Chewed or brewed: A brief history of Popes and coca leaves

Coca leaves. Credit: Naira Teixeira Dias via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).
Coca leaves. Credit: Naira Teixeira Dias via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

.- Pope Francis might chew coca leaves – or maybe sip coca tea – during his visit to Bolivia next week, the Vatican has said.

Bolivian Culture Minister Marko Machicao told local media that Francis had asked to chew coca leaves in the country, one of several stops during his visit to South America July 5-13.

The coca leaf, whose daily use and cultural importance in the Andes region rivals that of coffee in the United States, is embroiled in controversy in the international community because of its use as the main ingredient in the addictive drug, cocaine.

In 1961, the U.N. convention on narcotic drugs declared coca an illegal substance, and tried to phase out its cultural use by 1989 – but the local coca culture refused to die.

Many indigenous Bolivians believe the coca leaf to be sacred, and people of all social classes can be found either drinking the plant's tea or chewing its leaves throughout the country.  

Bolivian President Evo Morales, a former coca farmer himself, has staunchly defended the plant as a cornerstone of his country’s culture and economy, fighting for the use of the plant in its natural form.

Morales has revived the natural coca economy, and Bolivia now turns out coca products ranging from flour to toothpaste, shampoo and lotions.

“This leaf,” Morales told a 2007 U.N. General Assembly, “represents...the hope of our people.”

A number of international studies, including one published by Harvard University, found raw coca leaves to be packed with nutrients including protein, calcium, iron and other vitamins. A 1995 World Health Organisation report said there were “no negative health effects” from coca use in leaf form.

In its natural form, coca leaves have a mild stimulant effect considered similar to coffee, and they can be chewed or brewed into tea to fight hunger, exhaustion or altitude sickness – likely the reason Pope Francis might partake of the plant upon his arrival in the country.

And he’s following in his predecessor’s footsteps – Pope John Paul II drank tea made from coca leaves during his 1988 visit to Bolivia, and Pope Paul VI is reported to have drank the tea during a visit to the Andes region in 1968. Queen Sophia of Spain, and the British Princess Anne, are also said to have partaken in the plant in its natural form.  

When asked if the Pope would have some coca leaves or tea in Bolivia, Vatican spokesperson Fr. Federico Lombardi said he couldn’t confirm what the Pope would do one way or another, though he acknowledged that Pope Francis likes to take part in local cultures.

“(I) wouldn’t be surprised because the Pope likes taking part in popular customs. The Pope will do as he sees fit. From what I know there are ways of dealing with the altitudes that form part of popular culture: some drink a sort of mate tea, others chew coca leaves. The Pope hasn’t talked to me about what he plans to do, we shall see. We’ll see if he follows local customs.”

Tags: Pope Francis