South Americans, and Bolivians in particular, can be a bit defensive about coca. They feel that this poor little plant has had rather a rough deal, and just because you can make one of the world’s most addictive drugs out of it doesn’t mean it’s all bad. After all, South Americans have been chewing the coca leaf for about 5000 years – they should know, right?
The Coca Museum in La Paz is a tiny little space absolutely jam-packed with information about the humble coca leaf – its history, its uses, its nutritional value, the cultural stuff that surrounds it and the comparatively recent abuse it has received at the hands of the colonial folks who wandered over to Latin America, realized its value and promptly started to exploit it. The entire museum sends a strong and rather subjective message that “white man” (please no one have a go at me for that: those are the words used in the museum; I’m not up for another fight about ethnicity and colour) didn’t respect and therefore couldn’t control the natural, beneficial gift from mother nature of the coca leaf, and it was their downfall.
The coca leaf, when chewed for about forty-five minutes at a time, has some mild properties which help out people living in high altitudes and working absurdly long hours in harsh conditions. It doesn’t actually increase your lung capacity, but it does something similar that helps you to breathe. It also puts you into a mild stupor, and that helps you to work several days on the trot if that’s what your boss is telling you to do. And herein lies the crux of the matter: back in the day, when mining was huge business in Bolivia – it’s still pretty big, but the silver mines in Potosi were world-famous – the miners needed to chew the coca leaf to work in awful conditions for long stretches. The Spanish arrived, with their Christian ideals, and decided that coca probably wasn’t good for the soul, and banned it. Obviously, production dropped, as did the workers. So the Spanish promptly brought it back – with an added 10% tax on top. Okay, you can see how that move might vex people somewhat.
The other, more recent, chip on the South American shoulder is the reputation that cocaine has brought their countries. Although almost all the coca in the world still comes from South America, only certain countries (Britain among them, by the way) are allowed to use it to produce cocaine for medical purposes. Bolivia is not among them. I’m not sure what the point the museum was trying to make here: on the one hand, they’re bemoaning the fact that white man comes over and desecrates the coca plant by making it dangerous, which they would never do, but on the other they’re not alright with the fact that they’re not allowed to produce the dangerous property itself.
This is, in some ways, quite a factual and interesting museum – there are a lot of facts and figures about coca, and its uses and properties when chewed, drunk, inhaled or injected. It also tells you a lot about the rituals in which it is used by indigenous people, although again taking the mystical argument for it a little too literally. When a museum states as a fact that chewing a certain plant allows you to communicate with the gods I can’t help but smile – they even compared it at one point to the Catholic taking of the host – apparently that one sip of wine is enough of an intake of an intoxicating substance to bring you closer to Christ. I’m woefully ignorant of the theology, but I didn’t think that that was how it worked. But the tone is a little too defensive for its own good – kind of like Michael Moore going over the top about how awful America is in every way and losing his own credibility in the process. Still, if nothing else it does demonstrate the feelings of the people of this part of the world, and I for one had no idea.
Coca Museum, Calle Linares 906, La Paz, Mon-Sun, 10am-7pm