Pubdate: Sat, 29 Jul 2000
Source: San Diego Union Tribune (CA)
Copyright: 2000 Union-Tribune Publishing Co.
Contact:  PO Box 120191, San Diego, CA, 92112-0191
Fax: (619) 293-1440
Author: Juan Bustamante, Reuters


JUJUY, Argentina -- Amalia Colque, six months pregnant and showing, chewed 
on coca leaves, gently rubbed her belly and cradled her 18-month-old 
daughter in her arms.

"Coca gives you strength. I've always chewed it, even when I got pregnant, 
and (my daughter) is one of the healthiest kids out there," she said, 
radiating the calm that typifies people from Argentina's impoverished 
northern provinces.

While Colque was talking, her daughter reached into her purse, ferreted out 
a couple of small green leaves and put them into her mouth.

For centuries, the chewing of coca leaves -- the raw material used to make 
cocaine -- has been a custom for residents young and old in the province of 
Jujuy, which hugs the Bolivian border about 1,000 miles northwest of Buenos 

But the age-old habit has sparked a modern debate: Chewing coca leaves is 
legal, but their transport is prohibited, and the plant is not cultivated 
in Argentina.

Many Jujuy residents are descendants of the Incas, whose grand empire 
spanned South America's Andes mountains before Spanish explorers overran 
the region in the early 16th century.

Consumption of coca leaves was considered an exclusive privilege of the 
Inca noble classes until 1532, when Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro 
deposed Emperor Atahualpa, beginning nearly three centuries of Spanish rule.

Garcilaso de la Vega, son of a Spaniard and an Inca, wrote that coca leaves 
came directly from the Inca gods.

The legend says Tata Inti (Father Sun) sent to Earth his children Manco 
Capac and Mama Ocllo, who emerged from Bolivia's Lake Titicaca and taught 
mortals the basic principles of agriculture.

In return for their hard work, Tata Inti then sent his children coca, a 
sacred plant capable of curing the sick, giving strength to workers and 
staving off thirst and hunger.

"It makes you less tired. You chew a little bit and then you've got more 
energy to work, you're not feeling so weak," said Angel Erazo, a farmer who 
began using coca leaf while working 15-hour days during sugar harvests.

Like most of his peers, Erazo, now 73, inherited the custom from his 
parents and grandparents. He says the little green leaves give him the 
strength he needs to plow the arid, rocky fields of Jujuy province.

"Every time I've gone to Jujuy, all the adults I've seen chew the leaf. 
Some of them do it publicly and the rest do it in private," Argentina's 
Interior Secretary Enrique Mathov said.

A study by the Jujuy government found that 40 percent of the province's 
population chewed coca leaf, consuming 117 tons -- or $8 million worth -- 
of the substance a year.

"It all depends on what kind of coca you want to buy but, for example, a 
kilogram can cost anywhere from 15 to 20 pesos," Erazo said. An Argentine 
peso is worth $1.

A 1989 Argentine law stipulates that "the possession and the consumption of 
coca leaves in their natural state, designed for use by chewing or 
infusion, will not be considered as illegal possession or consumption." Yet 
that apparent legalization of the centuries-old practice is contradicted by 
other laws against contraband and transport of narcotics.

Men and women can freely chew coca leaf In Argentina's northern provinces 
- -- but, because of the region's total absence of coca cultivation, demand 
must be met through illegal imports, which mainly pour across the border 
from Bolivia.

"It's a very ambiguous situation because the chewing is allowed but the 
transport is prohibited. Our security forces are required to confiscate the 
leaves when they see them, but where should the people buy it?" Mathov asked.

"The public tells us, 'You all allow us to chew coca leaf, but you don't 
legally allow us to import it, so we're forced to resort to contraband' -- 
and, in a sense, they're right."

After studying the chemical composition of coca, Dr. Andrew Weil of the 
Botanical Research Service in Maryland concluded in 1978 that the "Indian 
cure" could be used as a modern treatment for muscle aches, stomach pains, 
vertigo and depression.

The father of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, recommended in his essay "Uber 
Coca" at the beginning of the 20th century that people consume the leaves 
to avoid fatigue and hypertension.

Those who fight against drug trafficking believe the chewing of coca leaves 
is a custom devoid of health benefits. "It has never been proven that the 
consumption has any sort of physical benefit," Mathov said.

A Bolivian legend tells of an old yatiri, or wise man, who made an ominous 
prediction apparently borne out in the 20th century when he saw the Spanish 
oppression of the Incas.

"When the white man dares to use these sacred leaves, it will have the 
opposite effect it does on you: Your juice, which for you is the force of 
life, for them will become a repugnant and degenerative vice," he warned.

"While for you it is an almost spiritual cure, for them it will cause 
stupidity and craziness."
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MAP posted-by: Jo-D