new refreshment: Coca-Cola. The Coca-Cola Company says the world’s top-selling soft drink still has “decocainized” coca leaf flavors but has never had cocaine as an ingredient.
A 100-gram serving of coca leaf contains 18.9 calories of protein, 45.8 mg of iron, 1540 mg of calcium and vitamins A, B1, B2, E and C, which is more than most nuts, according to a 1975 study by a group of Harvard University professors.
Castro reckons if coca’s nutritional value were more widely known rather than the chemical leaching process that yields cocaine, alternative development programs in this part of the world would include legally sanctioned production of the demonized plant.
“The first commercial use of coca began in 1600 when the Spaniards realized silver miners in Potosi worked harder when they chewed coca. So they convinced the Roman Catholic church to lift the ban on the sale of coca leaves, promising the church 10 percent of revenues would go to pay for the construction of churches,” Castro said.
Two Kinds of Coca Users
Coca is used by an estimated 8 million Aymara and Quechua Indians in the South American Andes for ritual purposes such as when someone dies, marries or is born, but it also has deep roots in the culture.
“Coca has a social function too as a social lubricant, just like French people who share a bottle of wine,” Castro said.
But U.S. diplomats here estimate coca is used as a very different kind of social lubricant by about 3 million people in the United States who are suspected of being cocaine abusers.
About 50 percent of the world’s cocaine users live in the United States, according to the International Coca Institute.
The museum has a model of a coca refining lab and lists all the chemicals used in the alkaloid leaching process: Coca is processed into base by treating the leaves with water, calcium oxide, kerosene, diluted sulphuric acid and ammonia.
Then the paste is bathed in sulphuric acid again, followed by potassium permanganate and ammonium hydroxide to turn it into cocaine.
“We think if people knew they were putting these kinds of things in their bodies they’d stop,” Castro said, standing by a model of a cocaine addict dressed in ragged clothing and with a can of food and an old television set.