In 2009 when I heard a reporter on NPR infer that the Indigenous peoples of the Andes were addicts because they use coca, a nutrient in its natural form, I was incensed. I was compelled to speak out in my newsletter and again years later on this blog. We have too many incidents of dominant cultures misunderstanding those who are different than their own, supporting marginalization.
I met dear friends Dr. Emma Cucchi Luini, a humanitarian doctor who modeled herself after Dr. Albert Schweitzer, and Christo Deneumostier Grill, her research partner, in 2001. Finally, their legacy is receiving more recognition. The Coca Museum in the San Blas District of Cusco is the location of what was their second storefront K’uychiwasi Qosqo. The original storefront was located within the walls of Koricancha in Cusco.
Without their dream and persistent research, alternative coca products like candies, soaps, even ice cream, would not be flourishing all over Peru now. All were derived from Emma’s and Christo’s determination and products to give coca farmers other choices than dealing with narco traffickers or the Peruvian government who paid them a pittance for their crops. They won the coveted Slow Food Award in 2002. Others took notice and started copying their products. Although, in my opinion, none of them match the quality of those from K’uychiwasi. In the process though, nutritional coca products are more available for wider consumption.
Both Emma and Christo have gone on to other things having accomplished their mission of training the Quechua staff to take over, and encouraging the product spread as they did. But the story of their beginnings should not be forgotten. It’s one of strong intent in the face of much adversity. For that reason, I documented it in my 2004 book Standing Stark. I’m sharing an excerpt here.
…The bulletin board on the wall just outside the tiny shop front had some very detailed information posted about preventing high-altitude sickness. Alongside was an article on Coca-Cola. I thought it mighty strange that a display partnered the story of the evolution of a commercial product with data on medical advice. Then I realized that the common denominator was the use of the coca leaf. The sign over the door said K’uychiwasi Qosqo, Rainbow House of Cusco. Curious, I glanced inside the small space and was invited in by the brightly colored wares…
A diminutive woman wearing clothing that seemed to swamp her small frame and a large brimmed black hat covered with folk art pins busied herself with something behind the counter. As I walked in, she glanced up, immediately broke into a big smile, her eyes, crinkling up behind wire-rimmed glasses, greeting me. I took a leisurely turn through the shop looking at cookies, candies, teas and artwork. By then, my friend had caught up with me and came in to investigate as well.
Seeing our apparent interest, Emma Cucchi Luini introduced herself and began to tell us of K’uychiwasi Qosqo’s mission. The central purpose of this nonprofit organization was to educate about the uses of the coca leaf and its connection to the Andean culture. Actually, rather than connection, Emma emphasized that the coca leaf was the backbone of this ancient tradition, its practices and health of the native people.
Beleaguered with the discovery of a chemical extraction known as cocaine, the sacred coca leaf is now being threatened with extinction. Through tighter and tighter governmental controls and concurrent illicit operations, the simple coca farmer has been squeezed. Trying to scratch out a meager existence raising the same crops their ancestors have raised for centuries, these people are being directly affected by an encroaching Western culture in which a number of people substitute nose candy and greed for real experience.
In the last couple of decades, the national governments of Peru and Bolivia, pushed by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, have targeted the coca leaf as the enemy, totally disregarding its cultural and quite innocent, but important, use by the indigenous peoples. The chewing of coca leaves is standard practice among the natives in the Andes, not to give them a high, but to increase their stamina for living and working in an environment that is often very difficult. Instead of inducing any undue alteration in their normal consciousness, which the coca leaf cannot relay at all in its natural form, its nutritional makeup provides them with energy and a plethora of nutrients not as available elsewhere in their sparse diet. Also ignored is its elevated status in the spiritual traditions and rituals of the Andean Indians. Mama Coca is the plant spirit invoked and Her leaves used in divinations, blessings and ceremonies. An analogy would be the chalice of wine symbolizing the blood of Christ in the communion ritual of many Christian religions.
As Emma so aptly put it, “There are many, many alcoholics in the world. Do they destroy the grape?”
That question certainly does make one think, particularly relative to what other motivations, political or otherwise, could possibly exist for the shortsighted methods used for eradicating cocaine trafficking through a focus on coca crops…
…Enter Emma. With the in-country support of two Dominican friars, this Italian woman founded K’uychiwasi Qosqo in 1999. Christo Deneumostier Grill, a young Peruvian man, has since joined her in her efforts. In addition to educating about the traditional and medicinal uses, they research new ways to use the coca leaf. In their quarters they help women, girls and young men in need by training them to produce cookies, candy and folk art using the coca leaf as an ingredient. They look forward to eventually create additional goods such as soaps…
…Emma and Christo are currently making small but painstaking steps within the bureaucracy of the Peruvian government toward wider distribution of their coca wares, the regulation of coca being tremendously tight. The only export of the leaf currently allowed is to the Coca-Cola Corporation in the United States. Ultimately, the success of Emma and Christo will benefit the Andean culture and help to maintain the growing of the coca leaf by offering products to be used by mainstream society.
As she finished her monologue, Emma shrugged and opened her hands in a characteristically Italian way and said, “I’m Italian. This cause doesn’t even belong to me.”
Reviewing our encounter in my mind later, I thought to myself, “This is a cause that belongs to the world. It belongs to us all. Emma chose to take it up.”
Emma’s story continued with a recounting of her remarkable life and humanitarian service that took her to dangerous, remote areas in Haiti, Sudan and Bolivia. It was deep in the jungles of Bolivia that she first met the coca farmers who befriended her and further informed her path. They educated her in the chewing of coca and told her of their difficult lives. When she became their outspoken advocate she was thrown in jail in La Paz, beaten and deported to Italy. But that didn’t stop her.
Both Emma and Christo embodied intent and humility. To me, they’re primary examples of the many unsung heroes the world over who believe in something and get it done.
For the complete story and others on the path of intent, read Standing Stark.