The Botanical Science and Cultural Value of Coca Leaf in South America
This chapter on coca leaf integrates a comprehensive summary of the botany, ethnobotany and ethnography of coca and its traditional consumers in order to set the stage for subsequent chapters on cocaine, drug policy and reform efforts. First, we present the botanical diversity of coca including current cultivation patterns as well as geographic, ecological, and ethnobotanical properties for each of the four coca varieties. Second, we discuss the most popular traditional uses of coca leaf by Andean indigenous cultures across the ages. Third, we lay out the current scientific understanding of the chemistry and pharmacology of the coca leaf. Here we focus on the identification and quantification of its nutritive and medicinal compounds in addition to the alkaloids, especially cocaine. Finally, we use ethnographic data from Bolivia, Peru and Colombia to consider the ancient and modern cultures of coca cultivation and use, agrarian community politics, economic factors of licit vs. illicit coca markets, and how the public image of the leaf has shifted over the centuries, leading to some of the current controversy surrounding this ancient plant.