Because there are no good roads and little reliable transportation between the different farming communities in Los Yungas, we had to backtrack to La Paz from the town of Coroico in order to get to Chulumani — an important center for coca production in this jungle region.
It's the middle of the rainy season, and there are quite a few landslides and muddy patches on the old dirt road. We're on the 8 a.m. bus, driving through the fog. Our driver, who appears to be in his mid-twenties, is making the sign of the cross repeatedly with his right hand, while he maneuvers the big wheel with his left. We're passing old faded graffiti in support of Evo Morales. And as the landscape turns from dark and rocky mountains to lush cloud forest, we make the four hour descent to Chulumani. People here say that daytime buses driving to Los Yungas are much safer and less prone to accidents. But those drivers who have to venture out on this road at night, can often be seen chewing massive amounts of coca leaves in order to stay awake and focused on this notoriously curvy, dangerous road.
The coca leaf is an indispensable supplement for the often exploited, poor and working classes in Bolivia — chewing it helps to keep you awake; it suppresses hunger, eases muscle pain, gets rid of altitude sickness and indigestion, and it serves as a mild stimulant, much like coffee.
None of these uses are new; there is enough documentation pointing to these and other benefits of coca that goes back to the 6th century A.D., in the time before the Incas. In fact, chewing coca was so central to Inca culture, that both time and distance were measured in "cocadas", the name for the 45-minute intervals (and the distance traveled during that period) at which fresh lumps of coca would be chewed while traveling by foot. But despite its long anecdotal track record as a versatile cure-all plant, coca and its legal uses have not been studied adequately by the international scientific community.
"What we know about coca and its benefits, is based mostly on empirical research," Agustín Bracamonte tells us. He's an agronomy student from Coroico, in the northern region of Los Yungas. "Here in Bolivia, we don't see anything wrong with trusting empirical knowledge." Agustín has a charming way of using the word "empirical" often, and in almost every context, whether he's speaking about coca or not.
In his view, and in the view of many other Bolivians, this kind of instinctual wisdom isn't only applied to the use of coca — but also to their own sense of identity and history. The way Agustín sees it, the coca leaf is neglected and misunderstood by outsiders because it is native to Bolivia — and Bolivia, with its remote locations and unique traditions, is widely unknown to the the rest of the West.
Many people think coca is equivalent to cocaine. Perhaps this thinking can be traced back to 1961, when the United Nations classified the coca leaf as a narcotic, alongside opium, and derivatives such as morphine, heroine and cocaine, in its Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs. But the coca leaf must go through a difficult chemical process that includes mixing it with additives like sulfuric acid or kerosene well before it becomes cocaine.
The highly addictive — and expensive — white powder is a far different product from the coca produced by subsistence farmers here. Cocaine is neither available, known, nor consumed around these parts. Agustín says he wants to show us the reality of these coca farmers, and we leave Coroico and drive to the nearby villages of Arapata and Coripata with him. We can see the rows of cocales, each one less than 1/4 of a hectare in size. Entire families of farmers, including children, are doing back-breaking work, from dawn to dusk. Many are harvesting now, and planning to sell it themselves in a few days' time.