This paper aims to redefine the concept of the coca leaf for human use, from the indigenous perspective. The coca leaf, historically confused with cocaine, has been exploited as a medicine for work performance and then used as a recreational drug. It has been defined under the chemical, medical and social look of the northern countries, totally ignoring its religious, nutritional and medicinal value. With two examples of the use of the leaf, we will try to approach the nutritional value of the coca leaf for the indigenous Nasa community in western Colombia, and the religious and social value symbolized by the "Ayu"(coca) leaf for the Arawak community of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta.
Este Trabajo tiene como objetivo definir nuevamente el concepto de la hoja de coca para uso humano, desde la perspectiva indigena. La Hoja de coca, historicamente confundida con la cocaina, ha sido explotada como medicamento para el rendimiento laboral y luego usada como droga recreacional ha sido siempre definida bajo la mirada quimica, medica y social de los paises del norte, desconociendo totalmente su valor religioso, nutricional y medicinal. Con dos ejemplos de uso de la hoja, se intentara abordar el valor nutricional de la hoja de coca para la comunidad indigena Nasa en el occidente colombiano, y el valor religioso y social que simboliza la hoja de "ayu" para la comunidad arwak de la sierra nevada de santa marta.

The use of natural elements has been one of the causes why human beings exist. The co-existence between nature and Humans is the key to survival, as well as the knowledge of that same nature, which helps to create the necessary balance of its use and its application in people. When this knowledge is ignored or used/abused for anormal purposes, abuse can cause imbalance and thus death. The coca leaf is the perfect example of the natural use and artificial abuse of people and how the imbalance brought from the global north since colonial times can bring death instead health and life.


Chronists of the “indias” make references to the coca leaf since the 15th Century


My project with the name The tradition of coca leaf use for ancestral Indigenous people in Latin America is about a vegetable, a leaf that by crossing borders from South America to the global north has a different reception than in its original place, Better known as Coca. It depends on where is located and how is used, it could be medicine, poison, food, death, life, and even magic or a link for religious connection. And is way more important for indigenous people to survive in the extreme conditions along the geography of south America than for drug production, well known as cocaine. This subject is related hand in hand with the health issues regarding drug consumption worldwide and to the security policy in the whole Latin American continent, because of the groups who deal with narcotics. Although cocaine was a subject of research since its prohibition on products. There is actually also a field research on this matter regarding the meaning of the leaf for the indigenous communities around South America.

The research is driven by the following question: How does the act of crossing borders change a natural element of a community, such as the coca leaf, to become one of the most dangerous drugs in the world? By crossing borders from South America to Europe since colonial Times in the 16th century the coca leaf was misunderstood and manipulated in the context of industrialization and transformed into a product, after the 18th century named cocaine with the help of chemicals and introduced into a product, which has nothing to do with the natural Element at the beginning.

In this Project, I want to give first a view of the history of the coca leaf use from the global north perspective, even before the Colonization according to the collected Data during that time, and how the coca leaf properties were used as an excuse to use cocaine changing the traditional use. For this first part of the paper was used mostly second literature and scholarly texts. After setting the differences between coca leaf and cocaine, I will show two indigenous perspectives. First according to the words of an entrepreneur from the indigenous community Nasa, whose company uses the coca leaf for their products, and shows that is possible to industrialize the coca leaf without using cocaine. Also, they find in the industrialization of the coca leaf the possibility to use coca leaf in their diet, as they do since pre-colonial times. Second, The indigenous perspective of one religious authority (Mamo) from the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta in the north of Colombia and how important is the coca leaf for their daily life and rituals. The coca leaf has a strong religious meaning. In the middle of their cosmology, there is always the coca leaf, called by them “Ayu” which in their language means mother, and is through the leaf that there is a communication between nature and the humans of the “Kariwan” (American continent). This chapter will be analyzed how is written this work, explaining in more detail the history of the leaf before colonization, during, the uprise of cocaine, and the relevance of the coca leaf for an ancient society in his religious, medicinal, social, and political way.

With these examples, I want to demonstrate how the coca leaf has been removed from its original Indigenous context and adapted to the global north for different purposes. It is the influence of the global north with the chemistry and economic goals that change the purpose, and the religious meaning of the leaf plays no role at all. Anyway, the tradition is still alive in indigenous communities along the South American territory and should be heard, protected, and treated as cultural heritage.


Coca leaf in the precolonial time                                                               Coca leaf history (XVI-XXI)

The origin of the coca leaf, as well as of other plants, can be deciphered by means of botanical and natural science methods that allow us to give characteristics about the age of trees, plants, and the presence of natural elements from a certain point. What cannot be deciphered with certainty, is when this natural object took contact with humans and much less, since when it became a tradition or a fundamental part of their life.

Given the human need to survive, generations are responsible for finding in nature the indispensable elements for this task, the coca leaf in the Andean highlands, to its jungle extension in the Amazon is part of the natural elements that allow human life in extreme conditions. The coca leaf becomes then a divine plant at some point in history, otherwise his use would not be so spread over the centuries to the present day.

The writings of the “Indias”, so erroneously called by the Spaniards, report one of the shrubs or divine plants, worshiped and important for the communities in the Peruvian highlands inhabited by the Incas, called “Khoka” (in the Aymara language) which means tree[1], this plant is now called Coca. The beginning tradition of its use is linked to an ancient sacred power, whose roots are lost in time. The coca was linked to the political events of the people of the Inca empire due to its use and factor in economy, religion, and politics. In Tawantinsuyo, the empire of the children of the sun (so self-named Incas), coca was a sacred and sumptuous crop, offered as a sign of goodwill in diplomatic exchanges[2], crucial for the efficient management of a state that covered a vast territory stretching from the south of what is now Colombia to the north of what is now Chile, and the most important offering in ceremonies, sacrifices, divination rituals, and healing[3].

Representation of precolonial use of the coca leaves


This is just a small example of how, through the use of coca, a social and political order of an empire was identified. The centenary (or millenary) use of coca, left the footprint and intangible heritage that through ignorance of the invaders was banned and so impacted the development of the production of the Incas and their way of life, this is seen, when the Indians were enslaved and without coca leaves could not work at the same pace in the same conditions[4].

When the Spaniards conquered the Andean societies, they saw that coca was cultivated and attributed magical powers to it. It was intimately linked to the religious customs of the native populations. According to legends passed down from generation to generation. Manco Kapac, “the chosen one” son of the Sun God, had brought coca to the men of the Altiplano. Its leaves served as offerings to the gods of nature. It was also deposited in the mouths of the deceased so that they would have a better reception in the afterlife[5].

Other legends attribute the arrival of coca to magical powers given by ancestors demonstrated by the gods, being water, earth, and the sun the main protagonists. Looking at the scientific process today, we could deduce that the indigenous communities, without having a written scientific record, recognized these three factors as the main causes of the production of the coca leaf. There are also deities that were personalized and shaped in stone or gold, as in the case of “Yui-Anugue”, the guardian of mother nature and father of the coca leaf for the Arawak community[6].

In communities like in the Bolivian territory today, the coca leaf was produced and used, also under the Inca rule, however, the name coca or “khoka” was not used there. within the “yungas” (valley after the mountains) there were different names to address this plant, “Huánuco”, “kuka”, and some other names have been lost over time due to the establishment of the coca name in the global north and the postcolonial time.

One of the names that still exists is the definition of the coca leaf as “ayu” or “hayo”, given by the Arhuaco Indians in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta for more than a thousand years.[7] regardless of its name, in all the communities where it is or was present, it has always been a symbol of religiosity and connection with nature, framed by gods and powers. this has led it to become food, and medicine, both spiritual and physical. Being transported in bags (which also have different names) or simply plucked from the trees and cooked at home, the daily use of the leaf became one of the main sources of energy[8] for work, hunting, mountain life, and jungle life.

Using the Poporo or “Yubburu” with Coca leaf

The medicinal powers of the leaf, as much in the north, as in the south of Latin America were discovered and used by the religious authorities who at the same time had knowledge of health, and possessed capacities given according to them, granted by mother nature. This knowledge has been handed down from generation to generation orally and is so important that thanks to the remedies of the coca leaf and other plants, indigenous communities have been able to survive the diseases brought from the West[9]. It is known that the leaf is used to treat bone problems, heart, stomach, and altitude sickness, and popularly to relieve hunger and headaches caused by poor blood flow.[10]

Having said that the coca leaf before the invasion of the Spanish empire was for many people food and medicine, as a way of thanking the gods for such a gift, sacred rituals are observed to acknowledge the existence of the coca leaf and to preserve its use. Many Rituals were observed by the chronists in the time of the colonization, even if those rituals were considered pagan, the magnitude and quantity of rituals did not go unnoticed. Whether by naming it, criticizing it, or qualifying the rituals in a positive way as Antonio Vázquez de Espinosa did in 1629 or Antonio Julian in 1787[11], the use of the coca leaf had a communal meeting function that made the indigenous communities into functional societies and the coca was part of that functionality.

A main ritual of consumption of the coca leaf, also considered at the same time as physical and spiritual food is to consume it through a gourd together with the lime of a seashell, the saliva extracted by means of a wooden stick together with the lime activates the alkaloids of the plant and is consumed slowly, the element is called Poporo”[12][13][14][15][16][17], this method/element exists from the pre-colonial time and it is still used by indigenous communities until our days.

Another main ritual is the offerings to the gods after passing to eternal life, as previously explained, with coca leaves in their mouths for the dead. It is very common to see in indigenous communities of south America, thanksgiving or sacrificial payments, in many of them the coca leaf is present as a medium between the gods and the earthly life[18].


Coca leaf during the colonial time                                                                Coca leaf history (XVI-XXI)

The use of coca in this mystical-religious context became widespread very quickly during the time of the conquest. The Spaniards did not believe in the prodigious virtues of the plant at the beginning of the invasion. They suspected that it was the work of the devil, due to the primordial role it played in the religious ceremonies of the defeated populations. A Council meeting in Lima strictly prohibited its consumption[19], since it was considered a pagan custom and a sin. But the Spaniards quickly changed their behavior, when they realized that the Indians were not in conditions to carry out the heavy work imposed on them in the mines if they were deprived of coca. Then, they decided to distribute the leaves three or four times a day. They were also allowed short breaks to chew them to “acullicar” their precious panacea of green leaves.

They are plenty registers of the use, plantation, and distribution of the coca from 1492 to 1789[20] for those who were called “Chronists of the Indias”, the extended religious, medicinal and daily use did not go unnoticed and even during the centuries of colonization and Christian subjugation, where the use of the coca leaf was considered a pagan act.

One of the first registers of the coca leaf was just after arriving in American land, in the conquer minds all the indigenous practices were driven by malicious demons, one example which explains this could be the earliest literature on Perú (were the Inca Empire was settled in). The Spanish writer Pedro Cieza de León writes 17 years in the first expeditions about Peru and makes a link between the devil and the not Cristian indigenous in the early 16th century, he makes reference to the coca use as a savage means of intoxication[21]. He remarks in many of his manuscripts and reports the use of the leaf:

“In all parts of the Indies through which I travelled, I noticed that the Indians loved to carry herbs or roots in their mouths. In one province of one kind, in another, of another kind […]. In the districts of Quimbaya and Anzerma they cut small twigs from a young green tree. which they would rub against their teeth […]. When I asked some of these Indians why they carry these leaves in their mouths without eating them, but simply between their teeth, they replied that it kept them from feeling hungry, giving them great vigor and strength[…]. Thus they use coca in the forests of the Andes, from Huamanga to the city of La Plata.”[22]

This report is just about the use and has no botanical study, only in 1565 a description of the coca leaf was made by Nicolas Monardes, this description was translated by Charles l’Ecluse, and it is considered as the first published study about the coca leaf. From this study different analyses were developed in Europe, even a superficial summary can be found in the writings of Dr. Freud in the first part of his document “Über Coca”[23], this writing is a sample of the obsession in the global north for the effects of the cocaine alkaloid and the coca leaf plays a secondary role, in the following chapter we will elaborate more about this.

Once the conquest was over, the race to take advantage of the natural and human resources in the new “Indias” began, the Spanish empire requested that each Indian contribute a minimum of 18 months of work service for the crown, this labor system created and named “mita” led to the enslavement of thousands of humans and also the extinction of entire villages given the working conditions, the invaders realized that in specific places (such as mines) the only way to keep alive this system was possible if the slaves were able to consume coca leaf due its effects, and because they were used to it, this necessity was the only reason to tolerate the coca leaf and the market that was opened to expand and distribute the green leaf.

Of the more than 50 chroniclers who noted the presence of coca leaf for religious acts in the “Indias” only beginning in the 17th-century writers like Blas Valera recognized the medicinal power of coca leaf and remarked on rituals done with it.

“Coca preserves the body from many diseases, and our doctors use it for applications to sores and broken bones, to eliminate cold from the body or to prevent it from entering it, as well as to cure sores full of worms. It is so beneficial, and possesses the singular virtue of healing external ulcers, that it is sure to have even more virtues[…]”.[24]

Unfortunately, such chronicles had no echo against the current empire policy to obligate the indigenous population to become Christian and the use of coca leaf for medicine or religion was seen as an act of paganism. After 3 centuries of Spanish rule, the physical effects were used in order to dominate and exploit the mines in the Andes region.

The participation of coca in the colonial economic system is not questioned[25][26][27]. In fact, coca constituted the basis of the wealth of La Paz in Upper Peru and in the viceroyalty of Buenos Aires in present-day Argentina.

The 1780s saw the culmination of a process of protests and riots against two pillars of the colonial system: the distribution of merchandise and the payment of the alcabala, with the indigenous rebellions[28], conducted almost simultaneously in various parts of the Andes, notably upsetting the established order. Coca production and trade were seriously altered by the intervention of the rebels, for whom coca was a strategic element in the struggle. In the attempt to turn the coca trade into a state monopoly, in order to raise funds for the defense of the viceroyalties, the importance acquired by the coca trade was enormous and the place occupied by this sector in the colonial economy was too vital to be ignored. Therefore, it was on the basis of both the lucrative and criminal nature of coca that was reached a compromise, considering coca as suitable to produce resources for the Crown, as tobacco and alcohol are today for the State. Colonizers of the viceroyalties tried to put a tax for the Coca use, tha did not succeed.

Coca became an element of resistance in the processes of Latin American independence[29] meaning that once the Indians had the coca plantations in their possession, moderately, the use of coca became not only pagan but a symbol of anti-Hispanic.



Discovering cocaine                                                                                       Coca leaf history (XVI-XXI)

By the 18th century, botanical science has a clear concept of the coca leaf, its morphology, and its characteristics. Studies about the “ Erythroxylum coca”[30][31][32] were made in Paris, Vienna, and Prussia[33] with the result, that there are more than 250 different species of coca and only 2 have cocaine[34][35]. The conclusion was reached to examine it in order to convert its effect into a chemical product to be destined for the global north market and in the coming industrialization.

Advertisement about the benefits of coca in medicinal products

In order to enhance the effects of the coca leaf, seen by the colonizers in America, starts the scientific goal to extract the (so far unknown) alkaloid cocaine from the leaf, this was achieved in 1860 by the German chemist and scientist Albert Niemann[36][37][38]. He had been engaged in extracting from the plant one of the plant’s alkaloids and isolating it, other chemists like Friedrich Gaedcke had already begun the process of isolating the alkaloids, the one who discovered the alkaloid was the Italian Paolo Mantegazza by 1859[39]. once the alkaloid was obtained from the plant and connected with the Spanish literature on the properties of the coca leaf, studies on animals and humans were encouraged for its next industrial development. In 1862 the firm E. Merck commercialized cocaine for medicinal purposes, in 1896 it was applied as an anesthetic medicine thanks to the doctor Carl Koller. In the same decade, it was used as a medicine for local anesthesia by eye surgery, rhinolaryngology and dental health. This local anesthetic, called non-addictive, spread in the global north as an established product of the pharmacy.


Cocaine in the global north                                                         Cocaine and coca leaf as a product

Private enterprises as Joseph Burnett Co. in Boston used cocaine for beauty products, other such as Lloyd Manufacturing Co. in Albany, N.Y used cocaine for toothache drops, its use was recommended for children as well. Before becoming the drug of choice in the global north in the 1920s after World War I, a company headed by pharmacist John S. Pemberton launched a product containing a large portion of cocaine, he mixed cocaine with wine and marketed it as Pemberton’s French wine Coca[40]. After the prohibition of cocaine products in the United States due to the number of records of cocaine addicts, he was forced to replace the alcohol with caramel, sugar, and cola nuts. This drink has been known as Coca-Cola ever since. Pemberton marketed Coca-Cola as a medicine. It was to be aimed at urban brain workers who suffered from headaches, hysteria, melancholy, or the fashionable disease of the time, neurasthenia, as the first ad put it on Coca-Cola[41]. After Coca-Cola was sold for the very first time, took the name of the two allegedly principal ingredients, coca leaf and Cola nuts.

Products with coca in the global north
Use of cocaine in products

Coca-Cola wasn’t the only product with cocaine on the market, for medicinal purposes, as well as for exotic wines like Vin Mariani launched on 1863. Even being an alcoholic product, was also recommended for medicinal purposes, such as  Anemia, rickets, and general weakness. It was also said to be good for the nerves and brain, and subliminally it was advertised as an aphrodisiac. This wine delighted intellectuals such as Émile Zola, Jules Verne, and Henrik Ibsen, inventors such as Thomas Edison, and statesmen such as the British Queen and the Russian Tsar, as well as three popes. The best-known cocaine user was the psychologist Sigmund Freud, who, as I wrote previously, made a report about the properties of cocaine use[42], he also prescribed cocaine to his patients with concentration, hysteria, and headaches.

For this point in history, at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, we refer directly to cocaine, but the coca leaf is not at the central point, it ceased to be so when only a small part of it was used, his ancestral properties from the indigenous people in South America ignored, rituals were even named, and the industrialization of cocaine pays the price of addiction in the global north.

Since the 1920’s the consumption of cocaine in products such as pure cocaine, cocaine stopped being medicine in the 1940s to become a recreational drug like alcohol or tobacco, with much more fatal consequences, it is estimated the death of at least 50 thousand people per year, only in the United States, due to the consumption of cocaine and other drugs. This makes it a matter of state, and a policy of zero tolerance with drugs, at the same time, it encourages drug distributors to produce only cocaine and plant coca for export as a drug and not as a food or medicinal product.

Due to the addiction power of cocaine, the office on Drugs and Crime from the United Nations, following the US American policy of 0 tolerance for drugs, prohibits the distribution of cocaine in products and indirectly the production of coca leaf. Totally ignoring the customs of the indigenous peoples, it directly attacks the leaf, demonizing it as the engine of drug trafficking in Latin America. since then, there is a legal fight in every country where coca is considered a food, medicine, and culture. U.S. policy encourages the destruction and total disappearance of coca crops, ignoring the difference between cocaine and coca.

To demonstrate the difference between coca and cocaine it is necessary to see the initiatives that are created in different parts of south America, which promote the use of the coca leaf without having the alkaloid as the main objective, thus maintaining the tradition of coca leaf use, as thousands of years ago.

One of the strategies employed for this objective is the industrialization of the coca leaf as a means of linking it to the 21st century, this industrialization employed under rigorous rules will be explained in the following chapter.


Coca leaf as product                                                                   Cocaine and coca leaf as a product

For generations, the coca leaf has been a fundamental element in the diet of the indigenous civilizations of Latin America, one of them, the Nasa people of Cauca near the Colombian Pacific.

As important as beans or corn[43], coca has been always present in the daily life of the Nasa people. The use of coca leaf in its pure form, without the addition of any sweeteners, ingredients, or chemicals is used to be chewed in order to extract the benefits of the minerals from the plant directly, this traditional chewing process is called “mambeo”. The new use of the coca leaf to maintain the tradition and to preserve the use of the coca leaf without chewing found its answer in the creation of “CocaNasa”.

One of the products of CocaNasa, made from Coca leaves
Products of CocaNasa, made with Coca leaves
One of the products of CocaNasa, made from Coca leaves

CocaNasa is a company run by the Nasa community that focuses on the creation of alternative gastronomic and medicinal products based on the coca leaf. As more than 30 companies on the pacific coast of Colombia, this company fight for the right to use the coca leaf as their ancestors did. Using the coca leaf, CocaNasa produces foods such as flour, tea, soft drinks, creams, candies, etc.[44]. Another initiative is called “Retococa”[45], which was a project to implement the coca leaf in high-quality gastronomy, the result of this project was the publication “La Hoja de Coca en la gastronomia Colombiana”[46].

The use of the coca in new branches and new places was only possible after the publication of the first bromatological study of the coca leaf by the Harvard university[47][48][49], it has been discovered that the coca leaf has a mineral and vitamin potential rarely seen in botanical species. It has more magnesium than a banana and more protein than beans or chickpeas. Such publications contrast the publications made by medical scholars, which concentrate on the analysis of the alkaloid cocaine, and its negative health consequences instead of the positive aspect of the coca leaf[50], on those publications there is no separation between cocaine and the coca leaf, coca leaf is not treated as an aliment but as a drug, following the narrative of the colonization centuries behind.

The industrialization of the coca leaf for gastronomy and medicinal use has led to legal problems due to the cultivation of coca leaf, which in countries like Colombia is strictly controlled, given the amount of illicit crops used by drug traffickers to use coca leaf as a base product for cocaine. It is considered, that only 5% of the leaf planted in Colombia is used for gastronomy and traditional use, the rest of the hectares are controlled by the drug cartels[51]. Under the promise of becoming millionaires, or the threat of cartels, farmers are forced to plant coca leaf instead of and sell it to the cocaine producers, even if the price is less than selling the leaf to companies like CocaNasa. Research of the private media channel caracol in Colombia shows that the price difference is irrelevant, the difference is the mode of purchase, with violence[52].

Another problem that companies like CocaNasa have to deal with regarding the industrialization of the leaf is the ancestral meaning given by other indigenous communities. Although the industrialization of the leaf could be seen as a sign of adaptability to the 21 century and one strategy to rename the bad reputation of the coca leaf in the world[53], there are critics from indigenous communities who claim the traditional use of chewing and use the coca leaf in its pure state as the only legitimate way to use. One of those communities is the Arawak, in the north of Colombia, to be exact in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta.


“Ayu”, “Hayo” leaf millenary use and tradition for the Indigenous people of the

Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta.

The main source of this chapter is given by one of the last living mamos of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, the mamo Arwaviku, recipient of spiritual knowledge carrying the legacy for more than 10,000 years, so his words, explain from the beginning that the coca leaf is not called coca, but ayu or hayo.

He asks us to address the coca leaf as the ayu leaf, or hayo, in his cosmovision, these names represent the duality of man and woman, in a translation, could be interpreted as two words, a: these are the cries given by the newborn in search of the sacred food, given by mother nature. Yu: It means the unity or the identity that the original man has with mother earth. From the first day of birth, there is direct contact with the coca leaf or ayu, both in rituals and indirectly when the mother consumes the leaf to feed the baby through the mother’s milk.

To understand their connection with the coca leaf, it is necessary to understand the cosmovision and structure of their culture within the indigenous communities in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, northern Colombia:

The 4 communities that inhabit the Sierra descend from the culture of the Tayronas and are the Wibas, the Kaggaba, the Kanguamas, and the Arawak. each of these communities is considered the guardian of an element given by the gods, the Kaggaba are guardians of the earth, the Wibas are guardians of the light, the Kanguamas represent the force of fire and rocks, and the Arawak are finally the guardians of humanity. These native peoples, although they dress differently, speak differently, are united by the universal cosmology of the Mamos (holders of ancient knowledge) and within this cosmology, the ayu is the main element for the contemplation of the universe. In a unique territory in the world, where there are different thermal floors in a space smaller than Hawaii, where within 40 kilometers are the snowy peaks and the Caribbean sea, they gather to make different payments to mother nature, in their cosmology, the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta is the heart of the world and connects with different places in the world, either in the kariwan (American continent) or in the continent of the first brothers (Africa).

Not only the literature gives indications about the use of the coca leaf in other Andean indigenous communities, but also the knowledge of the mamo Arwaviku lets us know that there is a millenary use by many indigenous people in the whole continent, being the coca leaf a basic food as already said in this paper, coca is also still part of indigenous communities in the region of Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Chile and was used even in Argentina and the south of united states[54]. The practice of chewing coca dates back more than 2000 years, hair tests made on 163 individuals on the Chilean coast, shows that the consumption of the leaf was established in both men and woman, where residues of the alkaloid benzoylecgonine, a cocaine derivative, were found[55].

Returning to the subject of the cosmovision of the Mamos, the coca leaf is used as a medium, for universal connection, and among the peoples, through rituals of payments, among its members, since it is customary to greet and exchange coca leaves as a symbol of respect and union. Likewise, the communities of the highlands consume the leaf through the “yob-buru”, popularly translated as poporo, previously explained, it is the gourd with sea shell salt and coca leaves inside. The mamo Arwaviku, explains that this yobburu is given when the man reaches the age of majority, when he is considered an adult and starts the reproductive age, the shape of the gourd, also symbolizes the male sexual member. The yobburu, is not only a gift or an instrument for food, it is an element of daily use, which has the function of connecting the thoughts of the mamos with their payments and their desires, it is considered a sacred food.

Using the Poporo or “Yubburu” with Coca leaf

The presence of the ayu, or hayo leaf is seen also in the divinities that the mamos carry with them, the representations in stone or gold of their lineage and their gods always carry leaves with them, as well as in their rituals and in their medicinal procedures. The mamo Arwaviku declares that in all their remedies, the ayu leaf is always present, at least one.

The indigenous people of the Sierra were forced to hide among the long mountains[56], recognizing the colonizing invaders as a threat to their existence. For more than 300 years they kept their way of life hidden in the mountains until 50 years ago, when they came out of the mountains to warn the world that the deterioration of the environment and climate change can be read in the mountains of the Sierra. Expanding the message, was included the medicinal teachings that have been carried out for generations, as a way of alternative medicine, the remedies with coca leaf given by mamo arwaviku have an echo, thanks to the same Harvard study mentioned above. The properties of ayu leaf and its healing power contrast with the destructive power of cocaine, mamo Arwaviku gives us his thoughs about how the leaf was manipulated, and figures of the amount of coca leaves to produce a kilo of cocaine, with that same amount it will be possible to provide food more than 30 families in the Sierra, one year.

Despite of the production of coca leaf for the drug production, we have talked with him about the enterprises who are working now with the leaf. Regarding the industrial use of the leaf, the mamo sees this as something critical, for his point of view, the appropriation of the leaves for the money production is irresponsible and does not have any religious permission. It is considered so bad as well as cocaine production.

In spite of this ideological and religious difference, the Indigenous of CocaNasa and from the Sierra are united by the legal situation of the coca plant, in spite of being ambiguous, on the one hand, defended by the Colombian constitution as an element of ancestral use, and on the other hand attacked under the law of zero tolerance with the cultivation of “drugs”, it allows the indigenous communities of the Sierra Nevada and in all of Colombia to have a certain amount of plants for family consumption.

The coca leaf always present on the daily life in the sierra nevada



After analyzing the literature and the words of the members of the indigenous communities, we came to the conclusion that the coca leaf has been a fundamental part of the indigenous diet from the Andean mountain range, in its beginnings in the Caribbean Sea, to the Bolivian Amazon. Records from the colony, relate the use of the coca leaf as the engine of production of the Inca empire, and the connector between the earthly and the divine forces. It is irrefutable, the religious connection of the coca leaf in different indigenous communities and its medicinal use, making it a basic element of their life, even until now.

The effects of coca consumption at the medicinal level, although not specified in this work, have been mentioned by different authors for centuries, and it was only with the introduction of cocaine alkaloid consumption that a health problem was generated. It is important to set the difference between cocaine and Coca, in order to understand how this substance was manipulated.

The beginning of the consumption of cocaine and not of coca leaf was due to the journey of the leaf from the mountains to Europe. The fact of having crossed borders after the invasion of the Spanish empire made it possible to distort the meaning and purpose of the coca leaf, using it only for overproduction in human works, as registered since the 15th century in the mines in Peru and Bolivia until places like wall street nowadays. The rush to build efficiency at work in the new industrialization process led to the denaturalization of sacred elements such as coca, it turned a fundamental element for the life of the indigenous people of South America into poison disguised as Medicine, and after as a recreational Drug.

The fact that it has become a commercial drug, potentially addictive, encourages worldwide prohibition and as an eradication strategy, the coca leaf is demonized, confusing cocaine with the coca leaf and denaturalizing its origin, as well as ignoring the ancestral values of the leaf for millions of inhabitants of the American continent.

According to change the fame of the coca leaf, indigenous communities believe that the best solution is to make known the lost properties of this natural element, both religious and physical. Only by understanding the origin of the elements and their meanings, we can understand the magnitude of this problem and find solutions, otherwise, we are condemned to repeat history.



[1] W. G. Mortimer: La historia de la coca. Lima, Perú 2019.

[2] Victor Stolberg: The Use of Coca: Prehistory, History and Ethnography. In: Journal of Ehtnicity in Substance Abuse 10, 2011, H. 2, S. 126–145.

[3] Richard Martin: The Role of Coca in the History, Religion, and Medicine of South American Indians. In: Economy Botany 24, 1970, S. 422–438.

[4] Mortimer: La historia de la coca (Anm. 1).

[5] Carlos Terrazas: Milenaria y sagrada hoja de coca. In: Notre Histoire 198.

[6] Mamo Arwaviku: Coca, “ayu”. Mamo Arwa, 2022.

[7] Ebd.

[8] Terrazas: Milenaria y sagrada hoja de coca (Anm. 5).

[9] Mamo Arwaviku: Coca, “ayu” (Anm. 6).

[10] Fabiola Chicuel: CocaNasa Interview, 2022.

[11] Manuel H. Vásquez: Etnohistoria de la hoja de coca: las crónicas de indias 1492-17891. In: Folios Segunda época 20, 2004, S. 3–25.

[12] Terrazas: Milenaria y sagrada hoja de coca (Anm. 5).

[13] P. Aguirre/D. Ramírez: Los usos ancestrales de la hoja de coca como patrimonio cultural inmaterial de Colombia: un reconocimiento pendiente. In: Boletín OPCA, 17, 2020, S. 50–60.

[14] Mamo Arwaviku: Coca, “ayu” (Anm. 6).

[15] Mortimer: La historia de la coca (Anm. 1).

[16] Vásquez: Etnohistoria de la hoja de coca: las crónicas de indias 1492-17891 (Anm. 11).

[17] unknown: Los Kogui. La Coca y el Poporo, 2020, (17.09.2022).

[18] Mamo Arwaviku: Coca, “ayu” (Anm. 6).

[19] Terrazas: Milenaria y sagrada hoja de coca (Anm. 5).

[20] Vásquez: Etnohistoria de la hoja de coca: las crónicas de indias 1492-17891 (Anm. 11).

[21] Mortimer: La historia de la coca (Anm. 1).

[22] Ebd.

[23] Sigmund Freud: Über Coca. In: Centralblatt für die gesammte Therapie 2, 1884, S. 289–314.

[24] Mortimer: La historia de la coca (Anm. 1).

[25] Joseph A. Gagliano: Coca Prohibition in Peru. The Historical Debates 1994.

[26] Mortimer: La historia de la coca (Anm. 1).

[27] Ana M. Lema: Profesíon: cocalero. Historia de la defensa de la coca, XVI-XX. In: Silvia Arze/Rossana Barragán/Laura Escobari/Ximena Medinaceli (Hrsg.): Etnicidad, economía y simbolismo en los Andes 1992, S. 387–400.

[28] Ebd.

[29] Ebd.

[30] James A. Duke/David Aulik/Timothy Plowman: Nutritional Value of Coca. In: Botanical Museum Leaflets 24, 1975, H. 6, S. 113–119.

[31] Thomas Miedaner: Koka & Kola – keine gewöhnliche Erfrischung. In: Thomas Miedaner (Hrsg.): Genusspflanzen. Berlin, Heidelberg 2018, S. 131–154.

[32] Mortimer: La historia de la coca (Anm. 1).

[33] Freud: Über Coca (Anm. 23).

[34] Miedaner: Koka & Kola – keine gewöhnliche Erfrischung (Anm. 31).

[35] Mamo Arwaviku: Coca, “ayu” (Anm. 6).

[36] Christoph Friedrich: Albert Niemann. Entdecker des Kokains. In: Pharmazeutische Zeitung. Die Zeitschrift der deutschen Apotheker 3, 2011.

[37] Martin: The Role of Coca in the History, Religion, and Medicine of South American Indians (Anm. 3).

[38] Gagliano: Coca Prohibition in Peru (Anm. 25).

[39] Miedaner: Koka & Kola – keine gewöhnliche Erfrischung (Anm. 31).

[40] Ebd.

[41] Ebd.

[42] Freud: Über Coca (Anm. 23).

[43] Fabiola Chicuel: CocaNasa Interview (Anm. 10).


[45] Website: RetoCoca, 2020,

[46] Diego Garcia/Dora Troyano: La hoja de coca en la gastronomia colombiana. Popayan 2021.

[47] Duke/Aulik/Plowman: Nutritional Value of Coca (Anm. 30).

[48] Mamo Arwaviku: Coca, “ayu” (Anm. 6).

[49] Fabiola Chicuel: CocaNasa Interview (Anm. 10).

[50] Vicente Zapata: The Problem of the Chewing of the Coca Leaf in Peru, 1952, (16.09.2022).

[51] Los Informantes: El corregimiento del Cauca que convirtió la coca en un poderoso ingrediente 2022.

[52] Ebd.

[53] Dora L. Troyano Sanchez/David Restrepo: Coca Industrialization. A path to Innovation, Development, and Peace in Colombia. In: Open Society Foundations.

[54] Mamo Arwaviku: Coca, “ayu” (Anm. 6).

[55] Larry W. Cartmell/Arthur C. Aufderheide/Angela Springfield/Cheryl Weems/Bernardo Arriaza: The Frequency and Antiquity of Prehistoric Coca-Leaf-Chewing Practices in Northern Chile: Radioimmunoassay of a Cocaine Metabolite in Human-Mummy Hair. In: Latin American Antiquity 2, 1991, H. 3, S. 260–268.

[56] Christopher P. Baker: El pueblo ancestral de Colombia que dejó siglos de aislamiento para luchar contra el cambio climático, 2020, (09.09.2022).


Q. Nicolas Fajardo M.
Student of the Universität Potsdam
Q. Nicolas Fajardo M.

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