Monday, 19 August 2013

Indigenous Peoples’ Rights to Food and the Coca-Cola Industry

Coca Leaf (courtesy of Marcello Casal Jr, wikimedia commons)

I grew up drinking Coke. Now that I am more health conscious, I don’t drink Coca-Cola or any other drinks that have a long list of ingredients I can't identify, let alone pronounce. My interest in Indigenous peoples rights to food revealed another reason to turn down a can of coke. Coca-Cola production is part of a history that has empowered Western companies at the expense of Indigenous people and their rights to culturally important food and medicine. Let me explain.

Coca-Cola is a drink that entered the global market economy in 1886. At that time it was a drink made of cocaine, caffeine, cola nut extracts, and carbonated water. In 1903, there were some concerns raised about putting cocaine in soda. So, the cocaine in Coca-Cola was replaced by a de-cocainized flavouring ingredient. Both the cocaine and de-cocainized ingredient come from the leaves of a plant called Coca native to the South American Andes.

The coca plant is not the same as the drug cocaine. Coca is a plant Erythroxylum coca and cocaine is a naturally occurring alkaloid found in this plant. To produce the drug called cocaine you need large amounts of coca leaves (e.g., 1 kilo of cocaine requires 2-3 hundred kilos of coca leaf). Cocaine production also requires many other harmful chemicals, including sulphuric acid, petrol, and caustic soda. Coca leaves contain a very small amount of the naturally-occurring alkaloid cocaine and this small amount does not induce toxicity or dependence, a 1978 scientific study reported.

Indigenous peoples of the Andes make use of coca leaves in their natural form, without chemical processing. For example, the Quechua, Aymara, and Kogi people use the coca leaf for medicinal and ceremonial purposes. I will never forget a skilled Bolivian healer who cured me with coca leaves. I had been suffering from a severe allergic reaction to my contact with alpaca fur (picture on the right). This allergy persisted for weeks and Western medicine was not helping. This healer, in La Paz Bolivia, taught me to chew the coca leaf to extract its natural anesthetic properties and to place the partially chewed leaf where my allergy was manifesting. Within a few minutes I felt relief and within a few days my allergic reaction was almost invisible. Unfortunately, stories such my own, which reveal coca as a powerful medicine, have been dwarfed by the global discourse equating the coca plant with chemically processed drugs.

One of the reasons we equate the coca plant with the drug cocaine is because the coca leaf has been classified as such in international conventions. In 1961, the United Nations Single Convention on Narcotic Substances classified the coca leaf a Schedule I substance and since then its production, use, and trade have been under very strict regulation. For countries that signed onto this UN convention - such as Bolivia - this strict regulation has infiltrated all aspects of peoples’ coca use: from its sale and trade to Indigenous peoples' rights to chew coca leaves for medicinal purposes. Angela Heitzeneder (2010), scholar on cultural rights of Indigenous people in international law, described this UN convention as a global "intolerance toward the essential element of Andean traditional society and cosmology".

If this convention did not protect the right of Indigenous peoples to use coca, surely nobody else could use it either, right? Actually, no. The United Nation’s convention made sure that the famous soda pop Coca-Cola, and the companies involved in its production, were able to continue harvesting, using, and distributing coca.

The use of coca leaves for the production of the Coca-Cola flavouring agent is a permanent exception to the international prohibition against coca. The Stephan Company of Maywood in New Jersey imports around 175,000 kg of coca leaves from Trujillo, Peru each year to produce flavoured chemicals for Coke.

I have struggled to make sense of this. The cultural rights to use coca for ceremony and health were ignored in the 1961 UN convention on narcotics while the rights to produce a soda pop were protected?

If you remember, the Coca-Cola company buys de-cocainized extracts from coca leaves, a.k.a., "de-cocainized flavour essence", from the Stephan Company of Maywood in New Jersey. In the process of de-cocainizing, the Maywood company end up with cocaine by-product. Believe it or not, this U.S. company also has rights to sell this extracted cocaine to international medical practitioners to be used as an anesthetic.

It is hard to believe that U.S. companies have been profiting from the flavour and medicinal uses of coca while Indigenous People have been internationally denied the right to do so. This scenario is even harder to believe knowing that both the Coca-Cola company and western medical practitioners would not know the health properties of Coca without the knowledge and skills of Indigenous people.

In 2011 the Bolivian President Evo Morales challenged what has been called a “historical error and violation of Indigenous rights” by Martin Jelsm, the director of The Transnational Institute’s Drugs and Democracy program. Evo Morales withdrew from the 1961 UN convention in part because of his opposition to the convention’s obligation that “coca leaf chewing must be abolished”. Just this year, Bolivia celebrated their re-entry into the UN convention with an exception made to respect Bolivian peoples’ coca chewing practices.

With the exception of Bolivia’s small victory, Indigenous peoples rights to use and benefit from a cultural plant are still being infringed upon. At the same time large U.S. companies are encouraged to use, distribute, and make towering profits from the coca industry. I believe this disparity is perhaps the most powerful reason to turn down a can of Coca-Cola. In the meantime, I’ll wait for Bolivia’s Coca-Colla to hit Canadian markets. 

Read more:
Heitzeneder, A. 2010. The Coca-leaf: Miracle good or social menace? Masters Thesis, Universitat wien, accessed at:


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