Sunday, February 8, 2009

Leaves find unfriendly Bush - John

The Coca museum in La Paz is considered by some to be the truest representation of Bolivian culture. Much of the statistics in the article below came from the museum.

After the Spanish conquered its half of South America and all the spoils of gold were hauled off from the Incas, the subjugated indigenous populations were turned into slaves under religious pretenses in order to further extract wealth out of the land to fuel the economies of Spain and Europe. The Spanish neither understood nor cared about the cultures, religions, or foundational myths that defined the people they had enslaved. For the Altiplano communities, which run from Colombia to Northern Chile and Argentina, the coca leaf has been fundamental for over 4000 years.
Although intensive manual labor is required to plant and harvest coca on the precarious slopes of the Andes; it is a sturdy plant that can grow in sterile earth, withstand drought, can be easily transported and stored, and can yield three or four crops a year. Even though each family has its own plots of land to cultivate, the community comes together to help each individual family sow and harvest the crop. The men sow and women harvest. All families cultivate at the same pace neither over nor under producing their neighbors creating a rhythm synonymous with Andean culture. Coca is used like alcohol as a “social lubricant” to facilitate exchange and strengthen rites, without having any of the dangerous and addictive qualities of alcohol

La leyenda de coca - “Cuando el conquistador blanco tocara la hoja de coca solo encontrará en ella veneno para su cuerpo y locura para su mente y cuando la coca intente ablandar su corazón solo lograra romperlo como los cristales de hielo demuelen las montañas.”

The coca legend – “When the white conqueror touched the coca leaf all he found was venom for his body and madness for his mind, and when the coca tried to appease his heart, it only served to break it like ice crystals destroy mountains.”

In fact, chewing the leaves provides an increase tolerance for work, stimulates the respiratory centers, regulates the metabolism of glucose, and reduces risk of thrombosis. It is used to celebrate health, to congratulate achievement, mark rites of passage, and to greet guests. Coca leaves have even been found in mummies in Northern Peru that date 2500BC. So when the Ecclesiastic Council in Lima banned coca leaves in 1551 claiming it “diabolical” the Andean cultures lost the foundation that bounded and defined them. It didn’t take long for the Council to reverse their decision because once discovered that chewing coca leaves gave slaves more energy the Spanish made chewing obligatory. The indigenous population could work in the mines 48 continuous hours without adequate breaks or any food when they chewed. The Conquistadores completely took control of coca production putting a 10% tax on the leaves. The indigenous people had to sell themselves in order to buy enough coca to survive the mines and coca became worth its weight in gold. Many things have not changed since the days of the Conquistadores. The current US administration seems to think that in order to fight the war on drugs in the United States they must make a battle field of the very foundation of a culture they know absolutely nothing about. This isn’t new. Western countries completely control the drug trade. Western manufactures make the chemicals used to transform and refine the harmless leaf into deadly drugs and the cleaning of drug money takes place in banks and businesses in Western countries. Even though the United States constitutes only 5% of the world population it consumes 50% of all cocaine and crack produced. So why make the poor Bolivian or Peruvian farmer pay for Western vices? The US sponsors programs to eradicate the plant by offering subsidies and incentives to governments for growing other crops have largely failed. The US essentially blackmails South American governments to fall inline with its anti-coca growing policy by threatening to withhold millions of dollars in aid that goes to building infrastructure, education programs, and health care. The local governments then force farmers to grow fruits or vegetables. These crops are susceptible to drought, do not store well, cannot be easily transported, and fetch a tenth of the price. By preventing the growth of coca local communities are forced to leave their homes in the country as immigrants to find work in the cities, a cultural sink. In the past when farmers refused to stop growing coca, governments sent their army to bully local communities by burning villages and killing resistant farmers which serves only to further disenfranchise the poor of countryside with its own government. Things may be changing. Evo Morialis, Bolivia’s first indigenous president and former coca farmer, is saying no to the United States, at least for now. No matter what policies are enforced, taking the coca leaf away from the communities of the altiplano is like taking away Coca Cola from the Americans. Now isn’t that a contradiction?

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